This article was originally published in the August 2021 Back to School edition of The DN.
Nebraska’s 2020 fall sports season was anything but typical. After all, three of the four fall sports waited until the spring of 2021 to compete, and none took place in front of a full-capacity crowd of Husker fans.
As things return to normal with football, volleyball, cross country and soccer once again scheduled to take place in the fall in front of expected full-capacity crowds, each team has its challenges to face in 2021.
The Husker football team is seeking to shake off its inconsistencies and reach its first bowl game since 2016. After an earlier than anticipated exit in the postseason, the volleyball team hopes to use its experience to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Cross country looks to overcome the departure of one of the program’s greatest runners, while the young and talented women’s soccer team appears eager to kick off a rebuild.
Here’s a deeper look into each of those teams.
The Huskers fell below expectations in 2020, finishing 3-5 for their fourth consecutive losing season.
However, the 2021 season will look a lot different. Nebraska is slated to play a full regular season with non-conference games after the Big Ten made the decision in the previous season to play a conference-only schedule. In addition, a full crowd will return to Memorial Stadium in the fall after the team played in front of an extremely limited crowd in 2020.
Defensive experience will be key for the Huskers in 2021. Nebraska returns nine starters from 2020’s defense, including the team’s leading tackler, senior outside linebacker and Pro Football Focus preseason All-American JoJo Domann, and second team All-Big Ten junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt.
Besides the returning starters, transfers are also looking to make an impact for the Husker defense. Junior linebacker and Northern Iowa transfer Chris Kolarevic impressed coaches in the spring. Kolarevic looks to fill the void left by senior inside linebacker Will Honas’ injury, and sophomore defensive back Tyreke Johnson, an Ohio State transfer and former five star recruit, looks to compete for the second starting corner spot alongside Taylor-Britt.
Offensively, junior quarterback Adrian Martinez returns for his fourth season as Nebraska’s starting signal caller. Martinez split time with quarterback Luke McCaffrey last season, but after McCaffrey’s transfer to Louisville and later Rice, Martinez should have the starting spot locked up barring any injuries.
Martinez’s veteran leadership will be key with several new faces and underclassmen expected to earn playing time in the Huskers’ offense. Martinez only threw four touchdown passes in 2020, but he was also the team’s leading rusher with seven running scores.
A main factor in the Huskers’ struggles last season was inefficiency in the red zone. They only scored touchdowns in 51% of their trips last season. Nebraska lost three one-possession games in 2020, and better conversions in red zone trips will be key in flipping close losses to wins.
Overall, the Huskers pair an experienced defense with an offense full of unproven, potentially exciting playmakers. If Nebraska can reverse its misfortunes in close games, Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost could have his first bowl-eligible team as Nebraska’s head man.
Athlete to watch: Samori Toure, WR
For the second straight season, the Huskers lost their leading receiver to the transfer portal, with Wan’Dale Robinson leaving after putting up 461 yards and a touchdown in 2020. Samori Toure, a transfer from Montana, has the talent to fill the gap as Nebraska’s top offensive weapon.
While at Montana, Toure exploded for 303 yards and three touchdowns in an FCS playoff game against Southeast Louisiana, breaking an FCS playoff receiving yards record previously held by Pro Football Hall of Famer Randy Moss.
Toure’s 6-foot-3-inch frame gives the Huskers some much-needed size at receiver, and he should nicely complement 6-foot-4-inch JUCO transfer Omar Manning, who missed most of last season due to injury and personal reasons.
Key matchup: Illinois
In a rare “week zero” game, the Huskers open their season on Aug. 28 with a chance for a big conference win. A victory would give the Huskers a road win over an Illinois team that stunned Nebraska 41-23 last season, and it would also put the Huskers on track to a 3-0 record heading into the rivalry showdown against football powerhouse Oklahoma.
Illinois brings in an experienced new coach, former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema. The Fighting Illini also return several starters from the team that delivered the aforementioned three-score victory in Lincoln last season. Chief among those returning is senior quarterback Brandon Peters, who threw for 205 yards and a touchdown in Illinois’ 2020 victory while also adding a rushing touchdown.
With Big Ten heavyweights Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa finishing off the schedule for Nebraska, getting a conference win to open the season will be important for building early momentum and will make the path to bowl eligibility much easier.
Volleyball season returns to the fall in 2021 after COVID-19 forced the 2020 fall season to be moved to the spring.
The Huskers had a successful spring 2021 campaign, going 14-2 in the regular season before falling to Texas in the Regional Final of the NCAA Tournament.
Nebraska’s path back to the tournament is helped by the return of senior outside hitter Lexi Sun, who is using the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to come back for her “super-senior” season. Sun earned All-Big Ten first team honors for her performance last season and led the team in both kills and service aces.
Nebraska also returns a key piece in junior setter Nicklin Hames. Hames had the best year of her career in 2021, leading the Huskers to a .270 hitting percentage, and her 10.91 assists per set ranked first in the Big Ten. The season earned Hames a spot on the AVCA All-American second team, the first All-American honors of her career.
Along with an experienced crop of upperclassmen, Nebraska also boasts the No. 1 recruiting class in the country with several freshmen ready to make an impact. Among these impact freshmen is outside hitter Ally Batenhorst, winner of the 2020-2021 Gatorade National Player of the Year, an award won by Sun in 2016-2017.
Also joining the Huskers is the No. 2 recruit of the 2021 class, outside hitter Lindsay Krause from Omaha’s Skutt Catholic High School. Krause helped lead Skutt to four Class B state championships in high school, and she hit a remarkable .475 in her senior season.
With plenty of returning talent and one of the best recruiting classes in program history, the Huskers have a great shot at making another deep postseason run.
Key matchup: Wisconsin
The Big Ten is one of the elite volleyball conferences in the country, and the Badgers’ recent performances put them at the top of the Big Ten pecking order.
Wisconsin is coming off back-to-back conference championships and three straight appearances at the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
Both games against Nebraska in the 2020 season were canceled due to health and safety protocols, so the Huskers will have their first chance to get revenge on the team that knocked them out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament when Wisconsin comes to the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Oct. 27.
Leading the Badgers is three-time All-American senior middle blocker Dana Rettke. Rettke led the team in blocks per set and is one of five super-seniors returning back to the Badgers for an extra year of eligibility.
Wisconsin has taken control of the Big Ten the past few seasons, and the Badgers’ return to Lincoln will be a great test to see how the Huskers match up against the best of the best.
The Husker cross country team will be under new leadership for the 2021 fall season. Former recruiting coordinator Matt Wackerly took over in June for David Harris, who retired after 10 years at the helm.
The Nebraska men’s cross country team had a breakout season in the spring of 2021, finishing fifth in the Big Ten and reaching No. 4 in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Midwest Region, the highest rank in program history. Nebraska excelled in the unorthodox 2020 season, which only featured the Big Ten Championship and the NCAA Championship.
A big reason for the Huskers’ success, junior George Kusche, will not be with the team in the fall after transferring to defending national champions Northern Arizona University. In the spring season, Kusche became the first-ever individual Big Ten cross country champion for the Huskers. The men’s cross country team has improved their finish in the Big Ten for five straight years, a task that becomes more difficult in 2021 with the departure of Kusche.
The top finisher on the women’s team, senior Erika Freyhof, will return to lead the Huskers in 2021. Freyhof placed sixth at the Big Ten Championship and was named first team All-Big Ten. At the NCAA Championships, Freyhof placed 86th, the highest finish of any Husker, success she hopes to improve upon in 2021.
Athletes to watch: Dais Malebana & Grace Pagone
The Nebraska men’s cross country team has big shoes to fill after Kusche’s departure, and junior Dais Malebana seems fit for the challenge.
Malebana finished 19th at the Big Ten Championships in the 6K and kept pace with the front of the pack for the majority of the race in the 8K. With the Huskers’ top runner leaving the team, the opportunity is ripe for Malebana to lead the team and make a push towards a top ten conference finish.
While Freyhof is the most accomplished runner on the Husker women’s cross country team, the roster is filled with talent primed to improve in 2021. Among those is junior Grace Pagone, the second Husker to finish after Freyhof at the Big Ten Championships. Pagone saved her best performance of the season for last, posting a personal best time of 21:55.6 in the 6K at the Big Ten Championships. The time improved her finish from 109th in 2019 to 53rd in 2020.
The women’s cross country team has bettered its conference finish for four consecutive seasons, and improvement from runners like Pagone could see this trend continue in 2021.
Similar to the volleyball and cross country teams, the Nebraska women’s soccer 2020 season was delayed until spring 2021.
In the abbreviated 2021 season, the Huskers struggled, placing 11th in the conference with a record of 2-5-3. The season met an unorthodox end for Nebraska, with the Huskers being eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament due to health and safety concerns.
In 2021, the Huskers’ schedule returns to normal, with eight non-conference contests along with a ten-game Big Ten slate. The women’s soccer team will be the first fall sport to return to the field, kicking off their season with an exhibition game against South Dakota on Aug. 11.
Among those leading the Huskers this season is freshman forward Eleanor Dale. Dale was electric in the 2020-21 season before missing the second half of the year with an injury. The freshman from Billingham, England, scored two goals in her five matches and led the Huskers on the season with nine shots on goal.
The Huskers hope they have another impact freshman on their hands in forward Sarah Weber. In her career at Gretna High School, Weber was a two-time Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year and scored a remarkable 48 goals in her senior season.
Athlete to watch: Makinzie Short, goalkeeper
Sophomore goalkeeper Makinzie Short had a breakout season in 2021, starting all 10 games in goal for the Huskers. After only playing 18 minutes in goal in 2019, Short adjusted to the starting role well, saving 66.7% of shots faced and lowering her average goals allowed per game from 4.93 to 1.48.
Short managed four clean sheets last year, including a shutout draw against No. 24 Rutgers where she saved a career-high nine shots.
After stopping four shots in the shutout victory against Iowa in the regular season finale, Short became the first Husker goalie to win the Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Week since 2018.
The Husker fall sports season is shaping up to be an exciting and interesting one. Each team has key goals in their sights and is filled with talent that will thrill the Husker fans as they return in person this fall.