By LINCOLN ARNEAL
CHICAGO — Madi Kubik called it sick. Kenzie Knuckles said it was an eye-opening experience.
John Cook said the day was an incredible experience for the student-athletes and a great statement for the sport.
Kubik, Knuckles and Cook represented Nebraska at the first-ever volleyball-specific media days on Monday at the Big Ten Network offices. All the participants in the event said they were glad to be part of the historic event and hoped more leagues would follow and continue to grow the sport.
“One of my hopes and wishes from all this is that this is now going to spread to other conferences and continue to validate the growth of volleyball in this country and how big it is, and the Big Ten is certainly leading the way in setting the example,” Cook said.
In addition to talking with the media, the players and coaches went through several content-generation stations for the Big Ten Network, including filming interviews for television shows, creating digital content and making TikTok videos.
The three Huskers also conducted a second interview session with the Nebraska media contingent, which was well represented as it comprised almost half of those in attendance during the first day, which featured seven teams.
“I think it’s making a major statement about the importance of volleyball in the state of Nebraska and what this means to everybody who follows us,” Cook said.
Because the Big Ten does not have a league tournament, this was a rare chance for all the players and coaches to be in the same place simultaneously. The conference also treated the players and coaches to meals and social time in Chicago.
The news was coming fast and furious on Monday as three Huskers were named to the Big Ten’s preseason team. Senior outside hitter Madi Kubik was the only unanimous selection among the 15 players honored, while senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord and sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez were also recognized. Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin led the way with three players apiece on the preseason team.
In addition, the coaches picked Nebraska to finish second in the league behind three-time defending champion Wisconsin, which won the national title last season. NU finished 1.5 games behind the Badgers and lost to their league rival in the championship match.
“It was really tough for us to lose the national championship,” Knuckles said. “I think that we bounce back pretty well. We have a group of girls that work really hard and are really dedicated to the season and what we want to achieve. We put in the work this summer and we’re really excited for the season to start.”
The league unveiled its television coverage for the year. The Huskers will be featured on television 18 times, which includes 12 games on BTN, four games on Nebraska Public Media and a game on ESPN and FS1. The other 11 matches will all be streamed on BTN+.
The Huskers will start preseason practice next week on Aug. 9 and are looking forward to getting back to work and improving upon last year’s national runner-up finish.
While they cannot work with coaches during the summer, the players have gone through strength and conditioning workouts and played together during open gyms.
One of the day’s themes was coaches and players campaigning for contact between the two groups during the summer, even in a limited capacity to help with the quick transition from the start of practices to the first match.
However, Kubik said she liked the opportunity presented by the current setup, which allows the players to take control of the team culture and develop leadership.
“I think what was so strong on our team last year was having (team-led culture) and instilling the things that are so important to us being Nebraska volleyball players and kind of down through our younger players with that being led by us,” she said. “If we don’t care about what we’re doing and with each other, then — if the coaches care really deeply, that’s great and we want that. But if we don’t care about it within each other, we’re going to have a problem there.”
The Huskers will have plenty to sort out in the three weeks of practice before they play Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Aug. 26.
With last week’s news that Kayla Caffey is transferring from Nebraska, the Huskers won’t have any of the five middle blockers back from last year’s roster. Instead, the two starters will come from Hord, a transfer from Penn State, and freshmen Bekka Allick and Maggie Mendelson.
In addition, the Huskers will break in a new setter as four-year starter Nicklin Hames is transitioning to a new role during her super senior campaign. Cook said the best-case scenario would be for sophomore Kennedi Orr to take over the offense.
“Kennedi is going to get her shot,” Cook said. “She made it through all her workouts and working camps and everything. She’s worked hard, and we’ve got to keep our fingers crossed.”
Those questions can remain for next week. The Huskers had more pressing issues to attend to Monday night.
As she wrapped up her final interview with her high heels off her feet, Kubik said she was looking forward to dinner that night at a steakhouse. She said she appreciated seeing the Big Ten Network’s offices and forgot that she was in Chicago for a while. However, she said the whole experience was really enjoyable.
“It’s a huge step for women’s sports and for the sport of volleyball,” Kubik said. “It’s really cool to be a part of this unprecedented event in history.”