LINCOLN — The ball floated toward no one in particular on Nebraska’s side of the net.
After middle blocker Kayla Caffey punched up a setter dump attempt by Georgia, setter Nicklin Hames kept the play alive with a diving bump that sent the ball upward and backward.
In the moment, Kenzie Knuckles remembered the mantra of NU coach John Cook: If you can hit it, hit it. Almost out of nowhere, the 5-foot-8 junior flew in and hammered a kill from the back row.
”I just remember Whitney (Lauenstein) was coming over, and I was like, ‘No! Mine! I got it!’” Knuckles said. “If I'm going to be back there, I got to keep up my word and I gotta get up there and hit so I was like, ‘I'm not gonna give them a free ball.’”
After playing as the libero for her first two seasons, Knuckles is no longer playing every rotation but instead has embraced playing the back row for one of NU’s outside hitters. As her playing time has decreased, her responsibilities off the court have increased as one of NU’s three captains. Overall, the changes have left Knuckles in a better place mentally and fully engaged in her new role.
“It's been really awesome for me because I feel like I can play a little bit more of my game of the pass-to-attack mindset,” Knuckles said. “And just playing a little bit more loose and free.”
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Before the season, Cook laid out the path to playing time for Knuckles. He said she would compete with freshman Lexi Rodriguez and sophomore Keonilei Akana for the libero spot. If she didn’t get that, then she’d compete for a back-row spot if she was one of the team’s top passers, defenders and servers.
Cook said the position change fits Knuckles well as she is better suited to playing middle back, where outside hitters typically play on defense, instead of left-back as libero. He compared playing middle back to playing center field in baseball as opposed to playing third base.
“It gives her more options to get on the court. So that's what we went with and sold her on it,” Cook said. “The way she moves and plays a game, she's more built to be a middle-back player than a left-back player. She's very quick twitch.”
In addition to the new defensive position, playing middle back opened up new offensive possibilities for Knuckles. She has 10 attacks this season with two kills, which is two more than she had during her first two years at NU.
Because she is shorter than the usual pipe attacker, Knuckles hits the ball at a different angle and can tool it off the opponents’ block. But Cook pointed out while she might be shorter than a typical hitter, Knuckles has touched nearly 10 feet on vertical testing.
Attacking isn’t anything new for Knuckles as she played outside hitter for Yorktown (Indiana) High school. She led them to state titles in 2018 and 2016 and recorded 14 and 30 kills in the two championship matches, respectively.
However, now when she terminates a rally for the Huskers, the celebrations have a little extra joy.
“You wouldn’t expect it because she was a libero and now she's hitting,” said Rodriguez, who took over the role as starting libero. “We really love to celebrate her because we want to give her that confidence that she can do that all the time because we all know she can.”
Knuckles recently discovered she likes not being on the court every rotation. As libero, she was always focused on the action for every play and thinking about the upcoming rally. Now, when Knuckles comes off for three rotations, she can think about strategy and see the match unfold from a different perspective.
“After the past couple of games we've had, I was like, ‘Oh this is actually kind of nice,’” she said. “I can actually pause, take a beat and be able to figure out what we need to do instead of just trying to figure out all within serve and pass.”
Her defensive stats have gone down to 1.41 digs per set after averaging 3.71 during her first two years. However, that’s just from a lack of opportunity. She only has one serve receiving error and an overall efficiency of .977, the best among NU’s regular rotation.
Knuckles said looking at the big picture helped her with all the changes. She’s talked with Dr. Brett Haskell, NU’s director of sport psychology, and her teammates about not having just volleyball define who she is as a person, but knowing that there will be ups and downs and finding a balance between your identity and also your passion for the sport.
Off the court, Knuckles gained more responsibility as she was voted captain for the team, joining Hames and senior Lauren Stivrins, who served as the captains during the past two seasons.
Knuckles has thrived in that role, helping influence the team culture starting in summer workouts. She reinforced the theme of playing for each other and put the work in despite not knowing how she would contribute.
Junior Madi Kubik said Knuckles’ unselfishness and emotional intuition help her connect with teammates as a captain.
“She knows what people need to hear and she knows what people need,” she said. “I am so proud of her for the growth that she's had and being able to step into that emotional role and be very grounding for our team and giving us that stability.”
Knuckles has also worked with the freshmen to handle the expectations of playing high-level college volleyball. That can be getting them lined up for drills or talking about college life, or be as simple as talking through nerves before a match.
Knuckles said she is proud of her title as captain as it fits her personality and interests. She enjoys helping others, making sure the team is cohesive and being the conduit to the coaches.
“Being able to actually have that title ... that means everything to me,” she said. “We're just a huge family. Our team is so close. If I can be that middle ground for them — that's awesome. That's everything I wanted to be.”