Nebraska volleyball season in review: Defensive specialist
Husker volleyball finished as the No. 2 ranked team in the AP poll after falling to Wisconsin in the national championship game in five sets. Nebraska was ranked No. 12 at one point in the season and surged toward the end in the NCAA tournament.
In this series, HuskerOnline will break down Nebraska's season by position group based on statistics and national rankings. Next up is the Huskers' "legion of boom" as Head Coach John Cook calls his defensive specialists and libero.
Libero Lexi Rodriguez had a record-breaking season as a freshman. The 5-foot-5 defender's list of awards is long but here are some of the major ones: Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, AVCA National Freshman of the Year, AVCA All-American First Team, All-Big Ten First Team and Big Ten All-Freshman team.
Rodriquez became the second Husker to earn the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, to become an AVCA First-team All-American as a freshman and the first libero to win the AVCA National Freshman of the Year award.
The Sterling, Ill. native ranked No. 8 in the Big Ten and No. 107 in Division I volleyball with 4.33 digs per set. Rodriguez had 524 digs and 133 assists in 2021. She had a career-high 28 digs against Minnesota and Purdue and 20 digs against Texas in the Regional Finals.
Kenzie Knuckles was named a captain in the 2021 season because of the grace with which she handled a freshman taking over the libero position she held for two seasons. Knuckles became a back row threat not only due to her digging skills but also because of her hitting skills. Knuckles had 52 kills from the back row.
The soon-to-be senior had 245 digs and averaged 2.06 digs per set. Knuckles had the highest reception grade of all the Huskers with over 15 receptions. She upped .975 percent of the 408 serves that came her way.
Knuckles' leadership skills and her reliability on the court boosted the Huskers and will continue to in her senior season in 2022.
Alongside Knuckles and Rodriguez in the back row is Keonilei Akana. The Hawaii native had 302 digs and averaged 2.54 digs per set. Akana had a .941 reception grade in 2021 and allowed 23 aces, the second-most on the team behind outside hitter Madi Kubik.
The 5-foot-9 sophomore had a career-high 24 digs against Wisconsin in the national championship match. Akana had double-digit digs in four of Nebraska's six NCAA tournament matches and 19 double-digit digs performances in 2021.
Nebraska had one of the best floor defenses in the Big Ten and in Division I volleyball in 2021.
As for the Big Ten, they ranked No. 2 with a .168 opponent hitting percentage behind Wisconsin's .148. The Huskers were also No. 2 in opponent kills per set (11.20), No. 3 in opponent assists per set (10.29), No. 4 in opponent service aces (1.08) and No. 5 in digs per set (14.50).
On the national level, Nebraska ranked No. 9 in opponent hitting percentage in the NCAA. They had the second-highest percentage in the Power Five behind Louisville (.144), who made a Final Four appearance and was the top seed in the NCAA tournament. The Huskers had 2054 team digs, the tenth highest in the NCAA and in the Power Five.
Competition breeds greatness:
Nebraska has three players on their team that play at the level of a libero. Akana and Knuckles could easily be liberos in another program due to their skills.
All three of the defensive specialists talked about the competition level between each other in the form of who can keep the ball up. All three players have the mindset that no ball will drop when they are on the court.
During the rotation when Rodriguez, Akana and Knuckles are all in the back row, the competition between them ramps up: no ball hits the floor. When players are laying out for balls and making great saves, it only encourages the others to go for it.
The Huskers have one more season with this group before Knuckles graduates and the addition of fifth-year senior Nicklin Hames, who is a setter turned defensive specialist, the sky will be the limit.
Walk-on Maisie Boesiger was a setter at Norris High School but will be a defensive specialist at Nebraska. Boesiger's experience setting for one of the best Nebraska Class-B teams will not go to waste. The Huskers expect their defensive specialist to be able to set well and Boesiger has lots of experience.