By Lincoln Arneal
At the end of a long day, Nicklin Hames wasn’t quite done interacting with the fans.
Following a two-and-a-half-hour fan day autograph session in the morning and then a three-set intrasquad scrimmage, the fifth-year senior grabbed the microphone as fans filed toward the exit.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Hames said. “As you know, there is no place like Nebraska. We can’t wait to see you next week.”
The impromptu message followed a victory by Hames’ Red team 25-21, 25-15, 25-18 Saturday night in front of 7,946 fans at the Devaney Center.
NU coach John Cook said he struggled to put his thoughts into words after the day. All the fans he talked to during the first-ever fan day said the wait was worth it, no matter how long. He also enjoyed watching the student section jam along with the debut of the Red Kingdom song, and the crowd’s energy lifted the team.
“It’s hard to put into words because you never think you’re gonna pack a Red-White game,” Cook said. “I walked in today, and I was just blown away. … Today, people were fired up. They were into it, and it was loud down there. And so, you know, we’re just very thankful.”
Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord received one of the biggest cheers during the lineup introductions. She said it was a different vibe than she had ever experienced previously. While the senior has been in Devaney and dealt with a large crowd, she enjoyed having them on her side.
“It was nice to have them cheer for me this time, and it was very welcoming,” Hord said. “It was a very great experience.”
The results of the intrasquad scrimmage match aren’t that important, but it provides a glimpse into what the Huskers will look like when the season opens against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Friday morning.
Here are three things we learned from the scrimmage and three questions that remain:
WHAT WE LEARNED
THE ORR SHOW: Sophomore setter Kennedi Orr answered any questions about her ability to run an offense at a high level. She led the Red to a .311 hitting percentage with 35 assists.
She looked good mixing up tempo and putting her outside hitters in position to terminate the ball. Coming into the match, Cook said he didn’t know how she would play.
“That was a big worry for me – how confident she would be and how she would do. She hasn’t played in a long time,” he said. “So this will be a good match for her to build on.”
Orr said she loved how her teammates communicated on the court, and she got into the flow of the game after overcoming some early jitters.
“I think the biggest thing was just (proving) that I can run an offense instead of just being a setter – you can set the ball and put it in a good place,” Orr said. “I think I was trying to run an offense during that game. My teammates helped me out a lot and I think it worked out really well tonight.”
She wasn’t just dishing out the ball, Orr also put away three kills, including two via attacks on bump sets from libero Lexi Rodriguez. Orr said they’ve been working on that play and whenever she has first contact, she calls for the ball to come right back to her.
“I think at first it was more just kind of like a whim play that we don’t always do or we really don’t talk about, but she set me and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna go up and hit it,'” Orr said.
NO NERVES: The freshmen came out swinging and didn’t show any nerves playing in their first match at the Devaney Center. Hayden Kubik and Maggie Mendelson each recorded four kills for the White team in the first set. White team libero Maisie Boesinger had two digs and served tough while recording an ace. Bekka Allick added two kills on three swings to go with two blocks for the Red team.
Cook said they’ve focused on remaining calm, not just at the beginning of matches but whenever adversity hits. He said the two biggest tactics are breathing and focusing on playing for the person next two you so you aren’t focused on yourself.
“We’ve been working hard on it when it happens in practice, trying to get them to work through that,” Cook said. “It’s just … like serving and passing.”
HAMES IS COMFORTABLE: After setting for four years, Hames adjusted well to her new role as a defensive specialist. She played the back row for sophomore opposite Whitney Launstein. Although she had just two digs, the super senior seemed comfortable in her new position.
“Nicklin looked pretty happy tonight. She was having fun,” Cook said. “I’ve been telling you guys she can be a great Libero and so if we can get two liberos on the court, that would be pretty cool.
WHO IS IN THE MIDDLE?: All three middle blockers/hitters flashed moments of brilliance during the scrimmage. Hord finished with just four kills on 13 attacks but added nine blocks. Allick played the first two sets with the Red team before switching sides, while Mendelson did the opposite. Allick combined for six kills and two blocks, while Mendelson recorded seven kills and two blocks.
Cook said he plans to play all three when matches start next week.
“We’re gonna rotate them,” Cook said. “I’ve been telling them that I got confidence in all three of them. This week, on Friday, we play two matches and we’ll rotate them.”
While each of the middles found success with the slide attack, multiple times Orr mistimed their jumps making a full swing on the ball difficult. Cook said that is to be expected after just two weeks of practice, and he expects the timing to improve.
“It’s hard because with Kaitlyn, you almost got to set her higher than you think because she just jumps and keeps jumping and keeps going,” Cook said. “They see her there and then they go, ‘OK, there’s where I gotta set it,’ but you got to hang it for her. It’s just gonna take some time till they get that going.”
IS THE OUTSIDE ATTACK IMPROVED?: Well, we already knew that Madi Kubik is talented, but if the All-American outside hitter can terminate at a better efficiency it will unlock more potential for the Husker offense. She hit .202 last season after a career-best .220 in the spring 2021 season. In the scrimmage, the 6-foot-3 senior finished with a match-high 13 kills on a .385 hitting percentage.
She wasn’t the only outside hitting more efficiently. Sophomore Lindsay Krause, who mainly played right side last season while hitting .225, recorded 12 kills at a .407 clip. Also, Lauenstein came on strong with five of her nine kills coming in the third set.
While impressive, we don’t know if this was a one-match blip or if this improved attack is here to stay. If the Huskers can maintain better hitting from the outsides, their offense will be all the more potent.
“I’ve been on them so that’s a good start,” Cook said. “If you watch them, you’ll see how much they were moving the ball around. It wasn’t just the same shot over and over. It was mixing up shots, hitting high, inside, outside, tool, line, facing one way, hitting the other way. Those are all things we’ve been working on and when they’re feeling good, they do all that and that makes them hard to defend.”
WHERE DOES BATENHORST FIT?: Ally Batenhorst spent Saturday night wearing street clothes standing by the bench and didn’t play as she was dealing with an abdominal injury. After playing a pivotal role in the Huskers’ run in the 2021 NCAA tournament, the sophomore outside hitter will have to wait for her debut this season.
Cook said she was just sore and they didn’t want to risk it, and he hopes to have her back next weekend.
“It is a bummer because it would have been nice to have her out there,” Cook said. “We could have had six-on-six Huskers today. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.”