Young Husker volleyball team has potential to fill big shoes, but it will take time
LINCOLN — After a 1-1 start to the season against two top-20 opponents last weekend, Nebraska drew an overall positive review from coach John Cook on Monday. The Huskers, who dropped to No. 5 in this week’s coaches poll, bounced back from a 3-1 loss Friday to No. 4 Florida by sweeping No. 18 Oregon on Saturday.
Nebraska’s youth was evident at times, Cook said, in miscommunication and some costly mistakes. Four freshmen saw time for the Huskers this weekend, as well as sophomore Sami Slaughter, who played in only a few matches last season.
While the Huskers could’ve front-loaded their schedule with some lightweight opponents, Cook said the final year of the VERT Challenge provided the deep end to see who was ready to swim and who could manage to tread water.
“I think they realized the sense of urgency you have to have,” Cook said of his younger players. “You’ve got to take advantage of opportunities when you get them. When you serve two points, you better get the third serve in. After a challenge, missing a serve is going to cost us two or three points. Those teams make you pay when you make mistakes or you make mental errors.
“We talk about it, but until you go through it it’s a tough deal.”
Much of the development can’t be rushed. Especially when it comes to the leadership and on-court communication roles that were shuffled when Nebraska graduated five seniors from last year’s national championship club. Setter Kelly Hunter was a three-year captain who not only distributed the ball but was the on-court emotional barometer. Cook added that defensive specialist Sydney Townsend also brought energy last season.
This year’s captains, outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and libero Kenzie Maloney, the team’s only seniors, may have been trying too hard on the first weekend to fill every role — players, leaders, and communicators — when on the court with so many underclassmen.
Foecke, Cook noted, had seven hitting errors against Florida on Friday before bouncing back for a 15-kill, zero-error night vs. Oregon.
“I think Friday night she did too much,” Cook said. “Her and Kenzie were way out of character. They’re trying to lead, they’re trying to play. It’s a whole new thing for them. Kelly was the leader last year. Now, those two guys are, so it’s an adjustment. It took Kelly three years to get there.”
And to learn how to get the best out of everyone. Foecke’s biggest contribution right now, Cook said, is to serve as a model for aggression younger hitters need to follow. With transfer Lexi Sun sitting out last weekend with an injury, Slaughter and freshman Capri Davis each got turns as Nebraska’s second outside hitter.
Neither sparkled. Slaughter started against Florida and had four kills and five errors before Davis replaced her. The roles were reversed on Saturday with Davis getting the start against Oregon and putting up one kill with three errors. Slaughter came off the bench and had four kills on 15 swings against the Ducks.
Foecke carried most of the load with 26 kills on 87 attempts over the two matches.
“(Foecke has) got to bring our mentality of attack,” Cook said. “Our players have got to feed off of her aggressiveness, her attacking, taking big swings. That’ll transfer to those other players. Those guys have got to get that mindset like, ‘I want the ball,’ because Mikaela wants it and calls for it. Those guys don’t even call it right now.”
Cook was asked Monday if the pair’s performances left him at a loss to decide a starter for this week’s three matches in the Ameritas Players Challenge.
“I’m not confused because I’m making it really simple. Whoever comes in and gets after it, is aggressive, that’s who’s going to play,” he said. “I saw them both be really tentative. Sam was tentative against Florida. I brought Capri in, she was aggressive. I started Capri (against Oregon), she was tentative. I brought Sam in, she was aggressive. Whoever has the eye of the tiger is going to be out there.”
More time in practice and under the lights will get everyone used to their new roles, Cook said. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames, a chatterbox by nature, will grow to take on more leadership responsibilities. It’s a request the coach is also making of redshirt sophomore Lauren Stivrins, who is beginning her third year in the program.
The shoes of last year’s class, which won two NCAA and two Big Ten titles, are big. But there is promise that the new generation of Huskers is excited to fill them.
It just won’t happen all at once.
“These young players, they came here knowing that they would have this opportunity and I think are embracing it,” Cook said. “But there’s going to be growing pains.”
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NCAA eligibility ruling leaves Cook fuming
The Friday afternoon ruling by the NCAA that senior Brooke Smith had been ruled ineligible to play for the Huskers after transferring from Kansas State threw the program for a loop. Monday, Cook was still clearly frustrated about the situation, which NU learned of just hours before the Florida match.
”The NCAA, they like to take their time, and their timing’s really good because they’re all about the student-athlete, you know?” he said. “That’s what they’re all about, student-athlete welfare. I’ve heard that so many times. We’re all about the student-athlete welfare. That’s why they did it right before the match.”
Smith spent her first two seasons with Nebraska and was a reserve on the 2015 NCAA championship team. She transferred to Kansas State last season and started as one of two setters in the Wildcats’ 6-2 offense, but returned to Lincoln this summer and went through preseason workouts.
Cook said he was notified of the ruling on Friday afternoon by Jamie Vaughn, NU’s executive associate athletic director for compliance. He didn’t want to break the news to Smith in front of the assembled team, so he directed her to the compliance office in Memorial Stadium for a full explanation.
”It was really awkward,” Cook said. “The timing, the whole thing was really awkward.”
Monday, the World-Herald attempted to contact both Vaughn and Michelle Brutlag Hosick, the NCAA’s media relations contact for academics and eligibility, but did not immediately receive a response.
Cook said Smith was not on scholarship at Kansas State, and had received permission to transfer. He said he was told the NCAA based their ruling on Smith’s return being the second transfer of her career, but questioned the discrepancy between Smith’s case and the high-profile case of former Husker Taylor Simpson, who transferred to multiple schools before ending her career at Colorado.
”What I want to know is how Taylor Simpson can transfer four times and Brooke can’t come back for her senior year when she wasn’t even on a scholarship down there?”
Currently, Smith is allowed to practice with the team, but not play, be in uniform during matches, or travel with the team, just like Briana Holman during her first season after transferring from LSU. Cook said Nebraska was exploring options to appeal the decision.
No timetable set for Sun’s debut
There is no certainty when Sun might be healthy enough to make her Nebraska debut, Cook said. The Texas transfer has gone through parts of practices to this point, but has been held out of full-speed hitting drills and was not in uniform for the VERT Challenge.
Cook said she’s unlikely to play this weekend, but Sun will continue to increase her workload in practices.
“We’re going to amp it up this week and see how she responds,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those deals you’ve just got to keep pushing it, pushing it, but you can’t do too much. It’s a delicate balance.”
Ameritas Players Challenge this week
Nebraska will play three matches over two days this weekend when it hosts the Ameritas Players Challenge.
Friday, NU faces Ohio (1-2) at Noon and Wake Forest (0-3) at 7:30 p.m. That’s followed by a 2:30 p.m. match Saturday against Santa Clara (1-2) that leaves fans plenty of time before the football opener against Akron at 7 p.m.
”It’s a great sports weekend,” Cook said. “I love it because I get to go to the football game without having to worry about having to coach a match after the football game.”