Nebraska tops preseason poll for first since 2016.
By Lincoln Arneal
Maggie Mendelson and Bekka Allick have yet to play an official game for the Nebraska volleyball team.
But in NU coach John Cook’s mind they aren’t first-year players.
“Those guys get after it. They’re not freshmen,” Cook said on Monday after the first week of fall practices. “There’s not one day they’ve been here and I thought they were freshmen.”
The Huskers will need one of the two new middle blockers to step up and play a significant role as a starter. NU has just three middle blockers on its roster after five veterans either graduated, transferred or stepped away from the sport. Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord, a fifth-year senior, is expected to hold down the other middle blocker spot.
Both of NU’s newbies have advantages working for them to get up to speed quickly.
Allick enrolled early at Nebraska in January and went through a beach season in addition to spring practices. Mendelson, who moved up her high school graduation a year, hasn’t spent much time working out with the Huskers but was part of the United States U19 national team that won gold at the Pan Am games in July.
Even though Mendelson is behind in time working in NU’s gym, Cook said the elite competition on the U19 team helped her quickly make up for lost time.
“Maggie’s played more than anybody in the last (few months) indoor because of the USA deal,” he said. “She was gone for three weeks playing so she closed that gap (between her and Allick).”
Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez said the middles showed strength and calm during their first week of practice.
“Usually they can be a little frantic, but I think they’ve held their composure really well this past week,” Rodriguez said.
While Mendelson is proving herself on the practice court, she also has to build relationships with her teammates. At Big Ten media days earlier this month, senior Madi Kubik said she was still getting to know the freshman and basic information about her.
Kubik said she knows more about Allick and how she asserts herself during games.
“She’s pretty quirky and fiery,” Kubik said. “It’s gonna be fun to see how her personality manifests on the court.”
Allick said they’ve been hit with a lot of new information during the first week of practice, but she’s trying to keep it simple and embrace the challenge of proving herself. She is thankful that she has an experienced teammate like Hord, who is a three-time All-American.
“Fulfilling the middle role right now is a necessity, and I can feel that pressure as a freshman,” she said. “I really want to prove myself here as a Nebraska Husker volleyball player alone, and now that’s on top of it. I definitely have a challenge in front of me and I’m excited.”
HUSKERS FIRST — The preseason AVCA poll was released Monday afternoon and the Huskers will begin with a target on their back claiming the top spot.
This is the first time NU has started a preseason poll No. 1 since 2016. All-time, the Huskers have appeared atop the AVCA poll for 101 weeks, which is the most of any program.
Nebraska received 24 first-place votes, three fewer than second-rated Texas, but the Huskers earned 10 more overall points. Wisconsin came in third with 12 first-place votes. Louisville, led by former Husker Dani Busboom Kelly, received the final first-place vote and was fourth. Minnesota rounded out the top five in the first poll.
The Badgers defeated Nebraska in the national title game, while UT lost to the Huskers in the regional final in Austin. However, both teams look quite different from a year ago. The Longhorns remade last year’s roster adding six transfers and five freshmen while losing five transfers and one player to graduation and also retirement. Wisconsin lost multiple All-Americans, but received two big transfers in outside hitter Sarah Franklin (Michigan State) and Caroline Crawford (Kansas).
The Huskers are slated to play eight ranked teams. Besides the Badgers and Gophers, NU will face No. 7 Ohio State, No. 11 Kentucky, No. 13 Purdue, No. 14 Stanford, No. 17 Illinois, No. 18 Creighton and No. 20 Penn State.
NO TOP UNIT — After the first week of practices, Cook said he doesn’t know who will be in the starting lineup until NU’s first match. In addition to middle blocker, the Huskers have question marks at setter and outside hitter to settle.
Sophomore Kennedi Orr will get the first crack at setting, but All-American Nicklin Hames is still available. In addition, the Huskers are still trying to figure out the right combination at outside hitter behind Kubik. Sophomores Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause split time there this spring, while Krause also played the right side last year with Whitney Lauenstein.
Cook said he focuses more on attitude and ability to compete and improve each day rather than the top line at each position.
“I wish we had a starting lineup right now, but I couldn’t tell you who it is because one day, I think we know it and the next day it changes. So we kind of let them compete right now.”