With Freshmen On Board, NU Dives Into Beach Season

By Lincoln Arneal

The Husker volleyball team has undergone a mini roster makeover in the 50 days since it was last in action. 

Gone are seniors Madi Kubik, Kenzie Knuckles, Kaitlyn Hord and Nicklin Hames since the indoor season ended Dec. 8 in the NCAA regional semifinals. Plus, junior Whitney Lauenstein stepped away from the sport. 

In their place are five incoming freshmen ranked as PrepVolleyball.com’s top-ranked recruiting class and Florida transfer Merritt Beason. 

After more than a month away from campus, the returning Huskers were back in Lincoln last week and began beach practices on Monday. They will have a sprint to get ready for the beach season, which kicks off in less than four weeks on Feb. 24 against Wayne State. 

NU coach John Cook said he’s impressed by the newcomers. The freshmen have arrived in shape coming off their fall seasons and all participated in the Under Armour All-America Game at the end of December. Beason is in her element in the sand having played beach volleyball for three years in high school in Gardendale, Alabama. 

“The five freshmen are way ahead of where we thought they would be,” Cook said. “They’re just good volleyball players. They came in in shape. I can tell you this – they’re way ahead of where our junior class was as freshmen; of course, they were coming off COVID stuff. We were pretty impressed with the first week.”

The one notable omission from the beach roster is Kennedi Orr. Cook said the junior setter will not participate in beach volleyball, instead focusing on indoor season training. 

Orr suffered a minor knee injury midway through the beach season last year on the same knee in which she tore her ACL in September 2020 as a high school senior. 

“We’re just going to keep her out of it. We don’t want to risk it,” Cook said. “She wants to (play), but we’re just doing it as a precaution.”

Orr will also try out for the USA Select Team in May, which includes training sessions and possibly an overseas trip for a tournament. 

FOREIGN TRIP UPCOMING – The Nebraska staff is busy planning its quadrennial foreign trip this summer. This will be the Huskers’ sixth foreign trip. The previous five have been to China or Japan.

While they haven’t finalized any details, they are doing more research into taking a trip to Brazil. Cook said they would likely decide on their destination in the next week or so. 

“We’re still going back and forth, but we’re a little farther along in Brazil right now,” Cook said. “With China, there’s a lot of ‘ifs’ there. They really want us because they haven’t had anybody, but Brazil right now is a little farther ahead in that progress.”

SPRING MATCH ROADSHOW – Nebraska is also working to finalize details for its spring match. Cook said he has a location and opponent in mind. However, Nebraska is still finalizing contracts and figuring out ticket information. The site should be announced in February.

Fitting The Pieces: A Quick Look at NU’s Volleyball Roster

By Lincoln Arneal

The solution in Nebraska’s offseason scholarship shuffle revealed itself on Tuesday when junior opposite Whitney Lauenstein announced that she was leaving the Huskers to focus on herself and her family. 

Now the Huskers will have to replace their top two attackers with Lauenstein stepping away and Madi Kubik graduating. Help is on the way as all five 2023 signees will be on campus next week as NU begins offseason workouts that will soon give way to beach volleyball practices. With an eye to the fall, here are the implications of Lauenstein’s departure and how the new pieces fit together for the Huskers. 

OPPOSITES ATTRACT: Even though Lauenstein started almost every match at the left pin, the Huskers already have a ready replacement in Merritt Beason, who announced her transfer from Florida in December.

Beason actually posted a better-attacking stat line than Lauenstein last year. She averaged 3.35 kills per set on a .261 hitting percentage with 38 aces. Lauenstein put up 2.78 kills at a .238 clip with 28 aces as a sophomore. The Waverly graduate was a better blocker averaging more than a block per set. 

Beason should get the first crack at the starting position. She already has a rapport with several Huskers as she played with middle blocker Bekka Allick and libero Lexi Rodrigeuz on the junior national team. Incoming freshman Caroline Jurevicius should provide depth as she adjusts to the college game.

KRAUSE COULD FLIP: Last year, Lindsay Krause played both at the left and right pins with high effectiveness. She has more experience on the left side and looks more comfortable. With Beason’s experience, she could finally settle in on the left pin along with fellow junior Ally Batenhorst. Those two finished third and fourth for the Huskers in kills last season, both averaging more than two per set. Krause flourished late in the season with 62 kills and a .351 hitting percentage. 

This is dependent on Nebraska reverting back to a one-setter offense. If junior Kennedi Orr or freshman Bergen Reilly can grab control of the system and perform at a high level, NU can revert back to the offense preferred by NU coach John Cook. The Huskers have enough attackers to run a 6-2, but Cook might want the consistency of playing just one setter.

Batenhorst and Krause should start the spring as the top outside hitters, but don’t count out sophomore Hayden Kubik and freshman Harper Murray. Kubik really only got extensive playing time against Creighton and held her own, while Murray enters the program with a boatload of prep awards and talent. 

With Rodriguez and the top libero prospect Laney Choboy, the Huskers have a bit of flexibility with their back-row defense. If Beason continues to play all six rotations, NU only needs one of its two outside hitters to play all the way around. Batenhorst stepped in late after Kenzie Knuckles was injured, but Krause has shown the ability to pass as well. It might lessen the load as they become NU’s featured attackers. 

SCHOLARSHIPS STILL FULL: Entering the off-season, Nebraska was at the limit of 12 scholarships. When Beason committed out of the portal, it signaled that some sort of roster movement was likely. 

The Huskers now have five scholarship juniors: Krause, Batenhorst, Rodriguez, Beason and Orr. Allick and Kubik are the two sophomores on scholarship as Maggie Mendelson counts toward women’s basketball and Maisie Boesiger is a walk-on. The final five are freshmen: Murray, Choboy, Jurevicius, Reilly and middle blocker Andi Jackson. 

Nebraska will have more scholarship numbers to crunch next year as it has no seniors on the roster. Still, three verbal commitments for the Class of 2024 – outside hitter Skylar Pierce, middle blocker Ayden Ames and libero/defensive specialist Olivia Mauch – mean more player movement is probable. The one caveat is sometimes NU only awards two-year scholarships to defensive specialists, so that could create an open scholarship or two. But, that’s an issue for next offseason.

Incoming freshman named Gatorade National Player Of The Year

By Lincoln Arneal

Harper Murray’s trophy case just got a little more crowded. 

The Ann Arbor (Mich.) Skyline senior was named the 2022-23 Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year. 

To surprise her, Skyline high school athletic director Andre Criswell arranged a ceremony at the school where they filled the trophy case with Gatorade and invited her family and classmates to celebrate. However, as she was about to be presented the award, she took off running when her teammates tried to dump a Gatorade bucket of confetti. 

“To have the support of everyone around me makes it a lot more special. It’s so very surreal,”  Murray said. “I’ve seen girls I know get this award. I’ve seen a lot of athletes get this award, so it’s a really big honor. I’m very honored.”

Harper Murray
Harper Murray

Murray, who will enroll at Nebraska next week, is the fifth Husker player to win the award, joining Ally Batenhorst (2020-21), Lexi Sun (2016-17), Mikaela Foecke (2014-15) and Gina Mancuso (2008-09).

The recognition caps off an impressive prep career for the 6-foot-2 outside hitter. She was named Michigan’s Miss Volleyball and earned first-team All-American honors from AVCA and MaxPreps. 

In addition, Murray was named the Best Spiker at the U19 Pan Am Cup in Tulsa in August as she led the United States to a gold medal. She also participated in the Under Armour All-America game earlier this month. The No. 2 ranked prospect by PrepVolleyball.com also helped her club team, Legacy, win a national title in 2021. 

This season for Skyline, Murray recorded 726 kills (6.1 per set) on a .405 hitting percentage as the Eagles went 39-8 and reached the Division 1 regional semifinals. She also added 409 digs, 86 aces and 40 blocks. Murray finished her career with 2,488 kills and 1,460 digs. 

Winners are selected for athletic excellence, academic achievement and exemplary character. Murray graduated with a 3.62 GPA and participated in her school’s Rising Scholars Leadership Program, designed to create access and opportunity for underrepresented yet high-achieving students. She volunteered for the Vada Murray Endowed Fund for Cancer Research, named for her late father. She also served as a lead coach for the Skyline Rising Eagle Volleyball Clinic.

She is one of two incoming freshmen to win Gatorade player of the year honors for her state, joining Bergen Reilly, who won her third-straight South Dakota award. 

They will join five previous state winners on the Huskers: Bekka Allick (Nebraska 2020-21), Ally Batenhorst (Texas 2019-20), Lindsay Krause (Nebraska, 2019-20), Kennedi Orr (Minnesota 2017-18, 2018-19), Lexi Rodriguez (Illinois 2019-20), 

Nebraska Puts Clamps On Iowa Shooters

By Jacob Bigelow

Add Iowa to the list of satisfying wins Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers have racked up this season.

The Hawkeyes came into Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday averaging 83.8 points a game. They left with only 50 on the scoreboard and an ‘L’ in the scorebook.

The 50 points was a season low, as was Iowa’s field goal percentage of 26% from the field (19 for 73) and free throws made (5) and attempted (8).

“We are gonna win this game on defense and energy, and I thought we did a great job milking the clock after we got some key offensive rebounds,” Hoiberg said after the 66-50 win. “That’s a team that can go on big runs and score in bunches, so for our guys to go out there and win it on (the defensive) end is what it is about for our team right now.”

The Huskers (8-4, 1-2 Big Ten) added another satisfying victory over a neighbor after beating then No. 7 Creighton 63-53 in Omaha on Dec. 4 – another game in which the Huskers imposed their defensive will on an opponent. 

But Friday was even more impressive. There was a buzz in PBA with a sold-out crowd of 14,920 into the game from the start. The game went sideways quickly for Iowa (8-5, 0-2) as the Huskers jumped to an early 9-0 run and  led by double digits most of the game, including multiple instances where they were up by 20. 

“They hit a couple 3s, and all of the sudden you look up and you are down 12, 13 or 15,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “At the end of the day, you have to play the game with a greater sense of urgency defensively. Especially when the ball is not dropping.”

At times, the Huskers also feasted on offense. They went on a 20-0 scoring run at one point in the first half during which Iowa missed 16 straight shots as part of a nearly nine-minute scoring drought.

Back-to-back 3s by CJ Wilcher and Sam Griesel put an exclamation point on the run, extending the lead to 29-8 and setting the tone for the rest of the game. Iowa cut the deficit to single digits on two occasions, but Nebraska answered both times and went into the locker room with a 38-26 lead after Juwan Gary banked in a 3 just before halftime. 

Iowa’s gaudy scoring average was the highest in the Big Ten coming into the game. What’s more, Thursday was the first game back for leading scorer Kris Murray, who had been out with an injury since Dec. 6. He led his team with 17 points in 36 minutes, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

“He’s a great player,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a three-level player and scorer. The plan was to keep Juwan on him as much as possible. Denim (Dawson) gave a good stretch on him as well.”

After the break, Nebraska picked up where it left off, pushing the lead back to 20 early in the second half. With Blaise Keita out with an ankle injury and Derrick Walker in foul trouble early, Nebraska got good contributions from both Wilhelm Breidenbach and Oleg Kojenets in expanded roles. Wilcher also got warmed up, finishing with 13 points and draining timely 3s.

Even when the Huskers struggled offensively – Nebraska did not score for nearly seven minutes in the second half – the Hawkeyes could not get into gear. They mustered six points during NU’s cold stretch.

“The offense wasn’t real pretty in the second half,” Hoiberg said. “In the first half, I thought we had good movement, rhythm and flow. They force you to play that way with their press, got us extended a bit, couldn’t get the ball downhill, when we did get an open shot, we couldn’t knock it in.”

But NU could always depend on its defense. 

“We kept defending, and that was what we talked about in the huddle,” Hoiberg said.

Nebraska outrebounded Iowa 54 to 40. That kind of effort on the boards and its defense is this team’s recipe for success – a stark contrast to previous Hoiberg teams.

“That’s just pretty much what we do,” Breidenbach said. “That’s a part of the game that is completely dependent on us. The only person that can control that is us, so it’s just a product of playing hard.”

Hoiberg could also tell from the jump his guys were locked in. 

“Really proud of our guys for the effort they came out of the game with,” he said. “I thought the energy was exactly what we needed. This style of team (Iowa) gets out to fast starts, and we came out and had great energy from the opening tip. That’s what you have to do to give yourselves a chance against this team and in this league.” 

Gary said Nebraska emphasized defense all week coming off the Christmas break.

“This is the start of the season, basically, so it’s what we did all week,” he said. “Practiced hard for the three days we had. Defense was a mentality we had almost all week, so we just went out there with the game plan. The defensive effort was more from the coach pushing us through every week, every day, so it just came from all that.”

McCaffrey, for one, can see the difference from previous Husker squads.

“It’s a completely different team,” he said. “These guys are playing like a team. They are playing for each other. Nobody is going for themselves. They are playing for each other. I think it’s obvious. When you see that many guys in double figures, there is no selfishness there, I see.” 

All five Husker starters finished in double figures. Gary finished with 14 points to go along with nine rebounds. Griesel chipped in a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds and added five assists. Walker and Emmanuel Bandoumel both finished with 10 points.

Gary was blunt in describing his team and what the win meant. 

“People look at us as a pushover, but it’s a whole new team, whole new leadership, and whole new group,” he said. “So we’re going to go out there and just take it game after game. Today was the first step for us. We know today was a good win, so we’re going to move on to the next.”

Husker Volleyball Lands Proven Opposite Hitter From Florida

By Lincoln Arneal

When Merritt Beason entered the transfer portal a little more than a week ago, she had no idea what to expect. 

What she got was a whirlwind. 

In the span of a week, the former Florida Gator talked to 10 schools, visited three campuses and then decided to continue her career at Nebraska. Beason called the NU coaches Friday morning to tell them she was committing to the Huskers. 

Upon entering the portal, Nebraska was the first call Beason took. After that, things progressed quickly and by 7:30 a.m. the next day, she was on a flight to Lincoln. 

“I didn’t necessarily plan to move that fast,” Beason said. “But as soon as I had that first phone call with them, I knew that Nebraska was going to be one of the places that I wanted to visit. So if that meant tomorrow, or the next day, whatever it may have meant, I knew that I wanted to go.”

During her sprint recruitment, Beason also visited Wisconsin and Auburn before pledging to join the Huskers. She said her No. 1 requirement for her new school was a good relationship with the players and coaches. She felt a great connection during her first call with NU coach John Cook and assistant coach Jaylen Reyes.

In a statement about Beason’s commitment, Cook said Nebraska’s roster underwent “adjustments” since the season ended, which allowed them to recruit the 6-foot-3 opposite hitter.

“She will fill a huge need for our team and her personality on and off the court will create an instant connection with Husker Nation,” Cook said. “‘MB3’ is a true six-rotation player and can do it all.”

While on her official visit, Beason said she felt at peace. She grew up in Gardendale, Alabama, just north of Birmingham, and said Lincoln had a lot of similarities to her hometown. She was also impressed with how much the fans support volleyball. 

“Being from the South and going to an SEC school, as you can imagine, it’s very much football based. Everything’s all for football,” Beason said. “Volleyball is such a big thing up there and it’s so supported. I wanted to be a part of that.”

She also tried her hand at roping Cook’s practice steer on her visit – and got it on her first try. 

“We knew it was meant to be,” Cook said 

Beason also toured the facilities and downtown Lincoln. She talked to the support staff, academic advisors as well as several of the players who were still around campus. 

Last summer, Beason was a member of the U21 national team with sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick and junior Lexi Rodriguez, who was the captain of the U.S. team. They won the Pan Am Cup with Beason earning tournament MVP honors. 

Even though she wasn’t thinking about leaving Florida at the time, Beason was impressed with Allick and Rodriguez and how they represented Nebraska. 

“They’re just great people all around, on and off the court,” Beason said. “They’re great teammates. They push you to get better, but they’re gonna have your back and you could tell that within our short two weeks that we had together that they want to win.” 

Beason will have two seasons of eligibility remaining. She said she will be on scholarship at Nebraska and will start attending classes in January. In a matter of weeks, she will move to Nebraska and move in with outside hitter Lindsay Krause. 

Next season, the Huskers will be without graduating senior Madi Kubik, who played every rotation for NU for the past four years. Sophomore Ally Batenhorst also played back-row after NU lost Kenzie Knuckles to an injury in late November. 

At Florida, Beason played all six rotations and was a captain. She averaged 3.35 kills per set with a .261 hitting percentage while adding 1.92 digs and 0.88 blocks per set. Beason also led the Gators with 38 aces. In a five-set win against Wisconsin in September, she recorded 21 kills with eight digs, three aces and a pair of blocks. 

In addition, Beason served as a captain for the Gators, which reached the regional semifinal this past year before losing to Pittsburgh in four sets. 

Even though she played at a high level, Beason said she still has room for growth.

“There’s multiple areas of my game and multiple things I can improve on and continue getting better at,” she said. “I know I’m not playing at my full capacity and full level of ability yet, and I want to at least continue to get closer and closer to that.”

With her move to Nebraska, Beason is excited to compete in the Big Ten and have a chance to play during the final weekend of the season. 

“I want to win a national championship,” she said. “So being at a program where that’s the standard – that’s ultimately the goal for next year.”

With End Of Season, One NU Volleyball Player Enters Transfer Portal

By Lincoln Arneal

The offseason has officially begun for the Nebraska volleyball team. Junior setter Anni Evans entered the transfer portal on Saturday as a graduate transfer, according to an NU athletic department spokesperson. She has two seasons of eligibility remaining. 

On Sunday morning, Evans wrote in an Instagram post she will be graduating in May, and Nebraska does not offer the graduate program she plans to pursue. She is majoring in psychology and minoring in communications.

The Waverly graduate won the NCAA Elite 90 Award at the 2021 Final Four for the highest grade point average of all participating student-athletes. Evans was also Nebraska’s recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship award for 2022. 

Evans said playing for Nebraska was a dream come true, especially after growing up nearby.

“It has truly been such an honor to wear the Nebraska jersey these past three years and is something I will cherish forever,” she wrote. “Playing in the Bob (Devaney Sports Center) is so special and am so grateful I got to do it with my best friends.” 

With Evans’ departure and Nicklin Hames finishing her eligibility, Kennedi Orr is the only returning setter. Bergen Reilly, the No. 4 overall 2023 prospect, will join the Huskers in January. Because Evans was a walk-on, the Huskers are currently at the scholarship limit for the 2023 season.

Evans appeared in 89 sets this season over 27 matches for the Huskers. She averaged 4.37 assists per set and was often the second setter in the Huskers’ 6-2 system. 

Evans recorded a season-high 36 assists against Tulsa in the second match of the year as she ran a one-setter offense. She also finished with five double-doubles this year, averaging 1.76 digs per set. As a sophomore, Evans was primarily used as a serving specialist and recorded 10 aces. 

Evans was one of three Waverly graduates on the Huskers’ roster with freshman middle blocker Bekka Allick and sophomore opposite Whitney Lauenstein. 

The 5-foot-9 Evans initially committed to Colorado State in high school but switched her pledge before her senior year and accepted a walk-on offer from Nebraska. She was placed on scholarship for the 2022 spring semester. Her brothers, Tyler and Erik, each played football at Nebraska.

In her post, Evans thanked the NU staff and teammates for their time together. 

“It has been an honor to (have) been able to play by all of you. I am so grateful that Nebraska volleyball has given me so many lifelong friends,” she wrote. “I will forever be a Husker.”

Strong Sophomore Class Looks to Being the Leaders Next Season

By Lincoln Arneal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As they huddled in the middle of the court, tears began to well in their eyes. 

Moments before, Kiari Robey slammed home a kill that ended Nebraska’s 2022 season at the KFC Yum! Center in the regional semifinal. 

For those Huskers in the huddle, they cherished the ride they had been on and the connections they made, and NU coach John Cook came in and praised them for the fight they displayed the entire match. 

“Our seniors talked a little bit about how much our relationships mean to one another and how much playing on this team has meant to everyone,” sophomore outside hitter Lindsay Krause said as she fought through tears in the postgame press conference. “Developing those close relationships are most of the reason why a lot of girls play athletics.”

For the players, coaches and fans, the season ended sooner than many expected. Nebraska had grand hopes of making the Final Four in Omaha – up the road from its home arena – playing in front of more than 17,000 people at the CHI Health Center Arena. 

With the year’s final loss, Nebraska says goodbye to four seniors. Three of them — outside hitter Madi Kubik, defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles and setter Nicklin Hames combined to play in 373 matches during their career. 

“It’s hard to believe they’re not going to be here anymore. That’s the first thing I’m trying to wrap my head around,” Cook said on Thursday. “(I saw) Madi on the way over here, and it just seems like she just got here as a freshman. It goes by really fast. But they’re gonna have their master’s degrees. They’ve had great careers.”

The fourth senior class member, Kaitlyn Hord, wrapped up her career at NU after four years at Penn State. When she announced her intention to transfer to Nebraska earlier this season, Hord spoke about rediscovering her love for volleyball. 

In the press conference before the Oregon match, Hord talked about the joy she experienced with her teammates and how much she appreciated how they cared about her as a person and not just a volleyball team. She didn’t have any regrets as the Huskers entered the portion of their schedule where any game could be their last. 

“I wouldn’t have rather done that with anybody else than these girls because it’s just so fun here, and the vibes are amazing,” she said. “We are really playing like every match is a championship match. We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re giving our all and stepping out on the court with each other and playing for each other.”

Kubik and Hord will head overseas to play professionally. Knuckles has a job lined up with the 1890 Initiative, a name-image-likeness collective in Lincoln. Hames will start her coaching career as she returns to NU as a graduate manager. 

Now, Nebraska will transition into the offseason. The future for the Huskers remains full of possibilities. The roster might look slightly different as transfers in and out are possible. The coaching staff should remain stable, but Jaylen Reyes could be a candidate to take over as a head coach. The Huskers could also add a volunteer coach to help the program. 

A glance at the final stats against Oregon provides a glimpse into next season. Krause led the Huskers with 16 kills, while fellow sophomores Ally Batenhorst and Whitney Lauenstein finished with 15 and 12 kills, respectively. Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez recorded 18 digs and should add another All-American award during the Final Four. Setter Kennedi Orr struggled with consistency but provided depth at setter as she tried to regain her form. 

“ As sophomores, there’s five of us, and I think that we know that we’re going to play a really big role next year,” Krause said. “We’re looking forward to that, but also, we really want to get this one for the seniors. So that really sucks.”

In addition, freshman Bekka Allick proved to be a force at the middle blocker, and classmate Maggie Mendelson held her own in limited action. 

On top of the solid group of returning players, Nebraska will add the No. 1 recruiting class that features elite prospects at each position, including setter Bergen Reilly, who played with the women’s senior national team. With all the talent on next year’s roster, NU should be in position to make a deep tournament run next year. 

“This team should have a great opportunity to be great next year,” Cook said. “We’ve got to get a setter that is going to run it. And, of course, we got some freshmen coming in. Those freshmen will all compete. I guarantee that. They will all complete.”

Huskers Streak Of Elite Eight Appearances Ends

By Lincoln Arneal

Louisville, KY. Nebraska won’t be playing in the regional finals for the first time in more than a decade. 

The Huskers’ streak of 10 straight Elite Eight appearances ended on Thursday with a five-set loss to Oregon. The last time NU didn’t make a regional final came in 2011 when it lost to Kansas State in the second round. 

It’s only the fourth time in John Cook’s 23 seasons at Nebraska that the Huskers have missed a regional final. 

Even though the season ended earlier than usual, Cook said they should be proud of the season. The Huskers’ six losses were to all Top 10 ranked teams, and they battled many forms of adversity this year. 

“All year long, they show up every match. They didn’t take any matches off and you see all the upsets in college volleyball now,” Cook said. “That’s a reflection of our training, our program, our culture, how we approach each match and season. So to do it 10 straight years, I think, is something to be proud of because it just shows the consistency and the high level of play that we’re after.”

WIN THE CROWD — With the sweep over Baylor on Thursday, Louisville moved to one match from a return trip to the Final Four. Advancing to the national semifinals would mean a little more this year for Cardinals coach Dani Busboom Kelly with the tournament ending at the CHI Health Center Arena in Omaha. 

The former Nebraska player and assistant coach hopes to win over fans now that the Huskers have been eliminated. 

“I feel like I need to represent now that Nebraska got knocked out,” Busboom Kelly said. “I would hope that Nebraska fans would be cheering for us if we happen to make it.”

OPPOSITE SWITCH — Late in the first set, Oregon subbed in junior opposite Morgan Lewis for Gloria Mutiri. When she left the match, Mutiri had just one kill and one error on nine attacks. 

After amassing four kills in her first two full sets, Lewis went off for eight kills in the fourth. She finished with a season-high 13 kills for just her second match this year with double-digit kills. 

While Mutiri is more consistent, Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said they needed more scoring. 

“Morgan is just a little more terminal than Gloria,” he said. “I thought (setter) Hannah (Pukis) did a nice job of going to her. It took her a little time to get that trust back – they haven’t played a ton together. I thought Morgan just made some huge plays for us, and that was really important, to spread the floor, because it was just really left-side dominant early, so to be able to get that separation was important.”

SPREAD IT OUT — Even when the crowd filled in for the Louisville-Baylor match, the attendance at the two regional semifinals was 5,002 at the KFC Yum! Center. 

After all the work that the Big Ten did to feature the sport this season from the first-ever volleyball media days to regularly televised matches, Cook said he was disappointed with the start time and logistics around the Sweet Sixteen. He said his preferred method is to spread the regional matches over four days and all play in the evening. 

“The NCAA needs to do a better job promoting volleyball,” Cook said. 

CAREER MARKS — After breaking the Nebraska school record earlier this season, senior setter Nicklin Hames finished her career with 5,084 assists, 260 more than Fiona Nepo. 

The fifth-year senior also finished third in career digs at 1,587, passing Jennifer Saleaumua during the second-round match against Kansas, and is 10th all-time with 128 aces. 

Senior outside hitter Madi Kubik finished 13th in school history with 1,264 kills. She barely missed out on becoming the fourth player with 1,000 kills and digs. She finished with 983 career digs. 

Kubik also had nine kills in the match and finished her career in 13th place on Nebraska’s all-time kills list (1,264).

Oregon Ends Nebraska’s season In Five Sets

By Lincoln Arneal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The match and a trip to the regional finals was there for the taking. 

However, Nebraska couldn’t score the final point as it failed to convert four match points in the fourth set against Oregon. 

The third-seeded Ducks won the fourth set on its fifth set point, and they jumped out to a 13-4 lead in the fifth set for a 14-25, 26-24, 22-25, 32-30, 15-11 victory over NU on Thursday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center. 

“It was a great match. Oregon made a couple of plays to win it,” NU coach John Cook said. “We played our hearts out. Sometimes that’s how those things go. There were a couple of deuce games and they made some great plays. I told the team I don’t really feel like we lost that match. I thought Oregon won it.” 

Oregon will play Louisville, who swept Baylor, on Saturday in the regional final with a trip to Omaha on the line. 

Nebraska (26-6) dominated the first set as it broke open an 11-9 lead with an 8-2 run. The Huskers also closed out the set with the final four points while limiting the Ducks to eight kills and seven errors. 

Sophomore Ally Batenhorst said they were ready for the early 11 a.m. local start time and had a good mindset. 

“Every play, we were just gonna be like next ball no matter what happens. We’re gonna focus on the next point ahead of us,” said Batenhorst, who finished with 15 kills, three blocks, two aces and 12 digs. “We brought a lot of energy and it was a really good match.”

NU looked poised to win the second set leading 22-20, but three straight kills put Oregon in front. The Ducks (26-5) missed a serve on its first set point but forced an NU hitting error to claim the set.

The third set was another tight affair, and Nebraska rallied to take the lead behind a 6-2 run for a 16-15 advantage. Oregon kept it close but lost both of its challenges during three points. The Huskers finished strong by winning three of the final four points as the set ended on a UO service error. 

Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said while his team never lost the belief that they would win, the Huskers made them work for it. 

Freshman Mimi Colyer led the Ducks with 26 kills, while Nuneviller added 16. Setter Hannah Pukis finished with 57 assists, 20 digs, six kills and two aces. The Ducks finished with 198 attacks and hit .217. 

“Nebraska is so great. They’re a really good team,” Ulmer said. “That’s the toughest defense we played against, not even close. Their block was excellent. And they fought. They fought just as equally as hard.”

Nebraska unblocked the Ducks 14-7 and amassed 78 digs. Kaitlyn Hord led the Huskers with nine blocks to go with her seven kills at a .412 clip. 

Nicklin Hames totaled 24 assists and 12 digs, while Anni Evans chipped in 22 assists and 15 digs. The Husker hit .199. Libero Lexi Rodriguez led NU with 18 digs, while Madi Kubik added 17 digs with nine kills. 

The drama ramped up when it looked like the Huskers were on the verge of locking up a win in the fourth set. 

The Huskers led 20-18 in the fourth set with Pukis serving. The next rally finished with an NU hitter error, but an Oregon attack appeared to have not cleared the net and Cook challenged. However, the call stood and the Ducks went on a 5-0 run for a 22-20 advantage. 

Oregon had the first chance to win the set leading 24-22, but Lauenstein erased both set points with kills. After an error by the Ducks, NU earned its first match point. Morgan Lewis, who didn’t start the match but finished with 13 kills, terminated on the next play. 

With the Huskers leading 26-25, Cook used his last substitution to bring in Maisie Boesiger to serve for Bekka Allick. He said he didn’t want Allick to serve because she hadn’t attempted one all match and thought the Huskers could close it out. NU had a swing to end it, but Kubik misjudged a bump set by Boesiger and didn’t connect cleanly on the attack. 

“We had to gamble and go for it, and we lost,” Cook said.

The Huskers had another chance to close the match but failed to convert a free ball. Eventually, both teams sided out enough so the 5-foot-6 freshman had to play in the front row alongside Evans, who hadn’t played the front row since the season’s second match.

Oregon finally converted its fifth set point when Brooke Nuneviller dug an attack by Lauenstein, and the pass went over to the end and landed before any NU player could cover it. 

“When you get to that point in the game, that’s when you really just want to take the biggest swings, get the biggest digs, serve the ball the hardest,” sophomore outside hitter Lindsay Krause said. “When you’re in that situation, you want to give it your all… It was pretty evident how much we were giving at the end of that set.”

Krause led Nebraska with 16 kills and a .324 hitting percentage to go with six blocks.

Nebraska led 2-1 in the fifth set, but Oregon grabbed the momentum by winning 12 of the following 14 points. Cook inserted Hames and Krause into the match to try to regroup. It worked temporarily as the Huskers fought off six match points before Kiari Robey ended the match. 

Cook said they got stuck in a bad rotation, and he tried to change something up. He was proud of the Huskers’ resilience to try to climb their way back into the match. 

“I also think that’s just an example that this team never quits,” he said. “I also told them that this is the grittiest team I’ve ever coached. All the stuff we’ve dealt with this year with lineup changes and players coming in and out, and all the changes – this team’s handled it great, and they never quit. They could’ve packed it in during game five there and I think we had a lot of people believing we might come back and tie that thing up.” 

Evolving Huskers Ready For Athletic Ducks

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By Lincoln Arneal

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The one constant for Nebraska this season has been change. 

The second-seeded Huskers have used 13 different lineups in 31 matches this season. Injuries, struggles with consistency and offensive experimentation caused NU to rely on an evolving combination of players, more so than any season under coach John Cook. 

As they prepare for the regional semifinal, the Huskers (26-5) will try to build a cohesive lineup with chemistry and cohesion as they take on third-seeded Oregon Thursday at 10 a.m. at the KFC Yum! Center. 

“Everybody on our team is capable of playing and everybody’s played this year, and some pretty big matches,” NU coach John Cook said. “There’s a lot of trust and so it’s made it easy for us to make those adjustments and changes. We haven’t missed a beat doing it because that’s a lot of changes we’ve made.”

Throughout all the different lineups, NU has had a few constants. Kaitlyn Hord has played every match as the Huskers’ No. 1 middle blocker, while Lexi Rodriguez anchored the defense at libero. Madi Kubik has started every match, but she switched rotation spots from L1 to L2 during the last four matches. 

However, the rest of the lineup has been a work in progress. 

The first day of the season featured two different lineup changes as the Huskers used Kennedi Orr as the setter and Lindsay Krause as outside hitter in a 5-1 system. That evening, junior setter Anni Evans and sophomore outside hitter Ally Batenhorst started. 

The next weekend, NU completely changed systems and went with a two-setter offense as senior Nicklin Hames gave up her short stint as a defensive specialist to return to setter. 

Injuries to Batenhorst and Hames plus short-term illnesses forced several changes along the way. The latest alteration was necessitated by a season-ending injury to senior Kenzie Knuckles. 

The Huskers’ most common lineup was Hames and Evans setting, Kubik and Batenhorst on the left, Whitney Lauenstein and Krause on the right, Hord and freshman Bekka Allick in the middle with Rodriguez playing libero and Knuckles at defensive specialist. That group played nine matches together. 

The second most-common group, used six times, moved Orr in for an injured Hames, Krause was on the left for Batenhorst and Maggie Mendelson played as the second opposite. 

No other lineup was used by NU for more than two matches.

Batenhorst said they kept adjusting and adapting to whatever group of players is on the court by keeping their mindset focused on the team’s success. 

“We’ve done a great job of just handling it with resilience and just working as hard as we can, in every aspect no matter where you are on the court,” Batenhorst said. “It’s allowed us to develop that resilience and just be able to push through and it helps us when we are competing and (in) matches when things aren’t always going away. It’s not perfect. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect.”

All the changes haven’t impacted the on-court performance too much. The Huskers are hitting .246 this season, which is 24 points better than last year’s national runner-up finish. NU also leads the country in opponent hitting percentage at .123. 

Earlier this year, Krause talked about how important the team-first attitude from the Huskers is after she had bounced from left pin to right pin. 

“I will do whatever we can to win,” she said at the start of the Big Ten season. “I just want to be on a winning team and if that means I’m playing right side, cool. If that means playing outside, cool. If that means I’m not in the lineup, that sucks for me, but cool. I want to be on a team that’s gonna win.”

EARLY RISERS — Earlier this week, Cook voiced his displeasure at the 10 a.m. local start time for the regional semifinal, which will be broadcast on ESPNU. For the Ducks, their body clock will think the match will begin at 8 a.m. However, Oregon should have no problem with the early match as it regularly practices at 8:30 a.m. 

Junior setter Hannah Pukis said she likes morning practices, which start even earlier with treatment and stretching. 

“It’s kind of nice to start your day with your favorite thing to do and your favorite people to be around,” she said. “So we get up and I think it kind of sets the precedent for the rest of your day.”

The Huskers have modified their practice schedule shifting their usual afternoon start time to the morning. Cook said the players reacted well and continued their streak of not having a bad practice all year. 

“It doesn’t matter when we practice or when we go, they’ve been great,” he said. “Today really didn’t feel like a morning practice. Yesterday did because we started at 8, but so I think they’ve adjusted really well.”

KENTUCKY HOSPITALITY — At this point of the season, every match is tough. Cook said the Louisville region will be tough just like every other one, with one exception: the gift bags.

“The only difference in this regional is you know for gifts, you get bourbon and a baseball bat, that’s a first.”

He said they received Woodford Reserve bourbon and a mini-Louisville Slugger bat. He deferred to Hord, who is a Lexington native, on the expertise and how to navigate the 30-page bourbon menus. Hord said her family couldn’t get out of work to attend Thursday’s match, but would attend the final if the Huskers advance.

Cook was also excited to be in horse country with Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, just a few miles away. 

While he said he won’t have any time to go on any tours while in Louisville, he’s always thinking about horses. 

“I hear (NU football coach) Matt Rhule is looking for horses – his daughter rides,” Cook said. “That’s going to be my job when our season’s over is to get her squared away.”

DUCKS FLY TOGETHER — The key to Oregon’s offensive success this year has been Pukis, a transfer from Washington State. The 5-foot-11 setter is averaging 11.6 assists per set and led the Ducks to the fourth-best attacking percentage in the nation at .298. 

Pukis said the key against a stout Huskers defense will be sticking together and playing Oregon volleyball. 

“We try to really focus on what’s happening on our side of the court,” she said. “I have the utmost faith in our passers and our passers help us create the offense we want. Our hitters are going to continue to do what they do regardless of who we play on the other side.”

The Ducks will try to attack from the outside as their middles combine to average less than 1.4 kills per set. Senior Brooke Nuneviller and freshman Mimi Colyer each average more than four kills a set. 

Cook said Oregon’s offense reminded him of Maryland and a few other nonconference opponents that ran a fast tempo. The key to it all is Pukis, who Cook called “very consistent.” 

Hord was reluctant to share too many details about her strategy to slow down Oregon, but NU needs to communicate with each other and trust their training. 

“You just have to be really disciplined because they are extremely athletic,” she said. “They’re not as big as we’re used to so that calls for just a more disciplined block.”

NO BLACKSHIRTS NECESSARY — Earlier this week, NU Athletic Director Trev Alberts rewarded two men’s basketball players, Emmanuel Bandoumel and Juwan Gary, with football Blackshirts for their outstanding defensive effort in the Huskers upset over No. 7 Creighton. 

Should members of the Nebraska volleyball team and its top-ranked defense also receive jerseys? No, Cook said, he wasn’t planning on lobbying Alberts for any special recognition. 

“We don’t need all that stuff,” he said. “We already know we can play D. We take a lot of pride in it. No, we have not had that conversation (with Alberts).”