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Nebraska volleyball in rush to max out new lineup in hopes of reaching Final Four

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One of John Cook’s favorite locker room speeches occurs when Nebraska is one of four teams still practicing for the NCAA Tournament.

When it’s just 16 teams still left, it’s pretty meaningful, too.

“It’s a big deal,” the Nebraska coach said. “Especially with college volleyball now how competitive it is. There is a lot of great teams.”

Nebraska advanced with a four-set win against Kansas in the second round on Friday.

The Huskers have advanced to 11 consecutive NCAA regionals, the second-longest active streak in the country (Texas has 17).

Now it gets much more difficult, with Nebraska having to win two matches on the road in Louisville, Kentucky, this week to make the Omaha Final Four.

The seventh-ranked Huskers play No. 9 Oregon in the Sweet 16 on Thursday. It could be a challenging match for the Huskers. Oregon (25-5) has a 15-match winning streak, tied for the best in program history. The Ducks will be the highest-ranked team Nebraska has faced in the Sweet 16 since 2014 when the Huskers upset No. 3 Washington.

Right now Nebraska is in a rush to see how quickly it can get to a Final Four-worthy level with a new lineup after defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles suffered a season-ending knee injury during the final week of the regular season.

The lineup Nebraska used against Kansas — Nicklin Hames and Anni Evans playing in a two-setter rotation, and outside hitter Ally Batenhorst playing back-row defense — was the first time that group had been together since Knuckles’ injury.

That’s because Hames also missed two matches due to an injury after getting hit in the head during a recent match against Wisconsin.

“It would be nice to get in a lineup and stick with it,” Cook said. “This was a short week. Nicklin was out. We didn’t have a lot of time to train. The more we can play in a lineup the better we’ll get.”

Cook said it’s a work in progress trying to carry on without Knuckles in the areas she impacted — serve-receive, digs and serving.

“We miss her,” Cook said. “(In set three against Kansas) we broke down in the back row, ball handling and passing. That’s where somebody like Kenzie can be a difference-maker. Ally has got to learn how to grind for three hours back there going all the way around. Madi (Kubik) carries a big load. She’s got to know that she’s going to touch a lot of balls, and the better she touches those things for us the better we’ll be.”

But Nebraska’s serve-receive was solid enough in the first and second rounds that Nebraska could utilize its middle blockers well.

In wins against Delaware State and Kansas, Husker middle blockers Kaitlyn Hord and Bekka Allick combined for 24 kills with a .428 hitting percentage.

“We’re tough when we can run middle,” Cook said.

Not only did sophomore right-side hitter Lindsay Krause have the match-point kill against Kansas, she’s had a great start to the tournament overall. Krause has 23 kills on a .417 hitting percentage through the first two NCAA Tournament matches.

Against Kansas, Batenhorst was aced just once over 18 receptions. And her serving was excellent, with just one error over a team-most 18 attempts.

“Ally went back there under pressure and hit some tough serves,” Cook said. “I think she had them out-of-system every time. Those are some things for these guys to build on.”

Hames’ return could be key, giving Nebraska an experienced setter who has helped the Huskers reach the national championship match twice in her career.

She also missed seven matches earlier in the season with a back injury.

“This season has definitely been up-and-down, so it’s hard to not be able to help your team,” Hames said. “So I’m just super-grateful that the (athletic) trainers got me back, and I’m able to play again.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Husker volleyball/women's basketball reporter

Brent Wagner has worked at the Journal Star for 19 years, including 11 years covering the Nebraska volleyball program. His other beats include Nebraska women’s basketball, high school cross country and high school soccer.

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