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Michella Chester | NCAA.com | September 23, 2021

Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook gives the inside scoop on all those lineup changes

Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook gives the inside scoop on all his lineup changes

The Nebraska volleyball program has a long history of success, as we all know, and coach John Cook has led the Huskers to four national championships (2000, 2006, 2015, 2017), six NCAA finals appearances, nine semifinal appearances and plenty, plenty more. He is the fifth winningest coach in NCAA history. 

It is Nebraska volleyball, after all. Expectations are always high. 

After what was a strange COVID-19 season for pretty much everyone, the 2021 season began this fall with the hopes of a return to normalcy. The Huskers brought back fifth year senior Lexi Sun, Nicklin Hames at the setter position and Lauren Stivrins, a first-team All American middle blocker who underwent surgery at the end of the last season and has yet to return to play. 

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But on top of that, they brought in six incoming freshmen, including some of the top recruits in the country: Lindsay Krause, the No. 2 recruit coming into this season and No. 1 outside hitter, Ally Batenhorst, the No. 3 overall recruit, Whitney Lauenstein, the No. 16 overall recruit, and Lexi Rodriguez, a libero/defensive specialist and the No. 10 overall recruit. 

That is a lot of new talent all at once, and all vying for a spot. But the beginning of the season wasn't all rainbows. Nebraska lost three consecutive matches to Utah, Stanford and Louisville right before the beginning of conference play, and Cook had 12 different players start at least one set in the past 10 matches. 

"That has to be a record for Nebraska ... me and Nebraska volleyball," Cook said. "Usually we just get seven players and go, wow, that is a crazy stat. I had no idea."

He is right, considering only eight players started a set in 2019 in 33 matches, and nine started a set in 2020-21 in 19 matches. This year has been very different from past seasons, though, as Cook has been shuffling around lineups, trying out different players set after set and trying to find a permanent solution. 

His first order of business was to find an opposite hitter — a position that none of his players had a ton of experience with. It is a question mark that Cook mentioned he is still somewhat uncertain of. The second decision was figuring out the middle hitter situation with Stivrins sidelined. Cook mentioned that she is close to a return, but they knew she wouldn't be there early on and they need a solution there. Lastly, there is the left side, and Cook wanted to find a player that would step up over there.

"What happened though was we went through all this non-conference play and and nobody really emerged," Cook said. "Everybody was pretty much even so it didn't help me. So there's been a lot of waking up the middle of the night wondering what's our best lineup and how do we proceed with who's earned it?" 

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The next question for Cook was simple — does he have a lineup now that he is comfortable with? Or will Nebraska fans still have more shuffling around to look forward to in the future as the Huskers enter Big Ten play? Cook said that he wanted to say yes and stick to one lineup, but that he also knows they have very talented players that need to learn to compete every day or get taken out.

"I think we'll try to stay with a lineup here a little longer than maybe we normally would and let them go, but I don't know, it's a tricky situation coaching and one I'm not used to all that much."

As far as the six freshmen that entered the program, Cook mentioned that the seniors Strivrins, Sun, Hames and Kenzie Knuckles did an immaculate job of taking them under their wings. The Nebraska volleyball program is full of traditions and expectations of success, so it was on the seniors to immerse the new players in that. This season, they have a theme of "our roots run deep," and the six new players have now become a part of that. 

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But when it comes to their time on the volleyball court, Cook said he has seen "the moments of greatness, and then I see freshmen."

These are the freshmen moments they are trying to work through and teach from, and they had plenty of those moments as they faced four consecutive tough opponents and suffered three back-to-back losses at the end of non-conference play.

"Sometimes it's hard if you don't win — you think, 'OK, did we over schedule or is it too tough?' But to me it's the only way to prepare for the Big Ten conferences. You have to go through some of those non-conference matches that are going to be the level of the Big Ten," Cook said.

Despite a tough three-loss streak, the team has responded well, according to Cook. They don't feel sorry for themselves and realize that they need to find a way to win close games. 

The Huskers played their first Big Ten conference matchup against Northwestern and pulled out a four-set win. Cook went with a starting lineup that included junior outside hitter Madi Kubik, freshman outside hitter Ally Batenhorst and freshman right-side hitter Lindsay Krause out of the five hitters. That meant Sun, a fifth-year senior outside hitter, and freshman right-side hitter Whitney Lauenstein did not start. 

As Cook noted, he is not entirely sure if this will be his go-to lineup going forward. But he wants to give it a shot. This will be crucial as in conference play, which Cook said is the plain and simple Big Ten grind. 

"Every match is is tough, I mean, you can throw out all the records, who's ever done what in non-conference and now it is going to be a great test and you've got to bring your A-game if you want to be competitive and have a chance to win," Cook said. "So just understanding that mindset I think is one of the biggest things competing in this conference."

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