When the final ball hit the floor on Nebraska’s 2018 season — Stanford’s Meghan McClure’s back-row attack, bouncing off the hands of Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins — the Huskers had fallen three points short of their goal, winning back-to-back NCAA championships.
Each year, the Nebraska volleyball team comes up with a catch phrase. This year, it’s “To be continued,” which encompasses not only the Huskers’ transition from 2018 to 2019, but also that for the first time in program history, there are no seniors on the squad.
Nebraska, off to a 4-0 start, is home this weekend, playing Denver on Friday and Loyola Marymount on Saturday. And while the majority of last year’s team returned, two huge pieces are gone in All-Americans Mikaela Foecke at outside and Kenzie Maloney at libero.
“Nobody’s going to do what Foecke did,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “I mean, Foecke goes right to the national team and starts for the national team with no international experience. It’s got to be by committee.
“It’s got to be Lexi (Sun), Jazz (Sweet), Lauren, they have to do that as a group. That’s what we challenge them with, and they all have to raise their level from last year.”
So far things have gone well. Nebraska opened with a four-set victory against in-state rival Creighton, swept UCLA, and then this past weekend in San Diego beat Arizona in four and got past San Diego in five.
“This year is a chance to redefine what Nebraska volleyball is, with us being so close last year,” said Stivrins, a junior middle from Scottsdale, Arizona. “It’s easy to take where we were last year and grow from it and learn from it.
“I think that it’s super-cool that the girls we have right now are so young, but they go after it, and as you see, they don’t give up. Yeah, we have a lot of things to work on, because we are young, but I think this team is going to go a long way.”
Stivrins and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames are the team captains. Accordingly, Stivrins has had to take on a larger leadership role.
“Ever since I came to Nebraska, I’ve always had great senior leadership,” Stivrins said. “For me to take on that role this year has been super-exciting, and something I’m not really used to, I’m used to turning to someone else in crucial moments, but now that’s me, and I think it’s really fun. I really appreciate it, and I’ve gotten to learn from some of the best leaders and players of all time.”
Cook, the 2018 VolleyballMag.com national coach of the year, has 725 victories at Nebraska and his .830 winning percentage is ranked fifth all-time.
“We’re going to be a work in progress,” Cook said. “Like last year, we knew we had a really young team, we’re starting three freshmen, we have no seniors, this team is going to take a while, but we always have very high expectations and they’re working hard to meet those.”
The heir apparents to Foecke and Maloney, freshmen outside Madi Kubik and freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles, not only enrolled early Nebraska, but were part of the Huskers’ 17-day trip to China and Japan, where they competed against professional teams.
Kubik is a 6-foot-3 outside from West Des Moines, Iowa, with USA junior national team experience, while the 5-8 Knuckles received first-team Under Armour prep All-American honors in 2018.
The third freshman in the mix is 6-5 middle Riley Zuhn from Fort Collins, Colorado, also a first-team Under Armour All-American.
So far the on-court leader has been 6-2 junior outside Lexi Sun. After four matches she has 61 kills (3.81/set) and a team-high five aces.
“We have a lot of new freshmen, we have six new girls coming in, they’re all very different, but they can all help us in a different way,” Sun said. “I’m excited for the young team, and we’re excited for the challenge and to get better.”
Stivrins echoed the optimism.
“I think the sky’s the limit for this team,” Stivrins said after the San Diego match. “Clearly there are upsets every single day, we almost got beat here, San Diego’s a great team, but we still have a lot of work to do but I know we’re only going to get better and better. I’m excited.”
Just the name Nebraska alone makes it tough on opponents.
“First and foremost, you’re playing not only the players on the court, but you’re playing a legacy and a tradition and a name,” San Diego coach Jen Petrie said. “I think it took our girls a little while to get that. That was the first hurdle we had at the beginning of the match, and once they realized, you know, everybody’s just volleyball players, you have to take away that five points that you just gave them because they’re wearing Nebraska on their chests.”
Arizona coach Dave Rubio understands the pressure that goes along with a five-time national-championship program.
“If you’re Nebraska, every year, you have two goals in mind. One, get to the final four, and two, win the national championship,” Rubio said. “If I’m John, I’m looking at it, and asking myself, ‘Do we really have a legitimate shot at getting a national championship and getting to the final four?’
“ … I think their serve receive is still too erratic, I think offensively they have some work to do.
“They still have some work to do and I think John would tell you the same thing, they’re not quite where they need to be, and the question is, at the end of the season, are they going to be physically capable of competing at that top final-four level. I don’t know. It’s not the same Nebraska team I’ve seen the last four or five years.”
Cook knows he has his work cut out for him.
“I’m never very confident,” Cook said. We’re still trying to figure things out, and that’s what non-conference is for, to try to figure those things out, because when the Big Ten hits, baby, it’s showtime, and there are no easy nights in the Big 10.”
“For all of us,” Sun said, “remembering that game, remembering it every single day when we’re practicing and playing, we’re just wanting to get better and not let that happen again.”