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).”