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Huskers Feature Prominently in Winter Transfer Portal Movement

by Jan 13, 2024Nebraska Volleyball

Portal
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

The first postseason transfer portal window for Division I volleyball closed on Monday, Jan. 1, and it’s been a busy time for the Cornhuskers.

All 14 players on the 2023 roster were eligible to return in 2024, but a 100% retention rate is almost unheard of in college sports these days. It’s worth noting that compliance departments have up to 48 hours after the closing of the portal to get the paperwork in (and Monday was a holiday), so we could see some additional names trickle into the portal across the country.

As of now, Nebraska saw three players enter the portal during the window: outside hitter Hayden Kubik, opposite hitter Caroline Jurevicius and middle blocker Maggie Mendelson. Players can commit to a program any time, so the portal doesn’t affect additions, but Nebraska did land one big commit on the final day for the portal window as former Minnesota outside hitter and 2022 Big Ten Player of the Year Taylor Landfair announced she is joining the Huskers.

Let’s start with the most recent news. Landfair, a 6-foot-5 outside hitter from Plainfield, Illinois, has up to two years of eligibility remaining. She began her career during the 2021 spring season that didn’t count towards athletes’ eligibility clock and went down with a season-ending injury nine matches into the 2021 fall season, making her eligible for a medical hardship waiver.

Landfair averaged 3.03 kills per set on .255 hitting in 19 matches in her first season then put up 2.82 kills per set on .256 hitting before her injury in the fall of 2021. She had her breakout season in 2022, averaging 4.35 kills per set on .257 hitting for a 22-9 Gopher squad to earn Big Ten Player of the Year.

Following the 2022 season, Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon announced he was retiring from his coaching position to move into a different position at the university (which coincidentally is what led to Laney Choboy flipping her commitment from Minnesota to Nebraska). The Gophers hired Keegan Cook from Washington to succeed McCutcheon.

This past season was a down one for Landfair by her standards. She got off to a rough start in the nonconference before picking it up some in league play, averaging 3.19 kills per set on .222 hitting overall. Landfair shared a message on her Instagram story offering insight into her decision to transfer and the process that led her to Lincoln.

Landfair played six rotations at Minnesota, but she’s much stronger attacking at the net than she is in serve receive or playing back-row defense. Nebraska already has two six-rotation pins in Harper Murray on the left and Merritt Beason on the right, and the second outside hitter in 2023 (Lindsay Krause or Ally Batenhorst, depending on Krause’s health) played in the front row with Choboy subbing in to play defense in the back.

Landfair, one of the biggest names to enter the portal this offseason, reportedly chose Nebraska over Wisconsin. At her best, she provides a terminal presence at the pin who defenses have to account for.

As for the departures, Jurevicius is probably the most significant. She was the lone freshman who didn’t see the court this season, maintaining her eligibility as a redshirt behind Beason who didn’t leave the court this year. PrepVolleyball.com ranked her as the No. 17 recruit nationally coming out of high school and the coaches spoke glowingly of her potential and her powerful swing.

However, with Beason coming back for another season Jurevicius likely would have had to wait another year before seeing the court in any meaningful fashion. So she entered the portal, and Nebraska will see her across the net next season as she landed at Penn State, where her dad, former NFL receiver Joe Jurevicius, played football.

Mendelson, a blue-chip recruit in both volleyball and basketball who played both sports at Nebraska as a freshman, saw less playing time in 2023 than she did in 2022. Andi Jackson came in as a freshman and won the starting spot alongside Bekka Allick. Mendelson played in 13 matches with five starts this season, averaging 1.04 kills per set on .317 hitting and 0.68 blocks per set after splitting time between middle blocker and opposite hitter in 2022.

With Allick in her grade and Jackson a year younger, Mendelson would have had to beat out one of them at some point to solidify a starting spot; there was no clear path to playing time otherwise. Nebraska basketball coach Amy Williams indicated Mendelson planned to focus on volleyball at her next school.

Kubik was the least surprising portal entry. The younger sister of four-year Husker starter Madi Kubik, Hayden played in just 10 sets across nine matches this season, totaling three kills, seven errors, 15 attacks and six digs. She was behind Murray, Krause and Batenhorst on the depth chart with all three set to return in 2023, and Skyler Pierce, another highly-touted pin recruit, is arriving this month as well.

At her current level, Kubik did not have a clear path to playing time at Nebraska.

None of the three players who entered the portal were full-time starters nor projected to be so in 2024, but their departure does hurt the team’s depth. With Jurevicius leaving, Beason is the only opposite hitter on the roster. As a dual-sport athlete, Mendelson was a luxury for John Cook, providing scholarship-level depth while basketball footed the bill. Her departure leaves Nebraska with just two middles and doesn’t provide an open scholarship to give to a replacement.

As things stand, Nebraksa is set to have five outside hitters, four defensive specialists, two setters, two middle blockers and one opposite hitter on next year’s roster. That is very outside-heavy and completely lacking in any back-ups at two different positions, which seems untenable.

There could also be further ripple affects from Cook’s decision to take Landfair as a transfer. Krause and Batenhorst only have one year of eligibility remaining, and with Murray likely to retain her six-rotation role, the two seniors are looking at competing with Landfair for one starting spot. If either or both choose to look elsewhere, that would free up scholarships for Cook to use on additions to round out the roster, but convincing quality players to sign up to compete with entrenched starters or fill a back-up role likely won’t be easy.

As for the rest of the Big Ten, Wisconsin saw two depth players depart and has yet to add anyone. In addition to landing Jurevicius, Penn State lost a defensive specialist in Maddy Bilinovic to Creighton, but Gillian Grimes beat her out for the libero role this season. Purdue only lost one player, an outside hitter who appeared in one set this season, and hasn’t made any additions yet. Alongside Landfair, Minnesota lost middle blocker Arica Davis to the portal.

The big winner of the portal thus far, however, is reigning champion Texas. Jerritt Elliott added former Kentucky opposite hitter Reagan Rutherford and former Baylor setter Averi Carlson, and former Husker Whitney Lauenstein also announced her intention to resume her volleyball career in Austin after sitting out the 2022 season. The Longhorns will return Final Four Most Outstanding Player Madi Skinner, starting setter Ella Swindle, libero Emma Halter and others.

The portal will be open again for volleyball athletes May 1-15, and graduate transfers can enter the portal any time prior to May 1. While the portal has closed for now, stay tuned because Nebraska’s 2024 roster is likely far from set.

**UPDATE**

One week after Landfair’s announcement, Ally Batenhorst announced on Instagram that she is planning to enter the portal as a graduate transfer.

 

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Batenhorst also talked about her decision to transfer on TikTok.

“This was not an impulsive decision,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I’m at the point in my career where I need to start thinking about my future and my plans for after college volleyball. I graduate in May, so I have a lot of goals that I want to accomplish, and while it breaks my heart to have to leave this team, I do have to do what’s best for me.”

As a May graduate, she is eligible to enter the portal after the window closed for undergraduate student-athletes seeking immediate eligibility elsewhere.

The 6-foot-5 Texas native spent three season at Nebraska, appearing in 84 matches as a part-time starter. She averaged 2.2 kills per set in her three season as a Husker, hitting .155 as a freshman, .190 as a sophomore and .189 as a junior. The highlight of her career was her 15-kill, two-block, .406-hitting performance at Texas in the 2021 Regional Finals during her freshman year.

Batenhorst was the Gatorade National Player of the Year for volleyball in 2021 and was the third-ranked player in the class according to PrepVolleyball.com coming out of Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas. Born in Omaha, she chose Nebraska in part because of family ties to the university and state.

Here departures leaves Nebraska with four outside hitters on the roster for 2024 — senior Lindsay Krause, junior Taylor Landfair, sophomore Harper Murray and freshman Skyler Pierce. It also opens up a scholarship for the coaching staff to use as Cook looks to add depth, with middle blocker appearing to be the spot most in need of an addition.

**UPDATE NO. 2**

Cook solved the middle blocker depth issue with an addition from the portal: San Diego graduate transfer Leyla Blackwell. She announced her commitment on Saturday, Jan. 13.

 

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The 6-foot-4 San Diego native began her career at Indiana before transferring back home for the past three seasons where she earned first-team All-WCC and three years.

She averaged 2.25 kills per set on .329 hitting and 1.24 blocks per set this year after helping lead the Toreros to the Final Four in 2022 while putting up 1.98 kills per set on .354 hitting and 1.5 blocks per set.

Blackwell’s addition gives Cook three starting-caliber middles to work with in 2024 and sets the table for another fierce preseason competition for playing time.

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