‘Well-coached’ and athletic Hornets await Huskers in first round

By Lincoln Arneal

It doesn’t take a doctor to design an effective volleyball defense, but maybe it helps. 

That’s the case for Delaware State coach Dr. Bruce Atkinson, who earned a doctor of chiropractic from Southern California University of Health Sciences in 1996. The Hornets enter their first-ever NCAA tournament with an opponents’ hitting percentage of .132, which is second in the nation – behind only Nebraska. 

The second-seeded Huskers and Delaware State will face off Thursday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Devaney Sports Center. No. 7 Miami plays Kansas in the other first-round match.

“They’ve got some good athletes. They are very well coached,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “The style is a little bit different but they do a nice job.”

Only two teams have hit above .300 against Delaware State, while the Hornets have held four opponents to negative hitting. However, this isn’t a one-year fluke as DSU was also third in hitting percentage in 2021 at .130.

The Hornets aren’t overly tall – they start three players at 6-foot-1 – but instead rely upon their athleticism to thwart the opponent’s attack. DSU averages 2.22 blocks and 12.60 digs per set, which are both less than the Huskers, who are at 2.7 blocks 15.63 digs per set. 

DSU has a diverse roster of four Puerto Ricans and players from Turkey and Poland. Nebraska isn’t completely foreign to all of its players as outside hitter Karen Codero was a junior college All-American at Western Nebraska Community College. 

HAMES BACK IN PRACTICE — Senior setter Nicklin Hames participated in about 40 percent of Nebraska’s practice on Wednesday. She was at practice for the entire 90 minutes but did not participate in all of it. 

Hames did not play in the Huskers’ match against Minnesota on Saturday, sitting out with an undisclosed illness. Junior Anni Evans took her place in the two-setter system. 

PASSING PATTERS — The Huskers have used their practices this week to get more comfortable with their new defensive alignments after losing senior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles to a knee injury last week. 

Sophomore outside hitter Ally Batenhorst started to play in the back row and joined senior Madi Kubik and sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez in passing rotations. 

“We had to get through the rough patches, but I think we’re all pretty confident next to each other now,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve dialed in the seams and the communication between each other.”

Cook said he plans to continue to use Batenhorst in all six rotations and she held her own passing last week. The only other options he would consider in the back row are sophomore Lindsay Krause, who has been playing opposite, and freshman Hayden Kubik, who hasn’t played since September. 

Batenhorst recorded nine digs against Wisconsin and 11 versus Minnesota. Cook said they are constantly developing all their hitters to play all the way around. Sometimes it just takes a little more time. 

“It’s not like all of a sudden, ‘Oh, you’re gonna pass now and dig now,’” Cook said. “She trains defense every day. She trains passing every day. All the outside hitters do. We’re always training them because at some point in their career, we want them to be six rotations.”

ALL LEAGUE — Kubik and Rodriguez were unanimous selections for the All-Big Ten first team. It was the second straight year both were recognized on the first team. Kubik was also a second-team pick in 2019.

Cook said coaches recognize Kubik’s all-around game and her contributions to the Huskers. 

“It’s a tough team to make,” Cook said. “Madi is a six-rotation player that does everything for us. … That’s a big deal. It’s the hardest position to play. And Lexi is the best libero in the conference. So I’d call that a no-brainer.”

Middle blockers Kaitlyn Hord and Bekka Allick were named to the Big Ten second team. Allick was also a unanimous pick for the Big Ten all-freshman team. Hord has been named to the first team three times (2019, 2020, 2021), plus the second team in 2018.

Junior setter Anni Evans was Nebraska’s recipient of the Big Ten sportsmanship award. 

Nebraska didn’t claim any individual Big Ten awards. Minnesota outside hitter Taylor Landfair won the player of the year. Ohio State players earned two honors as libero Kylie Murr was named the best defensive player, and Mac Podraza as the top setter. Purdue outside hitter Eva Hudson was selected as the freshman of the year, and Big Ten champ Wisconsin had Kelly Sheffield earn coach of the year honors. 

PREP AWARDS — Several future Huskers were recognized as MaxPreps All-Americans. Bergen Reilly (O’Gorman High, Sioux Falls, S.D.) was selected as a first-team all-around athlete and was joined by outside hitter Harper Murray (Skyline High, Ann Arbor, Mich). 

Libero Laney Choboy and opposite Caroline Jurevicius made the second team. 

Omaha Skutt coach Renee Saunders was named the national coach of the year.

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