LINCOLN — Madi Kubik has finally found peace on the court.
Too often this season, the Nebraska freshman’s mind was full of distractions. She was worried about the pressure of playing in front of 8,000 fans at Devaney, how previous points went, how coaches would react to the next play and whether she was meeting her own lofty expectations.
Now, after extensive work with Brett Haskell, Nebraska’s director of sport psychology, Kubik has learned how to ignore those external factors, think more rationally and thrive.
As a result of the new perspective, Kubik is playing her best volleyball of the season and has become a vital part of the seventh-rated Huskers’ success. The next test for Kubik and Nebraska (19-3, 11-2 Big Ten) is on the road against Iowa at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“I had a time where I was in my head a little bit,” Kubik said. “I was trying to figure out what my place was and how I was going to be able to contribute. I’ve been working really hard with (Haskell) on being in the moment.”
Kubik’s distractions were both real and perceived expectations she placed upon herself. The No. 4 recruit in the nation faced lofty standards as she took over the starting outside hitter role formerly occupied by two-time All-American Mikaela Foecke.
While Nebraska coach John Cook said he never mentions Foecke directly to Kubik, it’s hard for her not to try to live up to the standards set by Foecke and other former Huskers who played the L2 position, including All-Americans Jordan Larson and Annika Albrecht.
“We recruited Madi to come in and take Mikaela’s spot. She’s trying to live up to that,” Cook said. “She’s carrying a big role, and not many freshman six-rotation outside hitters are playing for the top teams.”
The breakthrough match for Kubik came against then-No. 2 Stanford. Even though the Huskers lost in four sets, she recorded 14 kills on 46 swings. Kubik said she learned the important lesson that against elite competition, you can’t tip or hit roll shots because their floor defense covers most of those.
During the past three weeks, Kubik has elevated her game. In a home win against No. 15 Purdue, the 6-foot-3 freshman from West Des Moines tallied a career-best 22 kills, tying the most kills by a Nebraska freshman since 2004 with — who else? — Foecke.
“I definitely would say that compared to the beginning of the season, the game is starting to slow down a little bit, and I feel less distracted on the court,” Kubik said. “I’m just able to manage (the distractions) in a way that it makes me feel composed, and that’s not something I have to worry about right now.”
Kubik rarely has a break no matter the rotation. She’s proven to be efficient as a back-row attacker and helps anchor the middle back of the defense.
She is also part of the serve receive for five of the six rotations, where she is a frequent target of opposing servers. Kubik has dug more than a third of opponents’ serves. She has 452 receipts, 153 more than Kenzie Knuckles’ second-leading total.
Cook said he’s not worried about opponents targeting Kubik because she has graded out as the Huskers’ best passer this year. Kubik doesn’t mind the extra attention, either.
“I’ve always loved passing,” she said. “I almost loved passing more than I love hitting sometimes just because I think I can sit in a gym and pass balls all day.”
Following the Purdue win and a 10-kill performance at Maryland, Kubik was named the Big Ten’s player and freshman of the week. Those matches began a streak of double-digit kills in six of seven matches. The lone exception in that run was seven kills against Rutgers when she hit a season-best .462.
Kubik has a knack for filling up the stat sheet with three double-doubles this year. She is averaging 2.73 kills and 2.27 digs per set in conference play.
Cook said it isn’t just the numbers that indicate how valuable Kubik is for the Huskers. He said her demeanor and selflessness contribute to the winning culture.
“Madi makes people around her better,” Cook said. “She’s just so even-keeled. She’s easy to play next to, and that’s one of her gifts. Not much fazes her when things aren’t going well.”
Against No. 8 Penn State, Kubik delivered in the big moments under the bright lights. With NU leading 14-13 in the fifth set, Kubik hammered home the clinching point. In the final set, Kubik recorded three kills on eight swings without an error.
Afterward, her teammates said they had no doubt Kubik would deliver in the biggest moments.
“She’s a stud. We’ve known that and I think she proved that again,” junior Lexi Sun said following the Penn State match. “I think she has been proving it all season.”