Probably the biggest question for the Nebraska volleyball team this season is how the team moves on without Kelly Hunter, who set the Huskers to two national championships in her three years as a starter.
Nebraska began trying to solve that puzzle when practice began on Wednesday with two practices at the Devaney Sports Center.
The Huskers have three setters on the roster now: freshman Nicklin Hames, junior Mari Kurkova and senior Brooke Smith.
I watched the second practice of the day, a 3½-hour workout in the afternoon. I won’t predict who wins the starting setter job, or if there is an All-American setter on the roster. They all have work to be the winner Hunter was.
Hames, the No. 4 overall recruit nationally and No. 1 setter in the 2018 class, seems to have an advantage in part because she’s been here all summer. Kurkova is an international transfer who just arrived on campus last week from the Czech Republic. She may end up being a good option, too, but she’s got a lot to learn, both on and off the court.
But while watching Hames confidently and enthusiastically set the team in practice Wednesday I was reminded of an interview with Cook a few months ago. I asked Cook if he’d be comfortable with having Hames be the starting setter as a freshman.
“I may have to be, because she may be the starting setter,” Cook said then. “She’s somebody who knew Kelly was graduating and she would have an opportunity to play as a freshman and she embraced that, and that’s one of the reasons she wanted to come to Nebraska. So you like kids that are thinking like that, and want it. She has the mindset that she’s going to come in here and it’s going to be her team. But hopefully I’m going to get somebody for her to compete with.”
Hames looked like she wanted it Wednesday. Cook did get that competition with Kurkova and Smith. But on Wednesday afternoon Hames got the first, and most extensive, work, setting the No. 1 team once the Huskers finally got to some six-on-six drills.
Cook said the setters were just OK for the first part of the practice, but were “pretty good” when they got to six-on-six drills.
Cook didn’t appear to have much criticism of Hames’ setting, and that’s not because he’s soft. He was disappointed with some missed digs, and a student manager got a scolding for not having a whistle ready.
I asked Cook: What was the best compliment he could give Hames about her first day of practice?
“The best compliment I would say is that Nicklin acts like she owns the court. And she’s letting everybody know,” he said.
And Cook has no problem if that’s Hames’ attitude.
“You want your setter thinking that way. We give them the keys to the Lamborghini and everybody is along for the ride,” he said.
He said Hames’ location and tempo on her sets was pretty good.
“It takes several weeks probably to get that down,” Cook said. “One way I look at it is how many sets we had that were in the antenna or over the net, and maybe there was one or two the whole day with all of the setters, so that was pretty darn good.”
Kurkova also did some good things in practice, Cook said, but she has to avoid getting frustrated and keep learning.
Five more observations from Day One:
1. Outside hitter Lexi Sun didn't practice in the afternoon. She practiced in the morning, Cook said, but didn’t in the afternoon because she’s working back from a minor injury.
She was doing exercises on the arena steps during practice. Sun earned all-conference honors last season as a freshman at Texas.
2. It was 2 hours, 7 minutes into practice before the team did any hitting drills.
“If you can’t serve, pass and control the ball, it doesn’t matter if you can hit,” Cook said.
3. Right-side hitter Anezka Szabo got in some work at middle blocker. With only two middles on the roster the Huskers need to get an emergency backup ready.
4. Most people have no idea what it must be like to move to another country and try and play a sport at a high level. After practice, freshman defensive specialist Chen Abramovich from Israel asked Cook what "urgency" meant.
In this case, the answer is to save the ball from touching the floor like your life depends on it.
5. There were people who called last season a rebuilding year for the Huskers, and that turned out pretty well. But you won’t hear Cook calling any season a rebuilding year, even this season with eight new players.
“Because rebuilding means something was wrong and you got to rebuild what was broken,” Cook said. “I told all of those freshmen they’re all good enough to play this year, and (middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach) is playing.”