In the 2019 season, the Nebraska volleyball team found the kind of success that most teams never achieve: an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, a 28-5 record and two top-ten wins. Better yet, the Huskers would enter the 2021 spring season with all but one starter returning from that team.
This didn’t stop Nebraska volleyball head coach John Cook from making changes.
The current Husker lineup features a new starting right-side hitter, middle blocker and defensive specialist from the 2019-20 squad. Returning starters were suddenly displaced. Despite the risk, the team has opened the season with a 6-0 record.
Sophomore right-side hitter Riley Zuhn is fourth on the team in attempts after playing in just 25 sets last season. The six-foot-five attacker from Fort Collins, Colorado, had a career-high 11 kills on .500 hitting in Nebraska’s second match against Maryland on Feb. 6.
Zuhn credited the players around her for helping her transition into a bigger role.
“Tight huddles, eye contact, all those things have made me feel really comfortable,” Zuhn said after her career-high performance. “I’m just excited to compete next to them.”
Adjusting to the spotlight doesn’t come without some struggles. Zuhn is coming off a net-zero hitting series in two matches against Rutgers last weekend. Senior right-side hitter Jazz Sweet got significant playing time during the sophomore’s momentary slump. Still, Zuhn is hitting .223 on the season to go along with 16 blocks.
Also with 16 blocks this season is junior middle blocker Kayla Caffey. The graduate transfer from Missouri arrived to Nebraska with two years of eligibility, and she’s already putting it to good use.
Caffey has a lingering injury that has led her to split time with junior middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach, who held a starting role in her first two years with the program. So far, the offensive production has come from Caffey, who has tallied 27 kills in 13 sets. Schwarzenbach has appeared in nine sets and is credited with eight kills, by comparison.
In a Feb. 9 press conference, Caffey acknowledged the challenge of adjusting to a new program.
“It’s challenging for any new player or transfer student coming in and trying to adjust to a new setter, a new team, and just trying to get a feel for everything,” Caffey said.
Her .380 hitting percentage to start the year has brought offensive firepower to the second middle blocker position. It is difficult to keep pace with a two-time All-American like senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, but Caffey’s production has been valuable.
An efficient middle offense always relies on good passing, and the Huskers are using another new roster addition to help anchor their backcourt.
True freshman Keonilei Akana, a defensive specialist from Hawaii, has filled the spot vacated by Megan Miller after the two-year starter transferred to Northwestern. Akana has 38 digs in 20 sets played this year, while also adding six aces and five assists.
Aside from playing floor defense, Akana is given the responsibility of passing serves for a head coach that has emphasized the importance of serve receival for over two decades. So far, she has preserved and protected her spot in the lineup with her impressive start to the season.
Starting as a true freshman usually comes with some struggles, though, and Akana has already worked through on-court adversity. After Nebraska’s first match against Maryland, Cook described how the defensive specialist grew throughout the match.
“She got tentative during that match,” Cook said. “Again, she pulled herself out of it. It’s her first home college match as a freshman. I’ve seen her do that before.”
Cook has continued to incorporate other players off the bench to give the Huskers situational advantages. True freshman setter Anni Evans has been present on the floor in two sets this season as part of a blocking substitution with Sweet. Evans had a crucial service ace in the first meeting against Maryland and recorded an assist on match point the following night. Redshirt freshman defensive specialist Emma Gabel has gotten match reps, too, as she was subbed into the backcourt during the Rutgers series.
Though the incorporation of new faces into the lineup has yielded a 6-0 record and only two set losses, the schedule gets much tougher from here. Up next for Nebraska is a home series against fifth-ranked and undefeated Minnesota. The renovated Husker roster will face its first big test.
Nebraska’s experienced starters are familiar with these big matches. The outcome of those contests, however, may depend on those who haven’t had much time in the spotlight.