This is a unique spring volleyball season for Nebraska, with no spring match to play and not much in terms of fierce position battles.
But that’s not to say there isn’t competition, with some of that coming in a fun way with a boxing championship belt being awarded to the player of the day after each practice.
The Huskers are into the fourth and final week of spring practice, and will practice 18 times. In recent years the Huskers have played one match against an NCAA Division I opponent to end the spring season.
But with the Huskers’ current situation at setter, coach John Cook didn’t think it was possible to play a spring match. Kelly Hunter, who played her final season for Nebraska in 2017, is training with the team, but NCAA rules prevent her from playing outside competition. Last year's backup, Hunter Atherton, announced in January that she planned to transfer, and she hasn’t been training with the team. She recently announced that she’ll transfer to North Carolina.
The team’s situation at setter will improve in June, when freshman Nicklin Hames arrives, and Nebraska will probably also have a transfer at the position. Walk-on outside hitter Jasmine Schmidt, who got an extended tryout this spring, has been setting the B side in practice.
After each practice the coaches award the belt for that day. The player gets to keep the belt in her locker until the next practice, and the coaches post their photo on Twitter.
Senior-to-be Kenzie Maloney likes the incentive of the championship belt.
“I think it makes practice competitive,” Maloney said. “Even though we’re all working together, it’s kind of like one person wants to be the one to get the belt.”
Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said it’s good to have something to work for when they’re isn’t a match coming up.
“There is nothing on the line for us, so having something extra brings out the competitiveness in each of us. It’s fun,” Stivrins said.
Maloney is a two-time winner. She had a good feeling one day the belt was coming her way.
“One day for sure I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I've got it today,’” she said. “I just felt like everything I was doing was good that day. I brought a lot of energy, and I felt people feeding off my energy.”
Stivrins and Hayley Densberger have also won it twice each. Other winners include Jazz Sweet, Anezka Szabo, Chesney McClellan, Sami Slaughter and Schmidt.
Cook got the idea for the award after seeing something similar during a tour of Hudl’s offices, which has a weekly award for employees. Cook had an awards store make the belt, which includes, “EDMF” on the front. What that stands for is staying in-house, though.
“The slogan stands for someone who just brings it every day,” Maloney said. “And if you get it, then that means you brought it the most that day.”
The player of the day award has served its purpose, Cook said.
“They love it,” he said. “They get their picture taken, and it goes viral. You can see the smile on their face. I like stuff like that.”
While not unprecedented, this has been a unique spring. There are some days when there are only nine players participating in practice who will be on the team next season, with the Huskers also using graduated players in Annika Albrecht and Hunter, and the male practice players.
Cook’s priority for the spring is to develop last season’s large freshman class of Slaughter, Sweet, Densberger, McClellan and Szabo.
“We’re really trying to push them to another level, that’s the theme for me,” Cook said.
The players are also focusing on the team dynamics, making sure there will be a good foundation in June when the Huskers add four freshmen, transfer outside hitter Lexi Sun and probably a transfer setter to the team.
“It’s just a totally new dynamic, just because we lost so many seniors, and me and Mikaela (Foecke) are the only two seniors on the team right now, and then there are no juniors,” Maloney said. “It’s kind of been like we need more team building this spring than we have since I’ve been here. So we’ve been working on off-the-court relationships a lot.”
Foecke hasn’t been hitting this spring due to arm pain at the end of last season. She’s still in practice, playing defense and serving. She’ll start hitting again in June.
“We’re letting her rest, and build up her strength,” Cook said. “She was feeling it a little at the end of last season, so it’s a precautionary thing.”
A brief chronology of Nebraska volleyball belt holders