When John Cook gives praise to a freshman player, it’s often followed by a reminder that they still have room to improve.
After about one week of practice, the Nebraska volleyball coach is feeling good about the Huskers’ freshmen middle blockers — one of them will likely be a starter when Nebraska opens the season in 10 days.
The two freshmen in the mix are both top-10 national recruits with experience playing for the United States junior national team — Maggie Mendelson from Ogden, Utah; Bekka Allick from Waverly.
“Those guys get after it,” Cook said Monday. “They are not freshmen. There’s not one day that they’ve been here that I thought they were freshmen.”
Allick’s advantage in the competition is that she’s one year older and has been part of the program for about eight months since graduating early from high school. But Mendelson, who reclassified from the 2023 class to ’22, is a great athlete and has played in more matches recently while playing in a tournament with Team USA this summer.
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“Maggie has played more than anybody indoors because of the USA (tourney),” Cook said. “She closed that gap there. And Bekka of course has been here since January. That gives here an advantage as well.”
Kaitlyn Hord, the All-American transfer from Penn State, will have one of the middle blocker spots. But the other spot is the biggest competition of preseason practice, although that could extend into the season.
Also, at setter, Kennedi Orr is trying to prove she’s ready to take the spot, which would prompt a move for Nicklin Hames from setter to defensive specialist.
“(Orr) needs to get better, like everybody else,” Cook said. “Right now there is a lot of teaching going on; a lot of correcting on video. They worked out in the summer, but now every point matters, every play matters and they got to just get better and better every play.”
The Red-White Scrimmage on Saturday will be another part of the evaluation for starting spots.
“I wish we could have a starting lineup right now, but I couldn’t tell you who it is because one day I think we know it, and then the next day it changes,” Cook said. “We’re kind of letting them compete right now. I talk about the competitive part of it, and it pays to be a winner. Can you win out here? So that’s one of our themes we’re talking about is you got to win. It’s not just going through practice and looking pretty. You got to win. We’re keeping score in a lot of drills and keeping track of it.”
New leaders need to emerge: Six players are gone from last season — Lauren Stivrins, Kayla Caffey, Keonilei Akana, Lexi Sun, Callie Schwarzenbach, Kalynn Meyer and Rylee Gray.
That still leaves six players who played in the national championship match, including All-Americans Madi Kubik and Lexi Rodriguez.
“We’re just going to have to step up in different ways because we don’t have the older class,” senior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles said. “We don’t have Lauren Stivrins who knows exactly what to say and when to say it and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ So we’re going to have to have people step up in different ways that haven’t had to step up before. But the good news is that we have a lot of studs that are younger and had to play as freshmen.”
Nebraska has top-5 recruiting class: Nebraska’s incoming class of four freshmen and transfer Hord is ranked as the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation according to Volleyballmag.com. The freshmen are Hayden Kubik, Maisie Boesiger, Allick and Mendelson.
The publication says its list is voted on by an elite panel of NCAA Division I coaches. Texas was ranked No. 1 even before Caffey’s late transfer to the Longhorns.
The top-five teams, in order: Texas, USC, Nebraska, Florida and Minnesota.
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