Kayla Caffey headed to Texas

Former Husker volleyball player Kayla Caffey has found a new home

By Lincoln Arneal

The All-American middle blocker announced on social media she would be joining the University of Texas volleyball team Friday.  Caffey will join former Husker defensive specialist Keonilei Akana. Nebraska legend Jordan Larson is also a volunteer assistant for the Longhorns. 

Caffey’s announcement ended a long week of confusion that kicked off with news that she entered the transfer portal and peaked Monday in Chicago at the Big Ten volleyball media days.  

For most of the year, Kayla Caffey was set to play for the Nebraska volleyball team during the fall 2022 season. 

Yet, despite the intentions of both sides for a reunion, the All-American middle blocker will not be suiting up for the Huskers this fall. 

The reason for the split is a disagreement – which is still a bit muddled – over a scholarship. At Big Ten media days on Monday, NU volleyball coach John Cook gave his most detailed explanation of the situation, but even that didn’t clear the air as he issued a correction via new release several hours after his final interview. 

During his interviews with the media, Cook said NU was fully committed to Caffey and having her on scholarship during the season. However, that contradicted what Caffey wrote in an Instagram post on Friday. She said the Nebraska coaches informed her that they could not offer her a scholarship in early July. 

In his amended statement issued Monday evening, Cook said Caffey was working on several name-image-likeness deals to cover her expenses for the fall semester, but changed course and notified the NU coaches last week that she would not be returning.  

“While we anticipated having her be a part of this year’s team, I respect that this is a personal decision for her,” Cook said. “We wish her the best going forward.”

During their initial meeting last December, Cook said Caffey was all about coming back. She wanted to help Nebraska win a national title after it fell one match short last season and also earn a second master’s degree.

The scholarship crunch started in the spring as Nebraska needed to make room on its scholarship allotment for the two incoming freshmen – Bekka Allick and Hayden Kubik. However, Nebraska only had one open scholarship after freshman middle blocker Rylee Gray medically retired. Of its seniors from last season, Nicklin Hames and Callie Scharzenbach needed to remain on scholarship because they planned to continue their careers and Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins didn’t count toward the limit because of the one-time COVID exemption. 

Under NCAA Bylaw 15.5.2.4, teams can replace scholarship student athletes if they graduate at semester with an incoming student not counting toward the limit of 12. The stipulation is that if a player is replaced via this rule it is expected their career is over.

Cook hinted at this issue during media days, saying they should have extended Caffey’s academic career instead of finishing her master’s degree in December. 

Caffey’s intention to return kicked off work by the Nebraska compliance office to get her cleared by the NCAA for a seventh year. She previously redshirted at Missouri in 2016 and then missed the 2018 season with injuries. Because the 2020-21 COVID season didn’t count for eligibility, she was in position for another season.

Because they had also used the midyear replacement exception, Nebraska also needed a waiver to continue her eligibility and not have Nebraska be penalized for being over the scholarship limit. 

The situation dragged out and impacted the Huskers’ spring match, which caused Caffey to watch the match in street clothes. Had she played, she would have been converted into a scholarship counter and put NU over the limit. (Caffey could play beach volleyball because she still had eligibility left in that sport.)

Nebraska received approval for both waivers from the NCAA in May. But according to Cook, it came with a heavy penalty for the Huskers. If Caffey returned, NU would be docked one scholarship because they had exceeded the limit, which Cook said they would have taken next season.

Prior to the breakup last week, Cook said NU was fully committed to bringing Caffey back for a final go-around. After Nebraska received the OK from the NCAA, Cook said he waited for an announcement from Caffey, but nothing came.

“The ball was in her court. As far as I knew she was coming back,” Cook said. “I was waiting for her to do her announcement, which all these transfers do because it’s like going through recruiting again. We were waiting for that. It never happened.”

Sometime during the next two months, the situation changed – how and why isn’t totally clear – and Caffey’s scholarship was taken off the table. A Nebraska spokesperson told the Omaha World-Herald that Caffey was notified in writing on June 30 that she would not receive an athletic scholarship for the 2022 season. 

Yet, it appeared that everything was still pointing to one more season as Caffey was around the team for most of the summer. She helped out with Nebraska’s team camps and participated in open gyms. While student-athletes can use NIL deals to cover their school expenses, schools cannot help arrange for the deals. The student-athlete must work to arrange for these deals, akin to any employment opportunities. 

In late July, Caffey told the coaches she was finished. Cook said he worked with her to get contacts for a possible professional career and connect her with several agents. Then a few days later, Cook received a letter from the NU compliance office informing him that Caffey had entered the transfer portal. 

Senior Madi Kubik said she wasn’t too surprised by Caffey’s departure because she knew it was one of three possible outcomes: her return, going pro or transferring. 

“I just hope that she’s successful and happy,” Kubik said. “We love her and we’ll miss her and she’s a great teammate. She was my locker buddy.”

While talking about Caffey’s situation on Monday but not mentioning her specifically, Cook twice brought up several negative impacts of NIL arrangements and how they can poison some players’ minds and alter their motivations. 

“All I know is at Nebraska volleyball, we’re going to recruit kids that want to play for Nebraska and that’s what they’re here for and that’s what they want,” Cook said. “If there’s things that come along with that, with NIL and other opportunities, great.”

With Caffey moving on, all five middle blockers from last year’s national runner-up team are gone. Lauren Stivrins exhausted her eligibility after a super senior year. Callie Schwarzenbach will play her final season at Long Beach State. Kalynn Meyer switched her main sport to track and field and Rylee Gray medically retired from the sport. 

As of now, the Huskers have 11 players on scholarship, which is one less than the NCAA limit. Cook said they haven’t decided what they are going to do with the open scholarship for the fall season. 

Those on scholarship include: 

Seniors (four): setter/defensive specialist Nicklin Hames, outside hitter Madi Kubik, defensive specialist/libero Kenzie Knuckles, middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord.

Juniors: none.

Sophomores (five): outside hitter Lindsay Krause, outside hitter Ally Batenhorst, outside hitter Whitney Lauenstein, setter Kennedi Orr, libero Lexi Rodriguez. 

Freshmen (two): middle blocker Bekka Allick, outside hitter Hayden Kubik.

The scholarship of freshman middle blocker Maggie Mendelson counts for women’s basketball. Junior setter Anni Evans and freshman defensive specialist Maisie Boesiger are not on scholarship, but Evans was awarded the remainder of Meyer’s scholarship during the spring semester. 

This story was updated Aug. 5.

View images from the 2022 National Championship vs Wisconsin

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