In 2019, Nebraska played its final home match against Missouri. The Tigers gave the Huskers all they could handle but fell 3-1. Nebraska junior middle blocker Kayla Caffey was a Tiger at the time, and did not play in the second round match due to a suspension.
Maybe Caffey’s presence would’ve helped the Tigers pull off the upset, as she hit over .400 as a redshirt sophomore and was one of the most efficient hitters in the country. A year and some change later, Caffey returned to Lincoln in a different uniform.
“Coach Cook reached out to me and I really liked a lot about his coaching philosophy,” Caffey said during a Feb. 9 press conference. “I got to walk through what a day the life of a Nebraska volleyball player looked like. It’s pretty night and day. The facilities, training and coaching are pretty awesome.”
On Feb. 6, Nebraska played its second home match of the season against winless Maryland. Caffey had a good all-around performance, having a hand in five of Nebraska’s six blocks, notching eight kills and hitting .538.
Caffey’s third-set performance was particularly impressive, in which she recorded five kills, including the final match point where she seemed to hang in the air before striking down the final kill of the night.
“She’s got a great arm and great vision. Those two things are hard to coach,” Cook said. “She has a very fast arm and she can hit it in all directions and in different body positions. She’s got a great arm.”
Caffey has started three matches so far this season, sitting one out due to injury concerns, and has hit .342 with 20 kills as the team’s second middle blocker.
This is a small sample size, but reason for optimism. Despite standing six foot, Caffey puts less pressure on the outside hitters when she rotates into each set due to being a much more effective hitter. That lets Nebraska’s offense go more toward a vision Cook wants with a much more balanced attack as seen in the most recent match against Maryland.
“[Caffey] didn’t really run much stuff behind the setter off one leg at Missouri, “ Cook said in a Feb. 9 press conference. “We wanted to develop that because you have to be able to do that in the Big Ten. She’s gotten really good at that. We’ve tried to take advantage of her speed and arm and her movement.”
The balanced attack lacked at times in 2019 due to inconsistent attack from now junior middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach. Schwarzenbach hit just .260, over a .1 dropoff from senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins .374 in 2019.
Despite the offensive drop-off, Schwarzenbach was an anchor in the middle. Schwarzenbach stands at 6-foot-5, five inches taller than Caffey, and was one of the premier Big Ten blockers in her first two seasons at Nebraska.
Schwarzenbach has 186 blocks through 149 sets in her first two seasons in conference play, good for about 1.2 blocks per set. Schwarzenbach finished ninth in blocks per set in the Big Ten in 2019 and second in 2018 throughout Big Ten play.
While Caffey has fit into Nebraska offensively and adds another dimension, Caffey also has to replace the defensive production over the last two seasons at Nebraska.
Cook described Caffey, in his Feb. 9 press conference, as ‘way behind’ defensively when he first saw her practice in August 2020. One thing in particular that needed improvement was her blocking, according to Cook.
In Caffey’s 2019 season, she had 75 blocks in 93 sets. Before Caffey’s arrival, associate head coach Tyler Hildebrand returned to Nebraska in January of 2020 after a two-year hiatus.
Hildebrand also coaches the middle blockers and has proven to be one of Caffey’s most valuable assets in her time here. Hildebrand taught Caffey a lot more that has shown differences in training from her time at Missouri.
“A huge difference, mostly coming from Tyler Hildebrand … he’s really allowed me to fully use my athleticism,” Caffey said. “Blocking wise, I’ve just learned a lot of new things … using my full athleticism, split stepping. It’s a whole new world honestly at Nebraska. It’s pretty night and day from the training I’ve received previously.”
The trust in Caffey has paid off so far, as she had five block assists in Nebraska’s win over Maryland. Caffey’s height has not been an issue as she’s had two games with at least five block assists.
At Missouri, Caffey had only four such games through her 2019 campaign with at least five block assists. With her offensive ability, the Husker offense has not missed a beat when senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, the team’s top offensive weapon, leaves the floor.
Still, there are hurdles up ahead that will test Caffey and possibly push Cook to rotate Schwarzenbach more into regular season games. The most obvious challenge is Wisconsin on Feb. 26 and 27, who features 6-foot-8 All-American senior middle blocker Dana Rettke, but other stronger Big Ten opponents await as well.
The experiment with Caffey may continue to pay off, but Cook acknowledged that Caffey is on the smaller side of Big Ten middle blockers.
“We’ll see how it goes, but she’s a dynamic jumper and very good athlete,” Cook said. “We’re trying to train her how to block successfully in the Big Ten. We’ll see how it goes, but so far she’s done some nice things.”