LINCOLN — John Cook’s cell phone buzzed with Lauren Stivrins’ frustration.
The Nebraska volleyball team’s October swoon — losing five of the month’s final seven matches — was not what the sophomore middle blocker was used to after helping the Huskers win an NCAA title in her first season as a starter in 2017. And it wasn’t something she was going to accept.
“I just wanted to see what his perspective was on why we were playing the way we were and what we could do, and how I could help,” Stivrins said. “As a team, we mentioned how we were playing not to lose when we should’ve been playing to win. Those are two completely different mindsets going into a game.”
Cook couldn’t help but smile. The 2018 Huskers have their strengths, among them two potential All-America outside hitters, a tenacious libero, and a freshman blocking prodigy. But with seven newcomers and a number of laid-back personalities, it’s not always clear who lights Nebraska’s emotional torch.
As the texts moved back and forth, Cook could see he had a player who not only has All-America potential, but one who could be that spark.
“I think she’s one of the best middles in the country,” Cook said. “She brings an emotional energy to our side that probably makes up for Callie (Schwarzenbach) and Jazz (Sweet). That’s what we need from her, that fire and emotional energy, or whatever you want to talk about.”
At a glance, Stivrins seems like a clear vessel for intensity. After spending two years in NU’s strength and conditioning program, she has perhaps the highest jump touch on the team and is capable of delivering thunderous kills from the top of her 6-foot-4 frame.
Running Stivrins on the slide route, which often leaves her matched one-on-one with an opposing blocker, has become one of the Huskers’ surest scoring options in recent weeks. Stivrins followed up a career-high 16 kills in NU’s win at Ohio State on Oct. 24 with a standout performance in the five-set win over Penn State last Friday in which she had 13 kills, hit .522 and put up a career-best 10 blocks.
“She was amazing. She was a beast,” setter Nicklin Hames said after Stivrins had eight blocks in last Saturday’s win over Rutgers. “I think this whole weekend she really stepped up, and we really needed her to. I think she did a great job.”
Going into Saturday’s 6 p.m. match at No. 15 Michigan (19-7, 8-7 Big Ten), Stivrins ranks third in the conference in attacking percentage (.401) and has a chance to become the first Husker to hit .400 in a season since former Bellevue West star Brooke Delano in 2010.
But that’s not all Cook is looking for. After this season, No. 6 Nebraska (19-6, 10-5) graduates senior captains Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, who helped the Huskers to two NCAA championships, plus senior Brooke Smith. Next year will be Stivrins’ fourth year in the program, making her the team’s most experienced player.
“She needs to make people around her better,” Cook said. “She’s got to continue to stay in what we call ‘beast mode,’ in kind of our talk. And she needs to prepare herself to be a leader of this team at some point, so she’s got to be a good role model right now.”
For the last several years, Nebraska’s emotional engine was setter Kelly Hunter, who mastered getting the Huskers to thread the needle between every-point intensity and staying loose. Stivrins seems to understand the importance of that balance. Newcomers need to get comfortable with the constant work ethic needed to thrive in the Big Ten, but also have the short memory to shrug off mistakes, lest they snowball.
“I think this team plays better when they’re loose and having fun and just have genuine excitement and energy, so I try to bring that every time I’m on the court,” Stivrins said. “Whether that’s making a big play or getting excited for someone who did, I think that’s something I do a pretty good job of. It’s contagious, and our team thrives off that stuff.”
And like with Hunter, Cook occasionally asks Stivrins to dial back the intensity. A little less goofiness in practice. A little less tongue wagging to opponents after a momentum-swinging kill or block.
But Cook’s admonition seems to come with tongue in cheek. Stivrins’ intensity is a novelty after Nebraska has had a recent run of middle blockers — including All-Americans Amber Rolfzen and Briana Holman and current freshman Callie Schwarzenbach — whose play spoke much louder than their voices. The coach knows his team needs someone who brings a little bit of an edge to the court.
“A lot of the middles are pretty quiet,” Cook said. “Lauren is outgoing. She’s a very, very competitive athlete. Works really hard. In that way, she’s a little bit different than some of our middles.”
There’s a million-dollar question at the end of some of Nebraska’s practices, Stivrins said. What more can a Husker be doing to improve as a player? While many teammates who get the question start listing their perceived faults, Stivrins has been around long enough to know the trick.
Nothing is the answer. A player reaches their potential when they’re doing everything they can to improve. Stivrins doesn’t just want to tell her teammates how to solve the riddle. She wants to show them why it’s the key to the program’s success.
“Obviously if you see someone working hard, you want to work hard, too,” she said. “If one person takes a play off, especially an upperclassman, if the younger ones see one of them taking a play off, it makes them inclined to take plays off. At Nebraska, we don’t do that.”
Nebraska at Michigan
When: 6 p.m.
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM