LINCOLN — John Cook has finally settled on a starting lineup.
After four weeks of tinkering, Cook said Monday that he knows the lineup he'll use to start Big Ten play this week — he just wasn't ready to publicly reveal it yet.
He said settling on a consistent group going forward will allow the team to jell so players aren't looking over their shoulders when they make mistakes.
"There's a saying, 'Men battle to bond, and women bond to battle.' By mixing things up like that, we don't get that core group that they're used to having," Cook said. "I can look them in the eye and say I've given everybody a chance, and that was part of the risk, and now we know we have to dial it up."
Nebraska has appeared to settle into a rotation in the back row with freshman Lexi Rodriguez playing libero in every match, sophomore Keonilei Akana subbing in for the opposite hitter and junior Kenzie Knuckles playing back row for an outside hitter.
At setter, Nicklin Hames has played every match since she returned from an ankle injury that kept her out the first week. Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach are locked in at middle blocker until Lauren Stivrins returns from her back injury.
The only uncertainty left is at the pins.
The Huskers have mixed five players for three spots among senior Lexi Sun, junior Madi Kubik and freshmen Ally Batenhorst, Lindsay Krause and Whitney Lauenstein. Krause has played on both the left and right, and Lauenstein has exclusively played opposite.
Each of those five hitters has attempted at least 100 attacks this season, but none are terminating at a rate above .200. Nebraska ranks last in the Big Ten with a .206 hitting percentage and 12.32 kills per set.
Kubik said having more defined roles will help the offense play better.
“For all, clarity is a great thing,” she said. “It's just gonna help to start grooving that rotation and finding this place where we can be really comfortable and know how to play next to each other.”
Cook said the only solution is to keep training.
The Huskers are trying to run a faster offense, which has caused growing pains, but no one has stepped up to solidify a starting lineup spot yet.
We have to "find three that want to do it," Cook said. "Part of it is setting. Part of it is timing. It's rhythm, it's confidence, a lot of things. Something's got to work itself out."
Following three straight losses, the Huskers had a players-only meeting to clear the air and refocus as the Big Ten season begins.
While the conversation was difficult, Kubik said it was necessary. It was made possible by the trust-building the players did over the summer and the desire to improve the situation.
“We kind of had a come to Jesus (meeting), and we can't just be like, ‘Hey, it's a fluke — we're Nebraska volleyball,'” Kubik said. “Sometimes we get this thought of who we are, what our legacy is, but we haven't done anything yet. I think instilling a fire in us and we're trying to hold each other really accountable.”
As a result of the conversation, the players created a set of rules for practice that if violated result in consequences. For example, if a player misses two serves in a row, they have to do a rollover or bear walk the length of the court. Kubik said the goal is for the players to provide the enforcement, no matter if they are a freshman or a super senior.
Leaving Louisville behind
Cook was quite blunt in his assessment of how the Huskers performed in Saturday's straight-set loss to Louisville.
"I had to pull out my barf bag," he said.
Cook said he didn't recognize the team on the court from what he's seen in the practice gym.
"I don't know if it was nerves, pressure, (former player and assistant coach) Dani (Busboom Kelly) coming back, or Louisville playing great. We didn't perform; nobody did," he said. "There's not really one positive from that match for us."
After senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey was hit in the face by a ball coming off a Louisville block, she needed to come out of the match to recover.
In stepped sophomore Kalynn Meyer. She left a mark on the match with two kills on four swings and three blocks, including a solo stuff, in her one set of action.
“She did great,” Cook said. “She brought energy, and she’s a competitor.”
No redshirt decision
The only Nebraska player who hasn’t appeared in a match is freshman Rylee Gray. She was injured for the Red-White scrimmage and the first week of the season but has dressed for the remaining matches.
Cook said he hasn’t made a decision on her status for the rest of the season.
“Rylee's not ready to play,” he said. “It's not a question of redshirting; it is she’s not ready to play, so she's not going to be in there.”