Nebraska's Keonilei Akana (6) high fives Madi Kubik (10) during the game during the match against Minnesota at the Bob Devaney Center on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska volleyball dropped the first set to Michigan last Thursday, needing to rebound quickly. A 5-0 run to begin the second set was what Nebraska needed to help win the set, and eventually, the match.

Freshman defensive specialist Keonilei Akana led the serve to take the 5-0 lead, grabbing two aces and putting Michigan into difficult spots offensively. In the match, Akana had her most noteworthy statline of the season, with five serving aces, five assists and 13 digs. 

“For a freshman, she’s doing great. She brings it, she competes,” head coach John Cook said at a March 23 press conference. “There’s been some matches that we would have given her MVP if we had one.”

Freshmen have made a splash in Big Ten play this season. For No. 1 Wisconsin, freshman middle blocker Devyn Robinson has been an offensive force, hitting .444 on 178 attempts. In comparison, Wisconsin senior first team All-American middle blocker Dana Rettke hits .439 on 212 attempts.

Freshman setter Melani Shaffmaster leads No. 3 Minnesota’s offense. Shaffmaster averages 9.32 assists per set and at a height of 6-foot-3, contributes to kills and blocks as well. 

The two are some of the most notable freshmen in the country, making the two clear runaway candidates for Big Ten freshman of the year. 

In 2019, Nebraska had two notable replacements with then-freshmen Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles. The two replaced stars Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, respectively. Kubik then went on to win Big Ten freshman of the year.

This season, Akana likely won’t win the same honor. The stats of Akana don’t compare well to the likes of setters and hitters with eye-popping numbers. 

However, Akana has 20 serving aces and averages .36 aces per set. She not only leads the team in both of those categories, but is fifth in the conference in total aces and seventh in aces per set.

Akana has 23 serving errors, second most for Nebraska but those errors are not all bad for the freshman. Eight of those errors came in the first four matches of the season but more importantly, more aces means Akana is creating more serving opportunities for herself.

Akana’s serve-to-error ratio is .869, second best on Nebraska behind sophomore libero Kenzie Knuckles. Akana is one of Nebraska’s most effective servers despite the total amount of errors.

Serving stats are only counted through errors and aces, the two extremes of the serve. The gray area is what happens when the ball gets over the net. This area is much harder to assign credit to since anything can happen.

Most serves are not counted on the stat sheet but according to Cook, the rotation with Akana serving has been one of Nebraska’s highest-scoring rotations this season. 

Akana’s serve is her most notable impact on Nebraska but another aspect is through her defense. That’s an area where she had to adjust pretty quickly with a new level of competition in college.

“The speed of the game has really changed from high school to college,” Akana said at a March 9 press conference. “Defense-wise, the ball is coming a lot quicker than how it would have been in high school ... just improving with my reaction and digging overall.”

Digs are essential to help run Nebraska’s offense since it leads to junior setter Nicklin Hames getting the second touch to pass to any of the hitters. 

That’s where Akana’s role has expanded. In March, six of the eight matches played saw her get at least 10 digs. Before March, there were only two such instances. Now the freshman has turned into a capable passer, the most emphasized point of any Cook-led system.

A look at the use of Nebraska’s other defensive specialists and liberos helps show how each are used. Senior Hayley Densberger is primarily used as a server while sophomore libero Kenzie Knuckles is the defensive communicator along with being a consistent back row presence. 

Knuckles is Nebraska’s digs leader with 3.55 per set. Akana is third with 2.55 digs per set, but is still a key part in developing the offense. 

What makes Akana a weapon for Cook is her passing and serving, something that helps keep the Huskers running throughout a match. Akana understands her responsibility on the court.

“My role is to come in and bring a lot of energy to the team whether we’re down or we’re up.”