By Greg Echlin for VolleyballMag.com
LINCOLN, Nebraska — One day, when she’s a coach, Nicklin Hames figures there will be a time when she’ll have to ask a player to change positions.
And when that player balks, Hames can tell her about, well, Hames.
A 5-foot-10 fifth-year senior at Nebraska, Hames has been an All-American setter for four years. Her career includes two trips to the NCAA final, including one last December when Nebraska lost in five to Wisconsin in a battle of Big Ten titans.
“I’ve lost two (championships) by six points,” Hames said.
“Six total points, and that’s heartbreaking.”
Now, to stay a part of it and maybe win it all, Hames is transitioning to defensive specialist.
Hames said that she and Coach John Cook talked about the move in the offseason and came to a mutual decision.
“We knew I possibly wanted to stay my last year and then go into coaching,” Hames said. “We had conversations about it.”
After playing four years but getting a fifth from the NCAA because of the pandemic, Hames had transfer options.
“People asked me a lot, ‘Why didn’t you want to transfer and go set somewhere else?’ I couldn’t see myself leaving,” Hames said. “I love this program, I love the team, I love the culture.”
And, when she graduates, she’ll be able to stay on as a grad assistant to Cook.
“One of our goals has been to be a leader, especially for women’s sports in this state and inspire young girls and players to dream big,” said Cook, who is developing quite a coaching tree of former assistants.
That list includes: Craig Skinner, who led Kentucky to the 2020 NCAA title; Dani Busboom Kelly, who led Louisville to the 2021 NCAA semifinals (and was last year’s VolleyballMag.com national coach of the year); Chris Tamas of Illinois; Kayla Banwarth of Ole Miss; and Tyler Hildebrand of Long Beach State.
And most recently there’s Jordan Larson, perhaps the greatest native Nebraska (Hooper) volleyball players. After the USA won the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics, Larson went to Texas as an assistant coach. Then she got a contract in Italy. and in the interim her husband, David Hunt, left as Pepperdine’s men’s coach to join the Texas staff. Larson came back from her pro season and is now a volunteer coach at Texas, where she brings another level of play to practice.
Stories like that are not lost on Hames, who as a freshman with the Huskers broke Larson’s freshman record (25) for double-doubles.
“I just soak it all in and see the amazing things that they’ve done,” Hames said. “I’m so excited to come back (eventually) and be grad assistant because I feel it’ll open up so many opportunities for me as a coach. To be able to learn under Coach (Cook), I don’t think you can learn from anyone better.”
Nebraska will play against at least four of Cook’s former staff members. The Huskers play host to Ole Miss on September 3, are home for Long Beach State a week later, go to Kentucky on September 18, and play Illinois once in the Big Ten season. at Champaign on October 22.
But first there’s the business of achieving success in the transition this season, from a position Hames played her whole life to a different perspective as a passer and defender.
“I’ve got to get the passing down a little bit. I haven’t passed in a while since high school, so it’s definitely been a new experience doing the whole passing,” said Hames, who is from Maryville, Tennessee,
Not that Hames hasn’t been a tremendous defensive setter. She was second on the team last season to only libero Lexi Rodriguez with 388 digs (3.40/set).
While Hames is shifting to DS, sophomore Kennedi Orr and junior Anni Evans have been competing for the setter spot.
“I think we’re in good hands either way,” Hames said.
From Cook’s perspective, it’s all about getting the players to “buy in.”
It’s not as if he hasn’t done something like this before. Just last season, he moved starting libero Kenzie Knuckles to DS and started Rodriguez as a freshman libero.
Rodriguez was a second-team VolleyballMag.com All-American, and Hames was honorable mention.
“It’s about the Nebraska volleyball team,” Cook said. “You do whatever you have to to help that team win — play whatever position or play whatever role that we identify. If you have a team of players that believe that and buy into it, you’re going to have a great team.”
“Nicklin is a total team player. I think she’s looking forward to a new challenge.”
The 22-25, 31-29, 25-23, 23-25, 15-12 championship-match loss to Wisconsin last December was tough to shake off, coming three years after the Huskers lost in the NCAA final to Stanford 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12.
“It’s difficult, at first, to process the emotions of it all. It still stings a little bit when you talk about it,” Hames said. “But I think it creates this drive and motivation in the offseason, which is really special because you want to get back to that place where you could play for it. You want to be able to, as we say, ‘chase that feeling’ of being able to play for a national championship.”
This year, the NCAA Championships will be in Omaha, 54 miles from Lincoln. The last time it was played there, in 2015, Nebraska swept Texas in the title match. The Huskers also won in 2017 in Kansas City when they beat Florida in four.
None of that is lost on the Huskers, who were ranked No. 1 in last week’s AVCA preseason coaches poll.
“I saw that this year in the spring and the summer with this team,” Hames said.
“You can see how motivated and driven they are because they want to be able to be the ones who win it at the end.”