LINCOLN — It could be a sign of roster depth, unfortunate luck or perhaps an unexpected luxury, but Nebraska is likely the only program in the country with two All-Americans on its bench.
After NU coach John Cook settled on a regular starting lineup for Big Ten play last week, two-time All-American Lexi Sun was left on the outside of the pin hitter rotation as junior Madi Kubik and freshmen Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause started the Huskers’ first two league matches.
Sun is joined on the sidelines by middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, who is still recovering from back surgery but making progress toward a return.
Sun played the fourth set against Northwestern and even though she didn’t record a kill, she put on a “blocking clinic” according to Cook with three stuffs. She also played the third set in the sweep against Iowa in a predetermined substitution and tallied three kills on eight errorless swings from mostly out-of-system sets.
“She hasn't been one of the best two outside hitters in practice,” Cook said. “She's rebounding, she's slowly turning it up, which is good to see. I know it's hard coming off the bench but I think she's handled it really well the last two matches.”
While Sun has served well this season — she leads the Huskers with 13 aces — Cook said because outside hitters are asked to do everything on the court, she needs to improve in all areas and perform at a high level in each training session to earn back regular playing time.
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The three starters have improved their stats from the nonconference. Krause flourished in her first week against league competition with 27 kills at a .500 hitting percentage and earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors on Monday. Kubik added 34 kills on a .257 hitting percentage with 23 digs, while Batenhorst has hit 14 kills at a .257 clip in the two matches.
“You got to prove it every day,” Cook said. “That's the standard we're trying to hold them to right now. You can't come in and have one great day or one great match and think you've arrived. You gotta be able to grind. We got to grind for the next nine weeks.”
While Sun’s path back to the court requires more consistent play, Stivrins needs more time to recover. Last week, Stivrins completed her first week of practice, but Cook said she won’t play in matches until she is fully confident in her physical skills. Even though Cook said he wants to stick with a regular rotation, Stivrins’ return will muddle the picture at middle blocker.
“She'll change our team dramatically,” he said.
Sophomore setter Anni Evans has emerged as the Huskers’ serving specialist for middle blocker Kayla Caffey. She appeared in all seven sets last week, one more than she did in all of nonconference.
Cook said he likes using the Waverly graduate at the service line because she can serve points.
With Evans a regular at the service line, it also opens up a double substitution possibility later in the set where Whitney Lauenstein comes in for setter Nicklin Hames in the front row. Cook doesn't always use the double switch because they might run out of substitutions later in the set.
Because Nebraska used the double sub in the second set against Iowa and the set went to extra points, the Huskers ran out of substitutions. As a result, Kenzie Knuckles played in the front row for the final rotation. She took two swings from the left pin, and even though the set ended on a kill from Hames, the Huskers mobbed the 5-foot-8 Knuckles after the final point.
Cook said they used Knuckles playing at the net as motivation instead of worrying about everything that could go wrong.
“I'm so glad we set her because she'll kill it, and she'll find a way,” he said. “That was fun and a great effort by our team.”
The first week of conference play across the nation led to lots of movement in this week’s coaches poll:
Washington, which fell seven spots to No. 13, lost in five sets to in-state rival Washington State after the Huskies won the fourth set 46-44, which tied an NCAA record for points in a set during the 25-point era.
Elsewhere, Maryland handed the formerly second-ranked Wisconsin its first loss of the season. Ohio State suffered losses to Purdue and Penn State and dropped five spots to No. 8. Mississippi State recorded its first-ever win against Florida in program history.
Cook attributed the large number of upsets to parity rather than highly rated teams struggling to play well.
“College volleyball is getting very, very competitive,” he said. “I've noticed this in recruiting. There used to be just a few good players everybody was recruiting. Now there are a lot of good players that everybody is recruiting and that is just the depth and the quality of volleyball.”