By Lincoln Arneal
CENTRAL CITY — There is no rivalry at the setter position for Nebraska. In fact, Kennedi Orr and Bergen Reilly might be each other’s biggest fans.
However, after the Huskers ran a 6-2 system last season, NU coach John Cook is poised to return to a one-setter offense this year. That means either Orr, a junior, or newcomer Reilly will be relegated to a reserve role.
That decision will be put off until August.
For now, both are acquitting themselves well. On Saturday during Nebraska’s sweep over Wichita State in the Huskers’ lone public exhibition during the spring, Orr finished with 15 assists in the first set guiding the Huskers to a .256 hitting percentage. Reilly played the final two sets and recorded 28 assists as NU hit .352.
After the match, both spoke glowingly of each other.
“I think she’s one of the smartest players we have here,” Orr said of Reilly. “So I think that’s super helpful. Just (listening to) her talking about offense is really crazy to listen to since she’s 17. We’re just kind of the best friends. That’s what happens when you go out for setters (warmup) 30 minutes before every practice and grinding extra time every day.”
And Reilly on Orr: “She welcomed me with open arms, and we obviously push each other. We push each other to get better and we’re competing against each other but we’re such good friends off the court.”
Cook said both setters struggled to settle in initially on Saturday but handled the quick tempo well.
“When it all clicks, it looks really good. It’s hard to defend,” Cook said. “They both had a really good spring. They’re competing. It’s going to be a battle.”
Last year, Orr struggled to rebound after surgery knocked her out of the beach season. She appeared in 17 matches and averaged 5.11 assists per set. She sat out beach season this spring and worked individually with Cook and assistant coach Kelly Hunter.
Orr said she focused on simplifying everything and rebuilt her setting from footwork to hand placement. She struggled at times last year with double contacts but wasn’t called for any in the match against the Shockers.
“In college volleyball, you kind of get thrown in, and they expect you to do things. After my surgery, I don’t know if I really have those basics anymore,” Orr said. “Just going back and getting the fundamentals down was super helpful.”
The decision to stick with Reilly instead of bringing back Orr in the third set might have been more related to health reasons than performance. Cook said one of the benefits of a closed scrimmage last week was that players could take more time between sets to loosen up. So without the possibility of an extended warmup, Cook opted to play it safe with Orr, who has undergone two knee surgeries in the past three years.
Reilly lived up to the hype as one of the best recruits in the nation, which included an appearance with the United States senior national team for a tournament last fall.
Cook said Reilly has an excellent feel for the game and other intangibles.
“The great ones have things you can’t coach,” he said. “She’s got a lot of work to do, but she’s just got great instincts. She just knows when to set things at the right time.”
Against the Shockers, Reilly connected with her middles well, including fellow freshman Andi Jackson, who went off for seven kills in the third set. Even though she began the match in the unusual spot on the bench, Reilly said she liked the ability to scout what Wichita State was doing defensively and how she wanted to attack it.
“Honestly, it was pretty good for me,” she said of the bench time. “I could figure out what I wanted to do when I got in. So it was good to see that, feel out the crowd, feel out the gym and everything and just ease into it a little.”
TAKING CENTER STAGE — After group photos, TV interviews and post-match hugs, Merritt Beason didn’t need an introduction as she talked to the fans. But she gave one anyway.
Beason, a junior opposite who transferred from Florida, thanked the Central City fans for all their support for the sold-out spring match.
“Hi, everyone. My name is Merritt Beason,” she said. “You guys have given us the warmest welcome, and you went above and beyond. We cannot thank you enough for that. We are excited for the fall and we know we have a lot to work on. This team is really excited to get back to work and we can’t wait to show you what we are all about in the fall.”
Even though the public address announcer said team captains would address the crowd, Cook clarified they have not yet elected leaders – that will happen during the team’s Brazil trip next month. However, Beason was chosen to speak for the team to the fans. Cook said Beason, who plans to be an elementary school teacher, has embraced the role, even unofficially.
While she might have been a little nervous playing her first game in a Nebraska uniform, Beason finished with a solid stat line of five kills, four digs and an ace.
“She has definitely stepped up as somebody who wants to lead,” Cook said.
The Huskers have a leadership void after losing two of last year’s captains – Kenzie Knuckles and Madi Kubik – and Nicklin Hames, who was elected team captain for three seasons. This spring, Cook has offered optional leadership seminars that the whole team has attended.
Beason has emerged as a unifying voice even amongst a team with several big personalities.
Bekka Allick said Beason has a different leadership style than her. The junior middle blocker said she prefers to push people out of their comfort zone, while Beason is a “lover” and uses kindness to guide others.
“She’s the kind of person that’s gonna love you through that type of situation with gentleness, but at the same time, what she’s saying is true, and it’s right and she’s not going to sugarcoat it,” Allick said. “Her motherly kind of love is what she has to offer to the team. She speaks for all of us, and not one of us wasn’t heard from whenever she speaks on our behalf. She’s a beautiful person from the inside and out and I think she brings a lot to this team.”
COWBOY COOK — When Cook emerged from the locker room, he drew a big cheer from the crowd. The 2,096 fans were glad to see the coach, but they were also excited about his outfit.
Gone was his usual attire of a button-up shirt and dress pants. Instead, Cook wore an Adidas polo, Wrangler jeans, his commemorative 800th victory belt buckle and boots. The boots were custom-made by Russ Saunders, who owns The Leather Shack in Central City, as payment for a speaking arrangement a few years ago.
Cook said the initial plan for the weekend was to be at a branding in western Nebraska, but when football moved its spring game to April 22 and pushed volleyball back a week, he thought he would keep the spirit of the activity alive.
“People in Nebraska west of Lincoln love this. Love it,” Cook said. “I just wanted to show them respect.”
The look got positive reviews from the players. Orr said she had only seen him in jeans during a team outing with the UNL rodeo team to practice roping.
“Oh, I loved it,” Orr said. “I told him that when he walked out and said, ‘Coach, you look great.’”
Said Allick: “I’m all about boots and blue jeans. So I think he looks so good.”
MORE WORK TO DO — Even though the official end of spring practice came with Saturday’s scrimmage, the Huskers will stay plenty busy.
NU coaches can still work with the players next week on skill development, and then the players will take a break for dead week and finals. Then, they will return to the gym on May 20 to prepare for the Brazil trip from May 29-June 14.
Cook said the quadrennial foreign trip comes at a valuable time because it allows his players to develop chemistry and challenge themselves in matches against the U19 and U21 Brazil national teams and the Brazil women’s military team.
“We need the work,” he said. ”This gives us a great opportunity, and the fact that we don’t have any seniors. We’ve got a full roster. We’re not waiting for freshmen to come in. So it’s an ideal time to do that. So we’re really, really excited about that.”