In a fitting end to an unprecedented season, the Nebraska volleyball program recognized its four seniors through a social media post after the team’s final home matches were canceled due to COVID-19.
Through a video released by the team, Nebraska head coach John Cook acknowledged the unusual circumstances that his veterans have encountered during their careers.
“This senior class has been through a journey here that no other Nebraska player could compare to,” Cook said.
That journey culminated in a 14-2 regular season after a conference-only slate riddled with COVID-19 cancellations. With every senior making contributions on the court this year, the Huskers have earned the fifth-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Nebraska’s history of success has often been anchored by senior leadership, and not even a pandemic-affected season could stop this trend. Senior outside hitter Lexi Sun and senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins are first and second on the team in kills, respectively. Stivrins is ranked fourth nationally in hitting percentage.
Adjacent to Sun and Stivrins in the starting rotation is senior right-side hitter Jazz Sweet. With sophomore opposite Riley Zuhn sidelined with a foot injury, Sweet has fully assumed a key role in the Nebraska offense and is hitting .295 on the year.
Senior defensive specialist Hayley Densberger has been a familiar sight in the Husker backcourt during most of her career. The walk-on from Malcolm, Nebraska, has appeared in 103 matches since she arrived on campus in 2017. Her serving specialist role has proven invaluable in several big matches, including the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s postseason will be a new-look spectacle when compared to past tournaments. A narrowed field of teams, constant quarantines and bubbles and altered practice schedules will provide Nebraska’s veterans with a completely different experience.
But, as Lauren Stivrins said in Nebraska’s senior day video, this group of seniors embodies a “different experience.”
“This senior class is diverse, to say the least,” Stivrins said. “We’ve got a little bit of everything.”
The distinctiveness of Nebraska’s seniors can be traced back to each player’s origins with the program. For Stivrins, her start came in 2016, earlier than anyone currently on the Husker roster. After committing to Nebraska as a highly touted recruit, Stivrins redshirted her first year on campus behind All-American middle blockers Briana Holman and Amber Rolfzen.
Jazz Sweet and Hayley Densberger arrived with the 2017 class while Stivrins joined the starting lineup after a year on the bench. All three provided big contributions that year en route to a national championship, including Sweet and Stivrins being fourth and fifth on the team in kills. Densberger added 10 aces.
A year later, Nebraska would get an unexpected addition to the graduating class. Sun, a former top-ranked recruit and honorable mention All-American after her freshman year with the Texas Longhorns, transferred to the Huskers before the 2018 season.
Reflecting on her own journey in Nebraska’s senior day video, Sun recalled the outpouring of fan support when she transferred to her new team.
“I was overwhelmed with messages and love from all the Husker fans,” Sun said. “Going into it, I really didn’t understand the extent of Husker nation and its support, and I definitely felt that the day that I committed.”
Sun and Stivrins have gone on to have All-American seasons with the Huskers, with the latter earning first team honors in 2018. In that same year, all four members of the senior class would see the floor during Nebraska’s national championship appearance.
Despite this group’s accomplishments, there is still much that is yet to be settled. The Huskers are preparing for their 39th consecutive tournament appearance next week. Nebraska begins postseason play on April 15 and plays against the winner of Texas State and Utah Valley.
For the seniors, though, there is an extra layer of unfinished business. The NCAA Division I Council extended eligibility for winter sports athletes last October. The decision, brought about by widespread COVID-19 postponements in collegiate athletics, means that seniors could choose to return for another season of competition.
At last week’s press conference, Cook said there have been no final decisions made on future plans for the team’s four seniors.
“We’ve had preliminary discussions about what they want to do, but nobody’s making any decisions until the season is over,” Cook said. “It may go on past that.”
Though the team would likely benefit from a return of veteran leadership in the upcoming fall season, Cook added that he would not pressure any of his seniors to come back for another year with the program.
“I’m not going to recruit them, and this is a decision on what they want to do. I think they’re waiting to see how this season goes,” Cook said. “It hasn’t been a great senior year. It’s been a pretty tough deal.”
The tough choices for Nebraska’s seniors will come after a trip up I-80 for the NCAA Tournament in Omaha. Despite the condensed crowd size and unusual format, the team’s sole focus will be on winning.
This senior class has already done a lot of that already.