The main objective for the person playing the libero position for the Nebraska volleyball team is to handle everything you have to do — pass serves, dig a lot of hard shots, serve, set the ball when the setter made the first touch — at a high level and help the Huskers win.
One indicator for how well the libero has played is the opponents’ hitting percentage, although the libero is just one part in that, especially on a team like No. 7 Nebraska with several good blockers and a defense-hungry setter in Nicklin Hames.
Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles has helped the Huskers stay really good on defense, with Nebraska almost always giving the opponent its worst offensive match of the season. Nebraska ranks No. 8 in the nation in defense.
Another small indicator of how well a libero did in a match is to compare her to the opposing libero, although many factors in the match can influence that. When Nebraska got its best win of the season last week against Penn State, it was Nebraska’s libero, in her first year playing the position, who had 24 digs, which was more than Penn State’s first-team All-America libero Kendall White, a fiery senior.
“I told (Kenzie) afterward, you out-dug Kendall White by seven digs. That’s pretty good,” said Nebraska coach John Cook.
Keeping the opponent's hitting percentage low is the main goal for a libero, but Cook knew it was a nice accomplishment for Knuckles. White and Knuckles each came from the same club, Munciana, in Indiana. They were never on the same team, but their teams would practice together on occasion.
“(Kenzie) grew up watching Kendall White and has heard about her probably her whole life,” Cook said.
And there was a third player in the match from that same club, Nebraska defensive specialist Megan Miller, who had 18 digs.
The libero position was one of the big questions for Nebraska after the graduation of All-American Kenzie Maloney. Cook said Knuckles has done a good job.
“I think she’s grown into her role, and I think she’s getting more confident," Cook said.
Knuckles was the Indiana high school player of the year for Yorktown High School playing outside hitter, but moved to libero in college.
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For Knuckles, her first few months as a college libero have gone well.
“It feels great,” Knuckles said. “I like it a lot, actually. I don’t miss hitting, so that’s a plus. I feel like being a libero has a lot of grit, and has a lot of other opportunities with its job, so doing all of those things, it feels good.”
Knuckles leads the Huskers with 293 digs, and it’s those saves that are her favorite plays.
“It gives our team another chance to get a swing, but serve-receive is really satisfying because the coaches always say (the kill) starts with the pass,” Knuckles said.
It’s the athleticism that Knuckles showed as a great hitter in high school that now helps her as a libero.
“(Kenzie) reads the game really, really well, and she’s very, very athletic,” said Nebraska assistant coach Kayla Banwarth. “She can cover a lot of court.”
Knuckles’ serving also has improved — she has four aces and no errors in the last four matches — and Cook says that shows her confidence is rising.
“Kayla, my ’bro coach, she told me the other day that she thinks that I look more comfortable with how I’m playing,” Knuckles said. “So that’s always good to hear because I’ve been working on that, just being aggressive and not looking like a freshman libero out there.”
Nebraska hosts Northwestern at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The Wildcats have a 1-11 record in the Big Ten, and have won just eight sets in league play.