Freshman. A title given to newcomers on college campuses everywhere, and a word that can be met with shrugs or even a joke about being so young and naive. Despite the stereotype, Nebraska women’s volleyball started multiple freshmen on opening weekend for the second straight year.
Before the season began, there were major voids left after the 2018 season, including who would replace captain Kenzie Maloney as the team’s libero. The competition for the spot was eventually won by a true freshman.
A freshman starting at the most important defensive position is a rarity among the nation’s top teams. There are no other American Volleyball Coaches Association top-10 teams that start a freshman libero, and only three top-10 teams use a freshman defensive specialist at all.
Kenzie Knuckles, the No. 2 prospect of the 2019 recruiting class, won the spot and has begun her lasting footprint for Nebraska volleyball. The freshman had 41 digs in her first two matches and made the All-Husker Invitational team last weekend.
“She was on top of things and for a freshman first weekend out … she did a really good job,” said head coach John Cook. “She came here to be a four-year starter libero.”
The libero spot has been a spot of consistency under Cook. In fact, Nebraska has had only four liberos since joining the Big Ten in 2011, including Knuckles. The spot has been consistently good, but there is now an immense amount of pressure to continue and build the legacy of the Nebraska libero.
Kenzie Maloney was the Husker’s last libero change when she replaced four-year starter Justine Wong-Orantes in 2017. Wong-Orantes came to replace Lara Dykstra back in 2013 when Dykstra transferred after two years being at Nebraska. Before Dykstra, Kayla Banwarth was a four-year starter from 2007 to 2010. They all represent the importance of a libero that will always be there.
The opening weekend was the proof Cook needed that Knuckles was the right choice. She averaged 5.86 digs per set and had 22 digs and six assists against Creighton in her first start. This is only the beginning for Knuckles.
“What I’m working on bringing is something I don’t have yet,” Knuckles said after the UCLA match. “What I’m working on bringing is just being consistent and that’s [a] really big part for a libero.”
Madi Kubik, the crown jewel of the 2019 recruiting class, also started on opening weekend at outside hitter. Despite the loss of Mikaela Foecke, the returning core of the Nebraska outside hitters was one of the team’s strengths. That core strength grew mightier with Kubik being the starter on opening weekend in both matches.
There are multiple outside hitter spots at any time on the court, unlike the libero, so the chances of a freshman starting are higher. Despite the higher chances, there have been three true freshmen outside hitters to start opening weekend besides Kubik since 2013. Amber Rolfzen in 2013, Foecke in 2015 and Jazz Sweet in 2017.
2013 was an important year because Rolfzen was the ninth true freshmen to be a starter on opening weekend under John Cook. Since 2013, nine true freshmen have already made the jump to starter on opening weekend, including Wong-Orantes in the same year.
Kubik’s opening weekend did not have the stats of Knuckles due to her usage being reduced. Despite that, her versatility was seen as she worked the back row and created several coverage plays. Those coverage plays allowed Nebraska to continue a rally when the opponent seemed to have broken through the defense.
In total, Kubik had 15 digs and 10 kills to go with her offensive efforts. That was all despite injuring her ankle in the final set on Friday and returning in the same match.
The season is still very young, but the two freshmen have shown reasons why they are already starting. The two have proven early on that they are willing to do anything to stay on that court. The great starts are only the beginning of another expected deep season with the bar already being set.