Kenzie Knuckles was a high school sophomore when she verbally committed to play volleyball for Nebraska.
But that led to a time of uncertainty that we'd ever get to where we are now.
Where we are now is that when practice begins on Saturday, Knuckles is probably the front-runner to be the starting libero for the Huskers. She played in that spot for a lot of spring practice after she graduated from high school early and joined the team in January.
Knuckles is from Yorktown, Indiana. A lot of people in that area knew about Knuckles, who started all four years for her high school team as an outside hitter and helped her team win two state championships.
Even more people knew about her after Nebraska offered her a scholarship. Knuckles was the next player whom Nebraska head coach John Cook projected could be a good libero in college. While she was an athletic outside hitter in high school, because she’s only 5-foot-8, if she wanted to play for a big-time program it would probably have to be at libero. Kenzie Maloney, the Huskers’ libero the past two seasons, also had been an outside hitter in high school.
But there was a period of time where it wasn’t clear to Knuckles that Nebraska is where she would still end up because she quit playing club volleyball and wasn’t playing as much as her future college teammates.
Knuckles quit playing for her club team when she was a sophomore. It was a challenging time for her. She was grieving the death of her father, Mike, who had died from pancreatic cancer about one year earlier. She was also overwhelmed while trying to find her way playing on a club team with players one or two years older than her, and some players who are also playing for major college teams.
So she stopped playing club volleyball, and she wondered if that might also mean Nebraska might not stick with her. But why did she quit playing club?
“I think I was too young at the time,” Knuckles said. “I think that 18-year-olds could have handled it, but I don’t think a 15-year-old could have. So there were times that I was frustrated, and I had personal problems that I was trying to get through. And usually volleyball for me is something that helps me. Growing up I’ve always been somewhat good at it, so it’s just helped me get away from things, and I think once I got on that team it was adding stress into my life. So I didn’t know how to handle it, so I just decided not to play.”
Knuckles never considered playing for a team in her age group or a different club.
She says she never decommitted from Nebraska, but there were doubts from herself and others whether she would end up here.
“I never looked at a different school, but there were still times in my head where I was thinking, ‘Nebraska is the best of the best and I’m not playing club and can I still do it?’” she said.
Cook knew Knuckles was having a difficult time and told her not to make a rash decision. He said it wasn’t required that she play club, and if she graduated from high school early she wouldn’t be playing her final club season anyway.
And while she didn’t decommit, there also came a time when Knuckles had to reaffirm her commitment to the Huskers. College teams don’t use many scholarships for liberos, and when they do they need to believe they’ll be able to play early in their careers.
“Once (Cook) gave me that two-month period to think about what I wanted to do and stuff he was just like, ‘Are you sure that you want it?’” Knuckles said. “He would talk to me every two weeks and say, ‘Are you all in? I need you all in.’ Just hearing that he still had that much confidence in me, and then I came to summer camp last year. I told him, ‘I’m not the best right now and I haven’t been playing, so it’s not too good for me, but I’m going to work hard and get there.’ He was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to give up on you.’”
Now Knuckles is happy to be fully immersed in the sport at Nebraska, where she’s already gotten to travel to Hawaii, California, China and Japan. She’s become really close with her teammates, too.
Knuckles’ parents divorced when she was young, and Mike later moved to Nevada for work, but they remained close and visited each other often. He passed away in April of 2015, just four months after he told his daughter he had cancer. Knuckles was in eighth grade.
Mike died about 16 months before Knuckles committed to Nebraska, and he was very proud of her, she said.
“He was just like, ‘This is my daughter, and she won the AAU national championship,’” she said.
today marks my last high school volleyball game, the end of my hitting career, & the last game I’ll play with my amazing teammates. But I have been blessed to play in my third state championship game tonight knowing that this is ALL for you, I know you’re watching! 👼😇 pic.twitter.com/d3sJGkYO53— kenzie💛 (@kenzieknuckles) November 3, 2018