Defending. National. Champions. Feels good.
For the second time in three years, the Husker Women’s Volleyball team returns to the court as the defending national champions. Unlike two years ago, this team comes back with big holes to fill.
This year’s title defense begins by playing the team they beat for the National Championship in December, the University of Florida Gators in the VERT Challenge here in Lincoln. It’s an unusual arrangement, but part of a long-planned tournament. The Huskers also play the University of Oregon as part of the four-team tournament. The team won’t play the University of Texas.
The Huskers lose three big parts of last year’s puzzle: Outside Hitter Annika Albrecht, Middle Blocker Briana Holman, and Setter Kelly Hunter. These three are notable not only for their on-court accomplishments, but also for their leadership off the court. Both the experience and leadership are tough shoes to fill.
Enter this year’s seniors, Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney. Both were elected captains by their teammates and Foecke has been a huge presence since day one in Lincoln. Maloney stepped in last year to fill the void left by the graduation of Justine Wong-Orantes, so both seem poised to step into that leadership role.
On the court there are a few questions, but many were answered with authority during the Red-White Scrimmage on Saturday the 18th of August. Texas transfer Lexi Sun is likely to play the other outside hitter position, opposite Foecke. She was a game-time decision for the scrimmage, but sat out battling back issues, but is expected to play on Friday against Florida.
Highly-touted freshman Setter Nicklin Hames looked every bit the part on Saturday. Her soft hands put balls exactly where they needed to be for the hitters on the Red Team which dominated the scrimmage. Hames was in high demand leaving high school, so the only question that remains will be her decision-making in the deeply competitive B1G.
The biggest question mark will be at middle blocker, replacing Holman. Freshman Calli Schwartzenbach impressed in a big way at the scrimmage and seemed to be the most polished of the middles. I’d expect to see her opposite Sophomore Lauren Stivrins.
As a whole, the Huskers will be young. There are three seniors on the roster, Foecke, Maloney, and Brooke Smith, who was in Lincoln as a freshman, transferred to Kansas State, and is back, and only one junior, Mari Kurkova, a setter from the Czech Republic. Smith looks to see time on the court as a DS possibly. Kurkova will likely be used sparingly at best, maybe never seeing time on the court.
There will be a lot of freshmen and sophomores on the court. Lauren Stivrins and Jazz Sweet will both return playing the same positions they did last year. Lexi Sun is a sophomore this year at outside hitter. Expect to see DS Hayley Densberger have an expanded DS role, though maybe one shared with Smith.
Sami Slaughter and Anezka Szabo, both sophomores who played high school ball in South Dakota, may see playing time, but have significant hills to climb to beat out the other players at their position.
Nebraska was voted preseason #2 in the AVCA Coaches’ Poll and is the favorite to win the B1G as voted by the coaches.
Possibly the biggest surprise to many in the B1G poll, aside from Penn State being picked 4th, would be Illinois at #5. However, the Illini are led by former Husker assistant Chris Tamas and showed great improvement as the year went on last year.
This is the 4th year of the VERT Challenge (Friday, August 24th and Saturday, August 25th at Devaney), with each school having played host. All of the teams are perennial tournament qualifiers and all four are often shoe ins for the regional rounds and beyond. It’s a great early season test for a young team to see if the Huskers can live up to the hype right out of the gate.
Last year, I wouldn’t have chosen the Huskers to win the National Championship until they steamrolled the Regionals in Lexington, KY. When I saw the preseason rankings, I had a similar thought. Yeah, the team is the defending champs, but look at all they’ve lost!
However, after watching the scrimmage, I’m becoming a believer. Question marks remain with so many young faces and new girls to Lincoln expected to contribute right away. However, the skill set is clearly there, and there will be little drop off in ability from last season. It cannot be overstated how powerful the Huskers’ “With each other, for each other” mantra was last season. The sports journalism talking heads call it intangibles.
This team will compete and has a very good chance to win the toughest conference in volleyball again. There may well be early season stumbles as the players figure out exactly what their role on the team entails. The VERT Challenge matches will tell us a lot, though not everything, we need to know about the Huskers. Don’t forget that a full-strength Husker squad lost to (an admittedly very good) Northern Iowa last year.
TV matches are being added all the time across NET, the various BTN channels and even ESPN’s family of networks. Check the schedule page frequently. In Lincoln, B107.3 carries the matches over the airwaves, check local affiliates for coverage elsewhere or stream it online.
The VERT Challenge starts Friday, August 24th at 3:30 at Devaney with Texas taking on Oregon, followed by the Huskers and Florida at 6:00 or half an hour after the first match, whichever comes last. The Saturday schedule has Texas-Florida in the afternoon match with Nebraska-Oregon the nightcap.