LINCOLN — John Cook began preparing the captains for his volleyball team back in January.
He knew at that time this year’s team was going to be unique.
“This is the first year we’ve not had a senior since I’ve been here,” Cook said. “I don’t know previously before that. So I recognized we didn’t have seniors so we had to go out and find ways to develop captains.”
So he singled out junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and sophomore setter Nicklin Hames as possible captains. The trip to Asia this summer solidified that decision.
“We started in January and I chose Nicklin and Lauren. We worked with them,” Cook said Friday at the team’s annual media day. “We started developing a leadership mindset and expectations for what a leader is in this program and carried that into Asia this summer, gave them a lot of responsibility and they handled it really well. At the end of the Asia trip it was pretty obvious that they were going to be our captains.”
It’s an honor that Stivrins and Hames take seriously.
“It’s honestly an honor when you look back at all the people who have been here at Nebraska,” Hames said. “They’ve all been great people and great captains. We really looked up to Mikaela (Foecke) and Kenzie (Maloney) last year.”
Stivrins was equally flattered with the honor.
“I’ve been here for quite some time and I’ve gotten to see some really great volleyball players and people come through this program,” Stivrins said. “So to be recognized as one of those is really amazing. I’m super excited to see what this team can do this year.”
For Hames, it’s nothing new. She’s been a leader throughout her volleyball career at every level. Still, Cook’s talk to her about being a captain caught here a bit by surprise.
“When he told me about it, I was kind of shocked and a little nervous at first because I was so young and I hadn’t been in the program for so long,” Hames said. “But my teammates have been super supportive about it and they all trust me and that gives me a lot of confidence to lead them.
“Having Lauren by my side, she’s been here for a couple of years more than I have and she’s one of the greatest hitters I’ve ever seen.”
Cook said he looks for setters when he recruits that can be leaders. That’s what he saw from Hames at a young age.
“Anytime you can have your setter be a captain, it’s a huge advantage because they’re running the show,” Cook said. “We tell our setters they’re driving the car and everyone is along for the ride. So you want them in that leadership role.”
Stivrins took a different route to being a captain. She came on strong at middle blocker last season when she was a first-team All-America and All-Big Ten pick with 2.36 kills and 1.17 blocks per set while serving 25 aces. She hit .421 during the season, the third-highest mark in school history and second best during the rally scoring era.
Stivrins delivered 19 kills in the loss to Stanford in the national championship match.
Cook said Stivrins was more of a follower who was just having fun playing early in her career.
“Lauren has been through the grind here,” Cook said. “She started off and didn’t play. She’s become an All-American. She works really hard, she improves all the time and I felt like her team really respects her because she’s a competitor.
“I thought the combination of those two would be good. We’ll find out.”
They have big shoes to fill for the Huskers. Last year’s team lost two valuable seniors in first-team All-American outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and libero Maloney.
“They went to four straight final fours and won two natys,” Cook said.
But the Huskers do return some other experienced players from last year’s team that went 29-7 NCAA runner-up team.
Sophomore Capri Davis saw considerable action. She played in 26 matches and provided 79 kills for the season.
Megan Miller played in 29 matches with nine starts as a freshman defensive specialist a year ago.
Lexi Sun, a transfer from Texas, made her presence felt for the Huskers. She missed the first few matches while recovering from an injury, but ended up second on the team with 3.11 kills per set as a sophomore to earn honorable mention All-America honors.
Junior Jazz Sweet averaged 2.24 kills and .78 blocks as the Huskers’ right side hitter last season.
Junior Anezka Sabo is back after missing much of last season with an injury. She is back at her natural spot after training as a middle blocker last year when the Huskers were short at that position.
Callie Schwarzenbach, a 6-5 sophomore from Kearney, Missouri, set a Nebraska school record for freshman with 177 ace blocks, the eighth-highest total by a Husker in the rally-scoring era.
Hayley Dinsberger, a junior from Malcolm, played in 32 matches a year ago as a serving specialist and delivered 16 aces for the season.
Chen Abramovich, a defensive specialist from Israel, also returns.
The Huskers have six freshmen looking to contribute this season. That includes Kenzie Knuckles (DS/L, Yorktown, Indiana), Emma Bagel (DS/L, Lincoln Pius X), Madi Kubik (OH, West Des Moines), Nicole Drewnick (Setter, Dallas), Fallon Stutheit (MB, Johnson) and Riley Zuhn (MB/OH, Fort Collins, Colorado).
“Really good group,” Cook said of the freshmen. “They went to Asia and didn’t bat an eye. They handled it really well. We were rotating lineups and we didn’t miss a beat.”