Freshman Hames and Schwarzenbach ready to play some defense
LINCOLN — Before taking an official swing, making a set or recording a block for Nebraska, freshmen Nicklin Hames and Callie Schwarzenbach were told of their importance.
By midsummer, both knew they likely were in line for starting spots. But more important than defending second-ranked Nebraska’s fifth NCAA championship, NU had to retain the foundation on which last year’s title run was built.
“It’s kind of a bold statement once you think about it,” said Hames, who will make her Husker debut in the 6 p.m. match against No. 7 Florida in the VERT Challenge at the Devaney Center. “At first you think, ‘OK, we want to defend the national championship,’ but it’s more kind of about defending Nebraska volleyball and what it’s stood for for so long.
“You come in here, you look at the volleyball culture, you look at all the teams before you, just what they built, and it’s more about defending that. Defending how we play volleyball. Defending how we represent the school.”
It’s something the Husker newcomers — eight who weren’t on last year’s team — could be a part of right away. Coach John Cook wouldn’t lay out his starting lineup Wednesday, but said earlier that three freshmen could start against the Gators in a rematch of last year’s NCAA championship match.
One of those likely will be Hames, who would be the first freshman setter to start a season opener since predecessor Kelly Hunter — who played in a two-setter offense to open the 2013 season — and the first true freshman to set a 5-1 system at NU in the NCAA era.
Hames, who won five state championships for the Webb School in Knoxville, Tennessee, has run the starting unit in practices and set the Red team, traditionally made up of the presumptive starters, in last weekend’s scrimmage.
“Nicklin has done everything we’ve asked her to do in coaching her,” Cook said. “We’ve had her change some techniques. We’ve had her change some things she does, and she is all over it. Now she knows exactly when she doesn’t do it right and she sees the result.
“Nicklin is a really, really quick learner.”
The other two first-year players Cook mentioned with chances to start are Schwarzenbach, a 6-foot-5 middle blocker who had five blocks in last weekend’s scrimmage, and Megan Miller, who is battling sophomore Hayley Densberger as a defensive specialist who comes in to play back row for one of NU’s pin hitters.
One other starting position seems late to be decided. With transfer Lexi Sun ruled out this weekend due to injury, Cook said he was still weighing whether sophomore Sami Slaughter or freshman Capri Davis would start at outside hitter, joining senior Mikaela Foecke, the team’s leader in kills from last season.
“I’m going to look in their eyes before the match and see, between Capri and Sam,” Cook said. “It’s day by day, but they both have shown signs of brilliance and they’ve both shown signs of inexperience.”
Returning starters are senior libero Kenzie Maloney, sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet.
It was Independence Day when Schwarzenbach received a call from Cook telling her that middle Chesney McClellan was transferring.
“I didn’t know if I had a good chance of playing before, but I was already working really hard,” she said. “Just knowing that, I knew, not like I wasn’t working hard before, but it was a bigger role for me.
“I had to come in after July Fourth in the gym working harder and in the weight room working harder.”
Nebraska won’t be the only team in the VERT Challenge with a new look. The Gators may have an even bigger overhaul since the teams met in December in Kansas City. Florida coach Mary Wise must replace three senior All-Americans — outside hitter Carli Snyder, middle blocker Rhamat Al-Hassan and opposite hitter Shainah Joseph — plus libero Caroline Knop. Cheyenne Huskey, one of the Gators’ setters in a 6-2 last year, also transferred in the offseason.
But Florida has a significant rebuilding tool in 6-8 middle Rachael Kramer, whom the Huskers bottled up in the championship match but had 20 kills on 28 swings against Nebraska in the VERT Challenge last year. The Gators also added the country’s No. 1 recruit in 6-3 outside hitter Thayer Hall.
This weekend marks the final year the Huskers will participate in the VERT Challenge, going 3-3 the first three seasons against Florida, Texas and Oregon. NU will meet Oregon at 6 p.m. Saturday in the tournament’s finale, seeking to avenge last year’s four-set loss to the Ducks in the event. Oregon and Texas open the weekend at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
Cook said the 0-2 start in last year’s event gave Nebraska perspective about what early matches mean in the big picture. The Huskers got Hunter back from injury and would go on to win 32 of their next 34 matches.
“This tournament doesn’t really tell you anything,” he said. “It’s just I want to see us compete and play like we’ve been training. That’s what I want to see this weekend.
“I’m just curious to see how we play. How we transfer what we’ve been working on in practice into a match, and we can see how some of these young babies are going to step up.”
If it’s anything like he’s seen in practice, Cook thinks the freshmen will be all right. Wednesday, he reiterated that two things he’s learned from this team is it isn’t lacking in hard work and an earnestness to learn.
And the new Huskers understand those expectations.
“How we’ve always held ourselves at a high standard,” Schwarzenbach said. “Nebraska volleyball has had such a great program for many years. Just upholding that and keeping that.”
2018 NU’s final year in VERT Challenge
Cook said Wednesday that if the VERT Challenge continues beyond 2018, it will feature a new team other than Nebraska. The Huskers joined Texas, Oregon and Florida in the season-opening tournament each year since 2015. The Huskers are the final team to serve as the event’s host.
“It’s great for our fans because it’s four big-time teams coming in, so it’s going to be really high-level volleyball,” he said. “It’s a great way to open the season.”
NU went 1-1 in the event in 2015, losing to host Texas and beating Oregon. The next season, the Huskers beat Florida and Texas in Eugene, Oregon, before dropping both matches against Oregon and Florida in Gainesville, Florida, last year.
But the Huskers won’t figure in the event in 2019, instead opting for a new opening tournament that Cook says will feature “big teams,” whom he declined to name because contracts are not yet signed.
In the new event’s format, each team will host a match each season in a Wednesday-Saturday format. The two host teams for the Wednesday matches would then swap opponents and go on the road to play Saturday.
Sun out for opening weekend
Husker fans eagerly anticipating the debut of transfer outside hitter Lexi Sun will have to wait at least one more week. Cook confirmed Wednesday that the sophomore, who earned All-Big 12 honors as a freshman at Texas last year, won’t play in the VERT Challenge.
The coach said Sun has increased her practice workload since NU began workouts in early August but has not been fully cleared to play by trainers.
“She’s pretty much in everything but live hitting and blocking,” Cook said. “She’s working hard.”