By Lincoln Arneal
The timing was horrible.
A top-five-ranked Nebraska team was entering the last week of the regular season trying to win a conference championship when it lost a significant contributor to a knee injury. However, the Huskers regrouped and advanced to the final four in Omaha.
A bold prediction for the future of this year’s Huskers? Not quite. Nebraska and John Cook have been here before.
In 2008, middle blocker Kori Cooper tore her anterior cruciate ligament during a five-set loss to Texas in late November. So when Nebraska lost defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles to a knee injury before its final two matches, Kori Cooper Clements could relate and was heartbroken for the senior co-captain.
“It’s just that’s something you obviously never want to see happen, especially with the timing,” Clements said. “It’s very familiar to me, right before the tournament. So I just hate it for her.”
While injuries are common in college volleyball, those are the only times Cook has had a player suffer a severe knee injury during his time at Nebraska. NU will miss Knuckles as a key defensive player in the back row and as an occasional attacking option. In her place, sophomore outside hitter Ally Batenhorst played all six rotations.
“Losing a great player like that, somebody’s gotta step up, and our team has to step up,” Cook said. “That’s sports.”
In 2008, that player was redshirt freshman Jordan Wilberger, a walk-on from Scottsbluff. She averaged 1.11 kills and one block per set over the final seven matches.
However, the rest of the team helped fill the void. Clements said that team had strong leadership from Jordan Larson, Amanda Gates and Rachel Schwartz that provided stability to handle the adversity with grace.
She said she sees the same spirit embodied in this year’s team with leadership provided by seniors Madi Kubik, Nicklin Hames and sophomore Lexi Rodriguez.
“There wasn’t any rallying around one person. It was just rallying for each other,” she said. “When I think about the ‘With each other, for each other’ (motto) that the Nebraska team has adopted these last few years, it seems like that really describes that 2008 team. They didn’t rally around me. They didn’t rally around one player. They didn’t do it for any player. They did it for the group as a whole. And that’s why it was such a successful year.”
Rodriguez said dealing with losing Knuckles has made them stronger as a group. They’ve dealt with changing lineups, injuries and other adversity, but they’ve relied on each other to keep moving forward.
“Even though this past weekend, we did come out with two losses, I think we played a different type of volleyball that we haven’t played all year, and we really had grit,” she said. “We know the people that are able to play, and we know that each and every person has to do their job, and at the end of the day, that’s what our plan is to do.”
In 2008, Cook said that the team wasn’t the most talented, but their chemistry helped them achieve greater results. He’s echoed that sentiment this season, saying the players enjoy each other’s company and are very tight-knit.
Kubik said they need to focus on everyone doing their job and not trying to do too much.
“We worry a lot about each other and making sure everyone’s good and feeling good,” she said. Sometimes that’s not productive to do during matches. So everyone going out there to focus on their job and doing their job well is going to help us to win matches.”
With Knuckles relegated to the sidelines, she has tried to instill confidence and a sense of urgency in the Huskers. Rodriguez said Knuckles has told them she still believes in them and that they can be successful this season.
In watching the Wisconsin and Minnesota matches, Clements saw Knuckles continue to be a leader and help her teammates even though she was not on the court.
“I watched Kenzie stepping seamlessly into that role,” she said. “That’s what that group needs for her. That’s what she was when she was on the court and she can still do that just from a different perspective.”
The one difference from Knuckles is Clements’ injury came during her junior year, while Knuckles announced last week that this season would be her last.
Clements, who also blew out her knee as a senior in high school, said the rehab was difficult. She rebounded and was named all-Big 12 in 2009. She is amazed that Knuckles’ injury is only the second knee injury during Cook’s tenure and thankful others don’t have to experience what she went through.
“That’s a huge testament to Nebraska strength and conditioning and athletic training,” she said. “Not only is this not a common occurrence. In fact, it’s a rare, rare occurrence. I mean, I just think, wow, they got to be doing something right.”
After Clements’ injury, Nebraska eventually won the Big 12 championship during the season finale against Baylor. The Huskers’ goal of reaching the final four seemed in jeopardy, trailing Washington 9-3 in the fifth set, but NU rallied to win 15-13.
The Huskers’ run ended in the national semifinals with a five-set loss to Penn State. Wilberger shone on the big stage with six kills on .308 hitting. The two sets won by NU were the only sets dropped by the Nittany Lions, who eventually claimed the second of their four straight NCAA championships.
Clements was relegated to the bench during that final four run but became an iconic figure, wearing a camouflage jacket and waving a towel to encourage the fans and her teammates. She said the jacket was symbolic of the fight NU needed to bring to every match and was one way she could help out in her new role from the bench.
“It was just one little thing that I could do,” she said. “Can I put this (jacket) on, rally this towel and get this crowd going and fire my team up and is that going to make a difference? And it did.”