LINCOLN — Among the lessons many college freshmen learn in their first weeks out of the nest is the importance of cold water. Those doing their own laundry for the first time discover that it keeps colors bright and prevents them from running together.
It’s a lesson Madi Kubik just learned the hard way.
“We definitely washed our reds with our whites and got everything pink,” she said. “So, go Big Red.”
Kubik and fellow freshman Kenzie Knuckles got an early jump on their college volleyball careers by enrolling at Nebraska in January, giving the pair of highly decorated prep stars eight months to get acclimated to campus life before the Huskers begin fall practice in August.
The duo, who as high school seniors both earned player of the year honors in their respective states from Gatorade, are the first Huskers to graduate from high school early and join the program in January since Amber and Kadie Rolfzen arrived in Lincoln in January 2013.
Nebraska coach John Cook loves the idea of freshmen enrolling in the spring semester. They get more time to bond with teammates, participate in NU’s strength and conditioning program and get over homesickness without the pressure of the season looming. This year, Kubik and Knuckles also will travel on the team’s exhibition trip to Asia in mid-June.
“Think of all the matches they’ll get before even starting their freshman year,” Cook said.
“In a typical summer, you have two weeks and then you’re playing Florida.”
Kubik, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter ranked as the nation’s No. 4 recruit by PrepVolleyball.com, led the state of Iowa with 523 kills in 2018 as her West Des Moines Valley team went 41-4 and reached the Class 5-A state semifinals. She also was a member of the U.S. junior national team that won the NORCECA U20 continental championship in Mexico last June.
But not every recruit wants to forgo her final high school semester, Cook said. Kubik mulled the choice for a while, but then took a full class schedule as a sophomore and junior in order to have the credits necessary to graduate early.
“Right off the bat I was kind of like, ‘Ooh, that’s an option?’ I was a little bit thrown off. I didn’t know if that was in my plan,” Kubik said. “But then after thinking about it and talking it over with my parents, I recognized what an awesome opportunity it is to come in, kind of learn the system, be with the coaching staff and the team. I was 100 percent all for it.”
Knuckles said she was enthusiastic about getting to NU as soon as possible. She was named the MaxPreps national player of the year after leading Yorktown (Ind.) High to a 34-0 record and the Class 4A state championship. She put up impressive all-around numbers as a senior with 396 kills, 363 digs, 32 blocks and 30 aces according to the Muncie Star Press and will be a back-row specialist at Nebraska.
“When Coach said that was an option, I just immediately wanted to do it because I wanted to start training as soon as possible here,” Knuckles said. “I think it gives me an advantage because they do things a certain way here, so if I learn that fast enough I can pick up things.”
Knuckles comes to Nebraska already familiar with one of her college teammates. Both Knuckles and Megan Miller, a freshman last season, played for the powerhouse Munciana club program. Though Miller is a year older, both played for Munciana’s 18-and-under team several years ago. The two will likely compete to replace Kenzie Maloney as the Huskers’ starting libero this fall.
“Me and Megan have played at Munciana since we were little, so I have just grown up just knowing her,” Knuckles said. “We’ve always been super close.”
Knuckles and Kubik also bonded at December’s Under Armour All-America match held in conjunction with the NCAA final four in Minneapolis. They were roommates, and one night after Kubik was named the East team’s MVP, they cheered the Huskers as NU came up short in the national championship match against Stanford.
“We were so excited because it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s going to be us. That’s our team. Those are our people,’ ” Kubik said. “It just made us even more excited to get here and be a part of that and see what an amazing job they did there.”
Rebuilding plans for 2019
The term “rebuilding year” has become a phrase said tongue in cheek around the program after the Huskers have reached the final four in four consecutive seasons despite having to replace All-Americans and key starters each year.
But Cook, who experienced some retooling himself with a December operation to replace his left hip, said he’ll soon be meeting with returning players to lay out plans for next season. The coach mentioned several returning starters he thought could be in line for breakout seasons, including opposite hitter Jazz Sweet, outside hitter Lexi Sun, setter Nicklin Hames and middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach.
Also, hopes are high for outside hitter Capri Davis, who had shining moments as a freshman last fall while splitting rotations with Sweet.
“She’s a dynamic athlete and she’s got a great arm,” Cook said. “Obviously she got us some big kills in some huge moments. Playing beach will be way out of her comfort zone.”
Looking for big-name opponents
The end of Nebraska’s four-year run in the VERT Challenge leaves NU in search of a marquee nonconference event. Cook wasn’t ready to give specifics, but said Nebraska is nearing a deal to play several big-name opponents this fall both at home and on the road.
“Our goal in nonconference is we want to play a challenging schedule that prepares us for the Big Ten,” Cook said. “We want to play home matches for our fans and because we get 8,000 (fans). We want good teams that our fans will be excited to watch.”
Plans are a little more clear starting in 2020, when the Huskers will begin a tournament with Stanford, Kentucky and Louisville, Cook said. Kentucky (Craig Skinner) and Louisville (Dani Busboom Kelly) are both coached by former Cook assistants.
NU has beaten Kentucky in each of the past two NCAA tournaments. The Huskers haven’t faced Louisville since 2006, when Busboom Kelly was Nebraska’s starting libero.