Nebraska's Nicklin Hames, the fiery sophomore who gets blocks against some of the best players in the country that you wouldn’t always expect from a small setter, has been playing at a high level for many years.
When she was in the eighth grade, she got to play on the high school volleyball team at the Webb School in Knoxville, Tennessee. How tall was Hames then?
“I’ll give myself 5-foot-11 right now, so I was probably like 5-9, I’d say,” Hames said.
Hames had a high school volleyball experience like few have. The rules in Tennessee allow eighth graders to play for the high school team when the middle school and high school are on the same campus. So Hames got to play high school volleyball for five years, and her team won the state championship all five years in Division II-A, which was the division for private schools.
The state volleyball tournament for Nebraska is this week, when 48 teams in six classes all come to Lincoln for the three-day tournament.
For the Huskers, the state tournament week provides a reminder of their high school experience, and for many players it was very good. Six of the 16 players on the Nebraska volleyball team combined to win 14 state championships. Also, coach John Cook won two state championships while coaching the high school volleyball team at Francis Parker High School in San Diego.
Among the many reasons for Nebraska’s recent success has been an extremely competitive group of players. And that’s shown already again this season, like against Purdue when Nebraska trailed 21-12 in the first set, but didn’t quit and finished the set on a 13-2 run to win it.
The success of the players during high school shows that they know how to compete, and also that they had good coaching. Those experiences in high school prepared the players for college.
“Just anytime you play in a championship, it prepares you for those big matches. It did a good job of that,” Hames said. “So just having a feeling of getting there, and wanting to win.”
The other Huskers who won state championships in high school volleyball: Jazz Sweet (Shawnee Heights in Kansas), Nicole Drewnick (Hebron High School in Texas 6A), Kenzie Knuckles (two titles with Yorktown, Indiana), Riley Zuhn (Colorado 5A title for Fossil Ridge) and Fallon Stutheit (three Class D-1 titles for Johnson-Brock).
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For some of the Huskers, the state tournament experience was different than in Nebraska.
“We played at a college about two hours away from my school at (Middle Tennessee State University),” Hames said. “It was a huge arena and they had two courts set up. For us it was a double-elimination, because they always let a smaller amount of teams into the state tournament. So usually going into the state championship game you had already played the team once.”
Hames was coached by her mom, Christine. And for three of the state titles her sister, Kayleigh, was on the team. She’s now a freshman on the volleyball team at Pepperdine.
Sweet won state as a senior on a team that had most of its players go on to play in college, including Megan Cooney, who is a starter for Illinois. The matches were played at a convention center in her hometown of Topeka.
While most of the recruiting for college volleyball teams comes during the club season, the Nebraska coaches still attend the first day of the state tournament, and have added some walk-on players after watching them at state.
And when Cook was an assistant coach for the Huskers in the late 1980s, he found a diamond in the rough during the state tournament.
“I got Kelly Aspegren, I found her,” Cook said. “She was playing for Callaway, I think a D-1 school, and I’m watching another court. It was at (the Pershing Center). And I’m like, ‘Who is this kid?’ And then we ended up getting her and she ended up being an All-American (in 1994).”
Nebraska plays at Iowa on Saturday in the first of two matches against the Hawkeyes in about one week. Iowa (9-15, 3-10 Big Ten) is near the bottom of the league standings.