All Eyes on Final Four in Omaha
Story by Steve Beideck
Planning for the 2022 Nebraska volleyball season is now in full gear after John Cook took time to put the sport out of his mind following the Huskers’ latest NCAA championship chase.
After getting to his home in the mountains of western Wyoming on Jan. 1, Cook successfully hit reset with three weeks of walks, hikes and quality time with his family near Alta in the Teton Range on the Wyoming-Idaho border.
“Normally I try to get away from Nebraska after the season,” Cook said. “We built a place up here; I call it going to the mountain top. It gets dark early up here, so you get the chance to sleep more. It’s the one place I can go where you don’t think a lot about Nebraska volleyball.”
A positive COVID-19 test just days after Nebraska’s championship match loss to Wisconsin in late December delayed Cook’s trek to the mountains. He spent 10 extra days in Lincoln, which included a quarantine Christmas celebration with a couple of staff members and players still in town.
That just made Cook appreciate even more the time he did get to spend in Wyoming taking late-night walks that included listening to coyote conversations.
“My wife and I went for a walk, and it was pitch black,” Cook said. “The coyotes are running all over the place. They’re hunting, talking to each other. Just thinking about the next step of your hike, wondering where the wolves might be, if you see any moose, that takes your mind off everything else.”
Now back in Lincoln, relaxed and refreshed, Cook is looking forward to another season of high expectations for the Huskers in 2022. All those notes he penciled into a notebook at 4 a.m. the past month, everything that needs to get done in 2022, are being reviewed in meetings.
Cook and his staff are starting 2022 with the end of the season in mind. The goal is a mid-December trip to Omaha for the final four at the CHI Health Center.
“We know where we want to go,” Cook said. “Now we need to work on how we get there. We’ll start mapping out what we want to do, talk about recruiting, what we learned from the past season, where we go forward with leadership.”
Nebraska is in a good place to get off to a fast start in 2022 because all but one starter – Lauren Stivrins – returns.
“Replacing Lauren’s leadership is important, and it helps that most of the team that had a great run at the final four is back,” Cook said. “The key is where will the leadership come from? It will be fun to build on that.”
Cook said the entire team is in Lincoln, even the three incoming freshmen – Waverly graduate Bekka Allick of Lincoln, Norris graduate Maisie Boesiger, and Hayden Kubik of West Des Moines, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2022. Kubik is the younger sister of NU junior outside hitter Madi Kubik.
Another first-year player scheduled to join the Huskers this summer is dual-sport star Maggie Mendelson of Fremont High School in North Ogden, Utah. Mendelson was ranked as the nation’s No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2023 before she reclassified and elected to graduate high school one year early.
The 6-foot-5 Mendelson is the only recruit in the country who is a member of the U.S. youth national teams in both volleyball and basketball. She also will play basketball for the Huskers beginning with the 2022-23 season.
Kayla Caffey and Nicklin Hames are two veterans who could step into a leadership role. Caffey is eligible for an additional season, which would be her seventh, as she was a redshirt in 2016, had a medical hardship season in 2018 and the 2020 COVID-19 season. Nebraska is working with the NCAA on a waiver that would grant Caffey that additional season.
“Kayla is in school and starting on her second master’s degree,” Cook said. “She’ll be playing beach volleyball and hopefully we can get that waiver for next season. Until we see it in writing, it’s not guaranteed.”
Hames will be back for her fifth season because of the extra year granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic. She was the starting setter for the Huskers the past four seasons but will take on a different role in ’22 as sophomore Kennedi Orr is expected to move into that position. In 2023 Hames is scheduled to begin her coaching career as a graduate assistant.
Three sophomores-to-be who are returning starters – Ally Batenhorst, Lexi Rodriguez and Lindsay Krause – are back and looking for even more playing time. A fourth, former Waverly standout Whitney Lauenstein, appeared in 27 matches and started Nebraska’s Nov. 26 match at Wisconsin.
Stivrins was a middle blocker, and two of the other players on the 2021 roster who played that position won’t be back in 2022. Callie Schwarzenbach is headed to Long Beach State as a graduate transfer. Cook said Elkhorn South graduate Rylee Gray left the team for medical reasons. Gray was granted a medical hardship and will continue to finish her degree at Nebraska.
One veteran who could see time at middle blocker is Superior graduate Kalynn Meyer. While she will continue to train with the volleyball team during the beach season, Meyer is also getting her first crack at track and field since arriving at Nebraska.
Meyer was a three-time state champion in the shot put and discus at Superior who had her senior season canceled because of COVID-19. With a career best discus throw of close to 190 feet, Meyer is already an Olympic-caliber competitor.
“We told her we would let her be a dual sport athlete,” Cook said. “The track season works well with our schedule. The new coaching staff has reignited her passion for being a track athlete. She’s going to come to a crossroads here. She has a shot to be an Olympian, so it will be interesting to see how this works out, how she does this spring and how she likes it.”
Meyer is competing in the shot put during the indoor season and likely will continue with that event, along with the discus, during the outdoor season.
Nebraska likely will be ranked in the top five to begin the 2022 season. While the transfer portal has made switching schools easier, Cook still expects most of the usual suspects to be contending for high seeds when the postseason begins.
“The transfer portal is the wild card now,” Cook said. “You can upgrade very quickly using the transfer portal. Now you have to look at who is going to return the most people and who took advantage of the transfer portal to improve their team.
“It’s the same cast of characters. Wisconsin returns a major part of its team but lost their setter and national player of the year but have talent to fill that. Ohio State and Minnesota are other teams in our conference that are right there that stand out to me on a national level.
“Texas lost two players, so they’re just reloading. Florida has reloaded. Kentucky and Louisville return quite a bit. On the West Coast, USC has reloaded their team from the transfer portal, and UCLA, Stanford, Oregon, Washington, they’ll all be up there.”
Cook also said that in-state foe Creighton should never be counted out. A visit to Omaha to play the Bluejays and a trip to Kentucky are a couple of the known nonconference road trips.
Stanford and Pepperdine will be coming to Lincoln for matches, as will Mississippi. Former Nebraska All-American and assistant coach Kayla Banwarth is in her third season as the Rebels head coach.
While Nebraska played Creighton in Omaha in 2021, Cook said having this season’s match at CHI Health Center is a good move for both squads.
“The reason for that is the final four is in Omaha,” Cook said. “It’s good to play them up there. Everybody will get a chance to play where the final four is going to be.”