On Aug. 28, the night of the Kansas State match, Nebraska volleyball alumni Justine Wong-Orantes was honored for helping USA Volleyball win gold as libero in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
After Wong-Orantes’ legendary collegiate career concluded in 2016, the libero position was filled by Kenzie Maloney, who held the role for two seasons. Then-freshman Kenzie Knuckles stepped into that role in 2019 following Maloney’s graduation and has held the position ever since, continuing the trend of experienced liberos.
This season, though, Nebraska volleyball head coach John Cook went for a youth movement at the all-important position. Freshman Lexi Rodriguez has the pedigree and talent to become one of the best liberos to don the scarlet and cream.
Now that Rodriguez has begun her Husker career, she’s excited to not only represent Nebraska volleyball but to continue building upon the program’s legacy.
“It’s amazing to represent Husker volleyball,” Rodriguez said. “There’s so much history that goes into it and all the people that have played here. Being able to say we’re a part of this tradition and culture that Olympians were a part of is incredible. If we keep working hard and doing what they did we know we can keep it all alive.”
Coming from Sterling, Illinois, a town of about 15,000 people, Rodriguez arrived at Nebraska on the back of a decorated high school career. A three-year starter as a defensive specialist/libero at Sterling High School, Rodriguez tallied up 1618 digs, 120 aces, two state championships and the 2019-20 Illinois Volleyball Gatorade Player of the Year award.
Those achievements by Rodriguez along with her competitive energy in the pre-season were exactly the reason why Cook gave her the libero jersey for the 2021 campaign.
“She serves great, passes great, digs great and sets great,” Cook said during a press conference on Aug. 30. “She plays high-level consistent volleyball and she’s so good at reading as well. She’s the passer in the gym by far every day, and I said the best passer is going to be libero.”
Rodriguez is one of five freshmen on the team that has seen action throughout the first four weeks of the 2021 season. Rodriguez said that Cook doesn’t even see her and her class as freshmen.
This perspective by Cook has led to Rodriguez and the other freshmen being given opportunities to shine early in their first collegiate season.
These opportunities, of course, haven’t come without challenges. Throughout the first month of play, the Huskers have already had many intense battles, including three straight bouts against ranked opponents, with number four approaching Saturday. This would normally make a transition from high school to college a little arduous.
To Rodriguez, it has been a challenge going up against star players from all over the country on a higher level of play. With players having more speed and power, the pace of matches is now faster, which for any freshman is no easy adjustment.
However, Cook isn’t afraid to give the freshmen significant minutes, not just because he knows their skill and talent, but to help them grow as a player.
“Cook has given us a lot of opportunities to show us what we can do,” Rodriguez said. “He sees it as ‘you may be a freshman but you have proved you can play as hard and as good as the older girls.’ He wants us to have that confidence and keep ourselves to that standard. He makes the age gap unimportant to the team.”
Cook, of course, isn’t the only one who’s guiding the freshmen. On and off the court, Rodriguez has admired the upperclassmen’s drive to bring the team together and mentor the freshmen.
She admitted that the first couple of weeks of action made the freshmen anxious and tentative. However, playing in an exciting new environment like the Bob Devaney Center, along with the upperclassmen’s support, helped smooth the freshmen’s transition into Division I volleyball.
“The upperclassmen have been amazing,” Rodriguez said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better group of mentors. Every single game they’ll pick us back up if we’re down. Their leadership is a huge reason why we’ve been able to play so confidently.”
Throughout the first few weeks of play for Nebraska, the freshmen have taken advantage of their opportunities to lead the Huskers, not shying away from the challenge.
Rodriguez herself has had a lot of responsibility with her role as libero, taking over for junior defensive specialist and captain Kenzie Knuckles. For Rodriguez, not only is she up to the task, but she’s having a blast doing so.
“I love it,” Rodriguez said. “It’s great to put full effort into a defensive play and watch your team get a big kill. I just try to do everything I can to better the ball and give hitters opportunities to make them. The team also just really helps me get that energy.”
Through the first eight matches of the season, Rodriguez has made some impressive steps. Through 31 sets, Rodriguez has racked up 130 digs, 32 assists, three service aces and even a kill.
Rodriguez’s performance through the first month of play has also earned some recognition as she was crowned Big Ten Freshman Athlete of the Week following her first three matches.
As great as those stats and achievements are, Rodriguez’s goals are focused not only on her play but also on her teammates.
“I want to develop a stronger connection with my teammates,” Rodriguez said. “Continue to progress in every game and get comfortable on the court. Us freshmen can get a little tentative, but building these connections with everyone has made it a lot more fun.”