In Lincoln, Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach John Cook might well be seething right now.
Nine days ago, the Texas Longhorns crushed the Huskerpups in Tampa for the program’s second straight national championship, leaving star outside hitter Harper Murray predicting three straight titles to end her career and Cook sounding salty about the way that Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott constructs his roster.
“You look at tonight’s match, I mean, they’ve got half their starting team are transfers. They’re all fourth- and fifth-year players, except for Ella (Swindle), the setter, who did a great job. So that’s how they’ve been building their team, that’s how they built last year’s team. I like what we’re doing — I like recruiting kids and trying to make them be great,” said Cook.
Since then, Elliott’s quest to stay older and add proven talent is paying off to the extent it could derail Murray and Cook’s plan to mature his young but immensely gifted Nebraska team into the title winners the young players already thought they were before they weren’t.
The first addition for the Longhorns came last week, and from the Cornhuskers no less, with the commitment of outside hitter Whitney Lauenstein.
The 6’2 Nebraska native has two years of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2023 season in order to “step away from the volleyball team to focus on myself and be with my family and continue to heal due to the passing of my dad,” she posted on Instagram.
Working on the right side for the Huskers in 2022, Lauenstein notched 297 kills (2.78 kills per set) and 111 blocks, second on the team in both categories, in addition to leading the Huskers with 28 service aces, earning all-region honors in the process.
Ironically enough, Cook replaced Lauenstein with Florida transfer Merritt Beason, a key, experienced addition that helped ensure Nebraska was mature enough to lose only one match before the title game.
On Tuesday, Jerritt landed commitments from two more players — Kentucky transfer outside hitter Reagan Rutherford and Baylor transfer setter Averi Carlson.
A 6’0 outside hitter from the Houston area, Rutherford is rejoining former teammate Madisen Skinner, the Texas star and fellow Kentucky transfer, in a similar homecoming. In 2023, Rutherford finished second in kills at Kentucky with 271 (3.47 kills per set) and third in blocks with 67 a year after earning All-SEC and AVCA All-America honors by recording 10-plus kills in 15 of 18 SEC matches, nine matches with nine-plus digs, and three matches with three-plus blocks. Rutherford has one year of eligibility remaining.
Since Texas struggled at times in 2023 to augment Skinner in the outside attack and is losing opposite hitter Molly Phillips to graduation, the additions of Lauenstein and Rutherford make obvious sense.
More intriguing from a personnel standpoint is the commitment of Carlson — Swindle was a member of the All-Big 12 Rookie team as a freshman, recording 1,088 of the 1,422 assists by Texas, adding 96 kills, and using her height at 6’3 to provide defense at the net with 88 blocks. In the national championship game, she was steady as a setter and savvy with her decisions to send balls over instead of putting them up for her hitters.
A rising junior, Carlson was ranked as the No. 4 recruit and top setter in the 2022 class, becoming the highest signee in the history of the Baylor program. She lived up to expectations, playing every set for the Bears over the last two seasons and recording 54 assists twice in 2022, eight matches with double-digit digs, and leading the team in aces in nine matches. During Carlson’s sophomore season, she had 1,188 assists, a team-high 37 service aces, and 247 digs, second on the team.
So what’s Elliott thinking by adding Carlson? He may intend to use a 6-2 rotation in 2024, utilizing double substitutions for the outside hitter and setter when the setter moves to the front row and the outside hitter moves to the back row to optimize offense and defense. At 5’11, Carlson is a shorter setter, so the substitution pattern would allow her to be a back-row specialist while simultaneously taking advantage of the outside hitting depth provided by Lauenstein and Rutherford.
The downside is that only 12 substitutions are allowed in each game, but that may not be much of a limitation for a team with the overall talent and depth that Texas is set to boast next season.
So good luck overcoming all that, Coach Cook. Might want to get in the portal to add some players.