The pain was debilitating.

It began, according to Husker volleyball head coach John Cook, at the start of the NCAA Tournament in April 2021.

“I was ready to shut her down but she didn’t want to. She was hurting,” Cook said.

Senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins talked him out of it.

“She’s tough. She wanted to play,” he said.

In her two final matches of the 2020-21 season, Stivrins hit .464 with 17 kills and three blocks leading the Huskers to an Elite Eight finish in the NCAA Tournament.

Then, Stivrins had a decision to make. 

She could take advantage of an NCAA-granted extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 but endure the long and grueling recovery process for her back injury during a shortened offseason. Or, she could leave Husker volleyball behind.

“I was torn for the longest time. I was really battling and every single day I would wake up with a different decision,” Stivrins said. 

Stivrins settled on staying.

“The hardest part for me was getting all my muscle back,” she said. “I lost almost 20 pounds and 11 of those were muscle.”

And so the work began. According to Cook, Stivrins rehabbed six to seven hours each day since practices began on Aug. 7. He knew that when she returned, she would be “105%.”

“Because of the layoff that she had, she was able to rebuild her body. She won’t have back issues and she’s more balanced,” Cook said.

Throughout the offseason, Stivrins had an outlet. Her podcast with senior setter Nicklin Hames, “On Set: with Nick and Lo,” was a way to stay connected with teammates during the grueling rehabilitation process.

“In the time I was recovering from my rehab, I didn’t spend any time with the team. So that was a fun way for me to spend more time with Nicklin,” Stivrins said.

Now that the season is well underway, it is a lot harder for Stivrins and Hames to keep up with the podcast, but that is okay, according to Stivrins. After posting two episodes in late July and early August, Stivrins and Hames posted their most recent episode on Oct. 20.

“We always say ‘On our off day we’ll continue recording’ and then those days come and we are sitting in bed like ‘I’m not getting up’,” she said.

Despite a limited class schedule that features new classes on Name, Image and Likeness, which have yet to start, each day is packed for Stivrins. Cook described a typical day for Stivrins as if she was a professional athlete.

That daily routine for Stivrins consisted of either rehabilitation or something else that revolved around volleyball. Still, the reason Stivrins chose to return is simple for Cook.

“She loves volleyball,” he said. “She wants to go to the national team. The times she was invited to go there was always a conflict, so I think that’s her dream.”

Cook said he had very few conversations with Stivrins about the future and the pro experience while she was deliberating whether or not to return to Nebraska.

“It was more like, if you want to do it great. If not, we’ll help you whenever we can,” he said.

The answer from Stivrins is a bit more complicated.

“To see the way that this team stepped up in every way was incredible,” she said. “I honestly could not wait to be back. It’s something special and I am so glad that I stayed.”

While Stivrins stood on the sidelines, a new-look team took the court that was headlined by the best 2021 recruiting class in the nation.

Players of that class, such as freshman outside hitter Lindsay Krause have learned a lot from Stivrins.

“Lauren is such an incredible leader. Seeing how she handles herself and leadership roles was really big for me,” Krause said.

The entire team took personality tests over the summer, and the results showed that Krause and Stivrins are very similar. Krause says that she hopes to serve as a leader like Stivrins in the future, and the Papillion, Nebraska native is soaking up every opportunity to learn from the three-time All-American.

Still, seeing her in practice was nothing like a real match like Friday, Oct. 1 against Michigan when Stivrins made her regular-season debut.

“When she first came into the game against Michigan, I was in my base and I was shaking all over because I was so nervous and happy for her,” Krause said. “I was nervous just to be next to her because she’s royalty. I’m playing next to royalty.”

Now that the dust has settled, Stivrins sees the impact of that match in the context of her decorated Nebraska career.

“It’s definitely top three. I’ve had a lot of amazing moments in this gym and that was definitely one of them,” she said.

The journey has been long. It’s been a grind. But Stivrins is not finished at Nebraska just yet, and Cook is certainly glad for it.

“She’s a first team All-American. We don’t have many of those hanging out around here right now,” he said.

In her seven matches this year, Stivrins leads the team in attack percentage hitting at .473. Her 53 kills and 15 blocks have added yet another weapon to a maturing team on a nine-match win streak.

After missing the first eleven matches of the season, Stivrins isn’t in it for herself. A record of 15-3 and a 9-0 Big Ten record doesn’t meet her standards either. She has much higher goals for her final collegiate season. 

“I’m just here to make sure this program gets back on track before I leave,” she said. “When I came in we were competing every single year in Final Fours and we haven’t done that in the past few years...I don’t have anything left to prove.”