Setter’s winding journey will soon have her in record books
By Lincoln Arneal
Nicklin Hames’ impending record-breaking performance for career assists will come Saturday night and will cap an improbable, winding journey.
First, it took the first-ever exception by the NCAA because of the pandemic to grant her an extra year of eligibility. (Then again, the shifted and shortened season took away 10-12 matches during her junior season.)
After she committed to a fifth season, Hames was committed to changing roles and playing as a defensive or serving specialist. That lasted less than two weeks as Hames moved back to setter and split time there while running a 6-2 system. However, her season was interrupted by a back injury that kept her out for a month.
Yet through it all, Hames returned to the starting lineup last weekend and is now just nine assists behind Fiona Nepo, who owns Nebraska’s career mark with 4,824. Hames will have a chance to set the new record against Illinois, which hosts the third-ranked Huskers Saturday at 6 p.m.
Nepo’s record came from her three seasons as a starter from 1996-98 when side-out scoring was used and teams played more rallies in a match. She averaged 1,595 assists per season and was named All-American three times after she sat on the bench behind another All-American, Christy Johnson.
In fact, 12 setters earned All-American honors at Nebraska, including Hames in 2020. Soon her name will be at the top of the list for most assists. Her reliability and consistency have been her greatest assets in her career. Saturday’s match will be her 132nd.
“Nicklin has been there in a lot of big matches and she’s very calm,” NU coach John Cook said. “She plays great defense and serves. She understands what we need to do, and she’s a veteran.”
To get to this point this season, Hames had to go through a gauntlet of three-a-day training sessions with strength coach Brian Kmitta to recover from a back injury she suffered during the Stanford match.
She called those workouts grueling but received perspective from former teammate Lauren Stivrins, who had a back injury last year and missed the first part of the season. She also credited NU athletic trainer Jolene Emricson with helping her during her recovery. Cook said she’s looked strong in practice because of her work building her core muscles.
After running a one-setter offense for her entire college career, Hames is warming up to the idea of a 6-2 system. In her time off, she said the attackers got more comfortable with having different setters on the court. In addition, Hames saw the Huskers’ trust and grit grow.
The last time the fifth-year senior shared the court with another setter was her senior year of high school when she also was an attacker. The Huskers’ new system allows her to run the offense and use her elite defensive skills while taking her out of the front row.
Hames doesn’t mind giving up her role as a front-row blocker as Nebraska has developed into one of the best blocking teams in the nation, averaging 2.84 stuffs per set, which is fifth in the nation.
“I really enjoyed the 6-2, actually. It’s been fun just to see our offense kind of blossom with having all the attackers out there,” Hames said. “I’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that I’m going to be out for a little bit so I have to stay ready when I go back in.”
During her time away from the court, Hames also gained a new perspective on her setting, teammates and volleyball. She returned for the Huskers’ rivalry match against No. 14 Penn State on Oct. 14 and said she felt the energy and adrenaline during her first set back.
“It felt so good to finally be back out there because I’ve been working towards it,” Hames said. “Sometimes, it felt like it wasn’t getting any better or I wasn’t making any progress. So to finally be able to step out there and to hear my name called and everyone cheering really loud, that was really cool and a really fulfilling moment because of what I’ve been through the last month.”