Fresh off its third national championship game appearance in four years, the Nebraska volleyball program does not have anything left to prove. Nebraska’s ability to reload every year is impressive, but the last of the players who played on all four teams are gone.
The loss of senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and libero Kenzie Maloney are by far the two biggest losses. Last season, those two anchored Nebraska’s defense as the Huskers led the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage, opponent assists and opponent kills per set.
Maloney and Foecke were leaders on defense, as the two combined for over 1,000 touches with Maloney having a team-leading 536 digs. Foecke had the third-most blocks on the team and converted some of those touches into extra points.
Despite Nebraska losing two star seniors, the Huskers return almost everybody else from the 2018 national championship runner-up team.
Maloney leaves a vacancy at the libero/defensive specialist spot, which can be one of the hardest spots to replace. Sophomore Megan Miller and junior Hayley Densberger hope to fill the void left by Maloney as both played over 90 sets as a libero last season.
The Huskers also return the second- and third-best blockers in the Big Ten last season. Middle blockers sophomore Callie Schwarzenbach and All-American junior Lauren Stivrins fortify the front, as they combined for over two and a half blocks per set.
On offense, the Huskers return other strong outside hitters in juniors Lexi Sun and Jazz Sweet that pair well with both middle blockers. Sun had 327 kills, the second-most for Nebraska, despite only playing 105 sets, while Sweet, Stivrins and Schwarzenbach played all 133 sets. All five are versatile on offense and defense, but one of them will have to step up in order to produce Foecke’s level of offense.
Sophomore Nicklin Hames returns after one of the best freshman seasons in all of college volleyball last year. Hames’ versatility helped turn around early struggles against conference foes last season with 1,395 of Nebraska’s 1,651 assists. Her playmaking ability remains the most important asset for the Huskers this season.
Nebraska also brings in Prepvolleyball’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class for the 2019 season. The six recruits that make up the class include early enrollees Kenzie Knuckles and Madi Kubik. These two, along with freshman Riley Zuhn, were the three top-40 prospects from the group.
The Huskers play nine non-conference games to start the season. There are two opponents that stick out: in-state rival Creighton and reigning national champion Stanford.
Nebraska’s first home game this season is against Creighton. The two played last season in front of the largest crowd ever at an NCAA regular season volleyball match. The Huskers won 3-2 in Omaha, but anything goes in a rivalry.
The Huskers’ game against Stanford is played on a Wednesday night at home this season. Last season, Nebraska’s national tournament run ended against a dominant Stanford team. Unlike the Huskers, Stanford has six seniors compared to Nebraska’s zero. The more experienced Cardinal team has the upper hand with their veterans and could get a rare win in the Devaney Center.
Other important non-conference matches include road matchups with Arizona and UCLA and the Ameritas Players Challenges at the Devaney Center.
Once again, the Big Ten will be one of the premier conferences in collegiate volleyball. The Huskers have a three-game road trip to begin the conference slate, including their first conference game against Illinois, a 2018 NCAA quarterfinals rematch. After the road trip, the Huskers’ first home conference match is against Wisconsin, who finished 25-7 last season.
The Huskers’ next marquee conference game does not come until Nov. 2 against Penn State. After that, the Huskers’ toughest three-game conference stretch comes in November against Iowa and then road games against Wisconsin again and Minnesota. Luckily, the Huskers play 2018 Big Ten Champion Minnesota only once in the regular season, but it will be on the road.
Nebraska has the potential to be a national title contender once again, but the road to the top is one of the toughest the team has seen in recent years. Despite the young team, one thing has not changed at Nebraska, and that is head coach John Cook’s ability to win no matter the scenario.
This story was updated at 1:33 p.m. on Aug. 26 to correct the amount of national championship game appearances.