Including today, there are seven Mondays left before the start of the NCAA Women’s Division I Volleyball season. To countdown the season, VolleyMob has begun a new series as we inch closer to late August. Each of the final eight weeks, we countdown the top 8 teams in our latest preseason top 25 poll and explain why their fans should have high hopes for their national title chances. So, with seven weeks left we look to the team ranked seventh in our poll: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Bit-Too-Early Top 25:
- 8. Creighton (eight weeks left)
- 7. Nebraska (seven weeks left)
The last two seasons for Nebraska featured a National Championship, a Big Ten title and two final four appearances. They went 31-3 a season ago, but came up just short to Texas in the national semifinal. In the aftermath, Nebraska graduated three pillars and All-Americans in Amber Rolfzen, Kadie Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes. They also lost grad transfer and eight-match starter Andie Malloy. However, Nebraska doesn’t rebuild, instead they retool. If some of those talented returning pieces can mesh with a strong recruiting class, Nebraska could have a shot at a national title again in 2017.
The biggest reason that Nebraska can be put in the discussion of national title contender is the return of setter Kelly Hunter. Hunter was an AVCA Second-Team All-American and ranked 17th in the nation in assists per set (11.24). She will have two go-to options back in Mikaela Foecke and Briana Holman, who were both on the 2016 AVCA All-America Honorable Mention list. It will be interesting to see if Foecke can carry more of the offense with the Rolfzen twins gone, but if she can and shows improvement in reception (to where Nebraska doesn’t take her out) then the team’s shot at a title goes up. Annika Albrecht could be used more, as the senior-to-be outside hitter provided strong serve reception (.978 – 20 points higher than Wong-Orantes).
The other big question is how does the team replace Wong-Orantes, who is now with USA Volleyball. Kenzie Maloney is the favorite to win the job with Sydney Townsend likely remaining in a serve specialist and substitution role. Maloney is a former Second-Team Under Armour All-American and totaled 226 digs off the bench last season as a sophomore. It would be unfair to expect her to come in and repeat what Wong-Orantes gave the team, but Maloney should be able to hold her own in the Big Ten. As long as that happens, with all of the talent on offense – albeit some unproven as top options and others young – Nebraska will have a chance to beat any team on any given night.
Nebraska should have no question about the freshman talent coming in. Of the five incoming freshman, four were named Under Armour All-Americans to some extent. The two First-Team Under Armour All-Americans are Jazz Sweet, a 6’3″ outside hitter, and Chesney McClellan, a 6’4″ middle blocker. They should help plug some holes right away, as will Samantha Slaughter (Third-Team UA All-American), Anezka Szabo (UA All-America HM) and Hayley Densberger. There’s no denying that its a strong class for Nebraska, but the question becomes if they can contribute enough to pair with the returnees that it will keep Nebraska among the cream of the crop. If Nebraska can get early contributions from at least a few of the newbies and they live up to the hype, the Cornhuskers will answer a lot of questions about the 2017 team.
As always, Nebraska has their cupboard stocked full. Athletes who don’t play in years prior would start on many other teams around the country. Some of that will be utilized this season. For instance, former Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year Olivia Boender played in just 11 matches last year and averaged 2.47 kills per set. She will be a junior in 2017. Lauren Stivrins will appear for Nebraska for the first time, as the former PrepVolleyball top-10 recruit redshirted in her first year on campus in 2016. If someone of this ilk can have a breakout year, it only adds to what Nebraska brings to the table in 2017.
The wildcard in this all is Allie Havers, a 6’5″ middle blocker who will be a senior in 2017. This is actually her first season of collegiate volleyball as she spent the last four years on the Nebraska women’s basketball team. She ranks in the programs all-time top 50 in both points and rebounds, and if her height and athleticism can translate she could provide a nice piece for the Cornhuskers.
It’s an interesting year for Nebraska and head coach John Cook. They still have three AVCA All-Americans back, but with the loss of four very established players, its easy to have questions about if Nebraska can seriously contend for a National Championship in 2017. They won’t be the favorite and with some of the youth they may stumble a few times in the difficult Big Ten. However, if Hunter continues to be one of the best setters in the country, some of the other returnees improve and the freshman blend in well, the Nebraska Cornhuskers will be a serious threat to the title as they look for a third straight final four in 2017.