Kenzie Knuckles

Nebraska’s Kenzie Knuckles (2) passes the ball during the game against Ohio State at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Last Saturday, Nebraska volleyball was slated to have its senior day as it was the team’s last home regular-season match. However, there was no ceremony because there are no seniors on the team, a rarity for most college sports teams

This means Nebraska is very young and relies heavily on freshmen, which can spell doom for a team that wants to make it back to the national championship.

Having two freshmen in the starting lineup is rare for any team, but especially for a top-10 team. The two Husker freshmen came in as day one starters, replacing four-year players and national champions Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke.

Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik had one of the most difficult jobs in the country: filling in Foecke’s shoes. Foecke played at least 100 sets each season, notched a minimum of 300 kills per season and became a classic six-rotation player.

That consistent production was what Kubik had to replicate for the 2019 season and was recruited for. A top-five recruit in the country and an Iowan like Foecke, it was Kubik’s time to step up.

To put it simply, Kubik has been fantastic this season. 

Foecke had 311 kills before the postseason as a freshman and Kubik currently has 289 kills. Kubik’s emergence was expected, but not this quickly, especially with several factors working against the Huskers.

Nebraska has no seniors and the season started with three experienced outside hitters, junior Jazz Sweet, junior Lexi Sun and sophomore Capri Davis, who all had little experience being the most targeted outside hitter. For Foecke, she had multiple junior and senior outside hitters leading the way her freshman season.

Kubik’s season came despite early struggles, which is no surprise for a freshman, as it was her first time against college competition. On top of that, Kubik was made a six-rotation player right away, something only Sun and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames had achieved for the Huskers.

That led to her being seen as an ‘easy’ target on the back line by opposing offenses, but like any great player, she adapted and her first path to greatness was through digging. To compare, Foecke had 107 digs as a freshman while Kubik already has 267 digs, signifying her importance in the back row as well.

“Madi has just found her confidence in her game, I know it’s really hard stepping into the role that she did...replacing Foecke,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said. “She’s embraced it and over time, she’s gained confidence and it showed out on the court in all aspects.”

The defensive work paid off as Kubik turned into an offensive star. In non-conference play, Kubik had 73 kills and hit .157, but Big Ten play saw Kubik’s offense improve. Kubik’s 216 kills were second for Nebraska and improved her hitting percentage by almost 10%, hitting .241.

There was no weak link for the Husker outside hitters as the three led the massive offensive turnaround. Nebraska’s offense was inconsistent throughout non-conference play before becoming the conference leaders on offense.

Kubik’s phenomenal freshman year also came despite the loss of Davis, a key depth piece that created more stress for the Huskers. Her 35 kills against Minnesota and Penn State were necessary in getting the Huskers the No. 5 seed this season.

Kubik’s season has gotten all the attention but freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles had just as important of a job: lead the defense.

No Maloney meant the Huskers had the libero spot open for the first time in six years. Maloney teamed with libero Justine Wong-Orantes for two seasons before Wong-Orantes graduated. Knuckles got the starting nod and made an immediate impact, having 41 digs in her first two starts.

Similar to Kubik, Knuckles went through her ups and downs. The downs led to worse play on both offense and defense when she did not lead the Huskers in digs. In matches against San Diego and Stanford, Knuckles’ struggles led Nebraska to out-of-system hits more often.

Unlike Kubik, Knuckles’ growth is hard to measure from just the stat sheet. Knuckles leads the Huskers in digs and has more control of the floor, something Cook was harping on Knuckles to do throughout the year. More importantly, Knuckles’ improved digging ability has turned her into a stronger passer.

The improved dig quality from Knuckles and the rest of the team has led to better play on both offense and defense. Knuckles’ passing also translates to when sophomore setter Nicklin Hames is forced to dig, reducing a once major roadblock for the offense to a minor bump.

The quality passes have helped dramatically improve the offense from inconsistent to near the top of the Big Ten. A better offensive flow also makes the defense that much better so when offensive shots are dug by the opposing team, the quality of their attack will likely be worse.

Less attack quality means the defense can gamble more on blocks and help stifle the opposing setters from setting up their hitters. Knuckles is also doing this as a freshman, something her predecessor did not do.

Maloney teamed up with Wong-Orantes, who was a junior during Maloney’s freshman campaign. For Knuckles, she has junior defensive specialist Hayley Densberger and sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller, who have experience but not the skills Wong-Orantes had.

In most seasons, one freshman sees time playing the majority of the sets and usually is not an immediate day-one starter.

This season, the Huskers have relied on two freshmen who have not only played on the first string, but were day-one starters. 

The postseason for the Huskers starts this Friday at 7 p.m. and with a season under their belt, Cook has dubbed the freshmen as sophomores. What that means is that despite the impressive seasons by both, there is still another level that the two have to hit in order for Nebraska to win it all.