REDSHIRT JUNIOR / MINDEN, NE
As a native Nebraskan, Taylor Kissinger knows “There Is No Place Like Nebraska.” It is not just a slogan, or a motto, it is also the first line in a nearly 100-year-old school song also known as “Dear Old Nebraska U.”
Within the 10 simple lines of one of Nebraska’s most beloved songs, the final three lines resonate for all Huskers during this unique time in history: “We’ll all stick together, in all kinds of weather, for dear old Nebraska U.”
Kissinger, who missed nearly all of her third season at Nebraska in 2019-20 after undergoing hip surgery, knows a lot about weathering the storm as a basketball player and as a world citizen working together remotely to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The 6-1 shooter from Minden, Nebraska, has remained in Lincoln to continue her rehabilitation with hopes of returning to the court as a fourth-year junior with her beloved Huskers in 2020-21.
“My rehab has been slowed due to things closing down with COVID-19, but I have been able to continue with most of the exercises,” Kissinger said. “It is hard to have a positive mindset with everything going on now, but I am trying to do my best so I can get back on the court with my teammates whenever we are allowed to again.”
Kissinger, who led the Big Ten and ranked No. 4 nationally in three-point field goal percentage (.456) as a sophomore for the Big Red in 2018-19, has continued to work with guidance from Husker Women’s Basketball Athletic Trainer Ashley Rudolph and Husker Women’s Basketball Strength Coach Stuart Hart to prepare for her return to action.
The mathematics education major who has been an Academic All-Big Ten selection and a regular on the Nebraska Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll is also working hard to complete her coursework for the spring semester.
“I have been spending all of my free time doing my rehab, and doing at-home workouts that Stuart has sent to us,” Kissinger said. “I also have picked back up on my hobby of cooking and trying new meals.”
While Kissinger is focused on returning to her role as one of the nation’s top shooters, she knows she still has a lot of work to do in order to be ready for 2020-21. Just over three months since her hip surgery, Kissinger has increased her activity to a fast walk, but is still not able to run. Because of COVID-19, she also doesn’t have access to a gym or weight room.
As she methodically gets her legs back underneath her through rehab, Kissinger expects her life-long ability as a shooter to shine again for the Huskers.
“I know every day that my shooting ability is something I can bring to the table for my team,” Kissinger said. “Whether I am shooting the ball well or not, I am always continuing to work on it. I get in the gym almost every day of the week and either shoot by myself or with one our coaches or one of my teammates. I would not be where I am at without practicing my shot every day consistently since I was a little girl.”
She honed her skills playing with her older twin sisters, Jamie and Brooke, and older brother, Derek, on their home court in Minden. The three-quarter court has two hoops and a “Gun” ball return/passer to help the shooter. Kissinger worked on her shot every day in the summer and fall, and was back on the outdoor court after her school practices during the winter.
Kissinger’s exploits as a shooter placed her in an elite class as a competitor. She was rated as the No. 38 player in the nation by ESPN coming out of Minden High School, despite having multiple seasons shortened by injury. As a senior, she was a first-team Super-State selection after averaging 24.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per game while recovering from a wrist injury.
As a junior, she averaged 28.8 points and 8.2 rebounds for the Whippets following her return to the court from a broken wrist. As a sophomore in 2015, Kissinger averaged 25.6 points and 10.0 rebounds. In her four seasons of varsity basketball at Minden, Kissinger totaled 1,751 points, 611 rebounds, 310 assists and 202 steals despite missing 27 combined games as a junior and senior.
Kissinger missed seven games as a Husker freshman because of a pair of injuries, before playing all 30 games for the Huskers as a sophomore. In addition to hitting 45.6 percent of her threes in 2018-19, she also connected on 88.2 percent of her free throws.
She missed four games after the 2019-20 season opener as part of the concussion protocol following a collision in practice.
Kissinger returned to play four games, capping her 2019-20 season by tying her career highs with six three-pointers and four assists on her way to 19 points in a win over Duke on Dec. 4. Kissinger’s performance against Duke was a magical moment in a personally challenging season.
“That game reminded me why I chose to play in front of my home state,” Kissinger said. “It still gives me chills when I think about our fan base that night and how loud that gym was. It was also mainly an offensive game for both teams, so being able to have a high-scoring game made the game that much more fun. Unfortunately, it was also the last game I played as a junior, but I am glad I have that memory as the last game I played with my seniors (Hannah Whitish, Nicea Eliely, Grace Mitchell, Kristian Hudson).”
Soon after the 83-79 win over Duke, Kissinger made the difficult decision to undergo hip surgery and plan on a medical redshirt for the season. She underwent hip surgery on Jan. 3, 2020.
“It was tough to make the decision to sit out and not play again with the seniors,” Kissinger said. “That was the hardest part of my decision. After the Duke game, I only slept for about two hours that night because my hip was throbbing and keeping me up. I knew then that I had a hard decision to make. It was hard to sit through this past season knowing that I could not really help my teammates during some of the tough games.”
Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said Kissinger’s absence affected the team’s progress during the season.
“Losing Taylor was a tough blow for our team last season, particularly after coming off her six three-point makes in a big win over Duke,” Williams said. “I think our team was really coming together and feeling very confident in playing to each other’s strengths. We had to adjust without Taylor’s talents as a basketball player, but also without her vocal leadership on the court.”
Kate Cain, a two-time Big Ten All-Defensive player who joined Kissinger in a top-25 national recruiting class for Nebraska in 2016-17, echoed Williams’ sentiments about Kissinger’s absence in 2019-20.
“We really missed Taylor last season. She’s such a talented three-point shooter, and having her on the court not only is an offensive threat in itself, but she also helps spread the floor since teams have to prepare for her,” Cain said. “People also underestimate how much of a rebounding asset she is. I am really looking forward to having her back on the court next season.”
Within a week of her hip surgery, Kissinger also had her appendix removed in an emergency procedure. Although she has plenty of experience dealing with injuries, it doesn’t make missing time with her teammates on the court any easier. Her personal disappointment and frustration in missing games is also helping to fuel her fire to return to the court.
“I want to put in all the effort I can the next couple years for my team and for my state. My time as a Husker is quickly coming to an end, whether I want it to or not. I want to make the most out of my last two years because these past three years have been so special to me. I am happy with my decision to stay in Nebraska and play because there is no place like it.”
Williams, Cain and the rest of the Huskers will be looking forward to having Kissinger back, too.
“In the upcoming season we will rely on Taylor to be a vocal presence who understand what being a Husker is about,” Williams said. “I think Taylor’s injury and time out this past season has allowed her to become clear on what needs to happen for our team to reach our ultimate goals. Her leadership will be critically important in this coming season.”
Kissinger said she used the second half of the season at Nebraska trying to become a better leader.
“I was able to watch from more of a coaching standpoint this year. I think I learned what we need on the court for our team to be successful, and the main thing is leadership. I am willing to step into that role,” Kissinger said. “I am ready for the challenge of being the leader for my team. I have always led by example, but I have sometimes lacked the vocal part of it. That will be a difficult challenge for me. I want what is best for the team and what is best for my teammates.”
JUNIOR / MOORHEAD, MN
Sam Haiby’s first two seasons at Nebraska have been filled with thrilling games, moments of growth, challenges faced and lessons learned.
The 5-9 guard from Moorhead, Minnesota, expects to join senior-to-be Kate Cain as the only returning starters for the Nebraska women’s basketball team in 2020-21. Haiby, who averaged 10.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals, feels good about her ability to face challenges and get a better understanding of herself after her first season as a starter. However, she is far from satisfied.
“It has been a privilege to be able to compete at such a high level for the past two years,” Haiby said. “It definitely has shown me my strengths and weaknesses. Players are a lot bigger and a lot more physical than what you see in high school, and maybe other (college) conferences. I still would like to pride myself in getting to the rim, but I think these past couple of seasons have showed me the importance of being not just a one-dimensional player, but to be able to score at different areas of the floor.”
Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said Haiby showed improvement in several areas on the court in 2019-20.
“Sam showed growth in a lot of areas this past season, particularly increasing her three-point percentage, her rebounds per game and her total steals,” Williams said. “She worked hard in the offseason to be more consistent from behind the arc and it showed. Our staff also wanted Sam to become a more consistent rebounder, and she was the leading rebounder among the guards on our team this past year. She is proving that she is capable of accomplishing the goals she sets for herself, and that will lead to good things in her continued development.”
Haiby earned a starting job as a sophomore after making an immediate impact for the Huskers as a freshman. She averaged 10.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists off the bench for the Big Red in 2018-19. She put in a solid offseason of work in the gym, but her progress was slowed at the end of the summer and start of the fall of 2019 by shin splints. Any athlete who has ever faced the pain of dealing with shin splints, knows that the mental fatigue of overcoming the throbbing and screaming inflammation in their legs may be greater than the physical pain itself.
“During the season the pain would fluctuate, kind of depending on the work load of that given day,” Haiby said. “It was usually the worst right after games.”
Despite shin splints, Haiby erupted for a career-high 28 points in an early season road win at Missouri (Nov. 10). She sent the game to overtime with her third three-pointer of the game with three seconds left. Then powered the Huskers to victory with the game’s last field goal and a pair of free throws to seal the win in the final 13.3 seconds of OT.
With dozens of family and friends from Missouri on hand at Mizzou Arena, the long-time St. Louis Blues hockey fan had a memorable day in Columbia. She also earned a spot on the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Weekly Honor Roll for her performance. She added a second spot on the weekly conference honor roll after putting up 20 points in a home win over Oral Roberts (Dec. 14).
Early in the Big Ten regular season, Haiby enjoyed several big games, including 19 points at Michigan State (Dec. 31), 17 points and a career-high eight rebounds in a win over then-nationally ranked Minnesota (Jan. 4) and 18 points and a career-high-tying three threes in a win over Michigan (Jan. 19).
She also scored 11 points in both games of a season sweep of Wisconsin that included a season-high seven assists in Lincoln (Jan. 9) and a career-high five steals at Madison (Jan. 25).
However, as the season hit February and her shin splints wore on her, Haiby’s production suffered. She knows that healthy legs and a strong offseason of conditioning will be keys for her in 2020-21.
“Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.” – Jack Buck
The only way to successfully put the pain of shin splints completely behind an athlete is rest, and the sudden outbreak of the coronavirus provided some long-term rest for Haiby’s aching legs.
“I haven’t been doing very high impact exercises, mainly because of the limited access to equipment, but not doing that has certainly helped my shins recover,” Haiby said. “I have been able to get shots up at an outdoor court, but other than that I have mostly been doing cardio and bodyweight exercises.”
While the time away from competition has benefited Haiby’s legs, the challenges she faced on the court as a sophomore should help her in the seasons to come.
“Dealing with pain helped me become stronger and tougher, both mentally and physically,” Haiby said. “The love of the game, and wanting to compete has driven me to be a basketball player. I think becoming more consistent at scoring at multiple levels, and being able to defend at a high level will help improve my game.”
While rest at home in Minnesota has been good for Haiby over the past month, she knows her offseason focus will shift very soon.
“I know I need to improve my overall conditioning and foot speed,” Haiby said. “For me being able to defend consistently at a high level is important to me, and will really benefit our team. Also, just getting in the gym and putting up extra shots.”
“Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do.” – John Wooden
While Haiby is finishing up spring semester classes remotely at home in Minnesota, she is already mentally preparing to take on a much greater leadership role for Nebraska as a junior in 2020-21.
An Academic All-Big Ten selection and a member of the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team off the court, Haiby knows the importance of leadership in life and in sports.
The Huskers, who must replace four seniors while adding six newcomers to their roster for the coming season, will look to Haiby, Cain and the return of fourth-year junior Taylor Kissinger as cornerstones of leadership moving forward.
“After losing four great seniors (Nicea Eliely, Hannah Whitish, Grace Mitchell, Kristian Hudson), we are definitely going to have to step up,” Haiby said. “I think we will become more prepared and ready to take on the roles as the season progresses, and once we can start meeting and getting to work together as a team.”
Two-time Big Ten All-Defensive selection Kate Cain said Haiby is prepared to take another step forward to help the Huskers in 2020-21.
"Sammi is going to bring a lot of experience from the guard position, which will be really important after the loss of a talented senior class," Cain said. "It's going to be so important to have someone who can lead from more of a point guard or off-guard position, so having someone like Sam who has experience with our program and sets is going to be very important when integrating the newer and younger guards into our system."
“Create unselfishness as the most important team attribute.” – Bill Russell
Haiby is especially looking forward to the healthy return of Kissinger. The 6-1 shooter from Minden, Nebraska, led the Big Ten and ranked among the top five players in the nation in three-point percentage (.456) as a sophomore in 2018-19, but missed nearly all of 2019-20 with a hip injury.
“Obviously, injury is the last thing you want for a teammate, but getting the opportunity to extend my time with Taylor is exciting,” Haiby said. “I think we will complement each other well by her ability to shoot the ball from deep and my ability to get to the rim.”
Haiby is also eager to get back to Lincoln to continue her basketball career, once the world returns to some semblance of normalcy following the initial coronavirus outbreak.
“I am excited to get back to work with my teammates. I think we can be a special team this year.”
SENIOR / MIDDLETOWN, N.Y.
The center of the Nebraska women’s basketball defense the past three seasons, Kate Cain found herself at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak at her family’s home in New York in early April.
The 6-5 center from Middletown, New York, returned to her family home as soon as the college basketball season and on-campus classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln officially ended in mid-March.
While home is usually a sanctuary and relaxing environment for college students to reconnect with family, and recharge their minds and bodies during breaks from school, Cain knew this trip home might be a bit more risky because of the virus.
“It was definitely weird for the season to end the way it did, especially since we were still practicing in hopes of making a run in the WNIT,” Cain said. “Once we learned that the tournament was canceled and school was going online, I did my best to get home quickly. I didn’t know what would be closing and if flights would get canceled, so I tried to get back quickly. Going home, I knew I was walking into a mess with the coronavirus being so prominent. It was kind of unnerving just because everything was so out of whack, but I tried to stay optimistic.”
While Cain, who was a CoSIDA Academic All-America nominee as a junior after earning Academic All-Big Ten honors for the second time in 2020, tried to make sense out of the sudden change in the world, the virus soon hit her family directly.
“A few weeks after I got home, we learned that one of my dad’s co-workers had tested positive with minor symptoms,” Cain said. “While everyone in New York was quarantined, my father was deemed essential, since he works at West Point for the Army Corps of Engineers. Soon after his co-worker tested positive, my father began to feel sick, followed by my mom and older brother. In the end, my entire immediate family had been exposed to and tested positive for the virus.”
Cain, who is the leading shot-blocker in Nebraska history and one of the top-10 shot-blockers in the history of Big Ten women’s basketball as she enters her senior season, was thankful that her own immune system recorded a big block to stop the virus, but not everyone in her family was so lucky.
“My father (Tim) and older brother (John) had minor symptoms, and my little brother (Chris) and I were asymptomatic,” Cain said. “Unfortunately my mother (Alison) was hit extremely hard by the virus because she has a compromised immune system.”
Cain’s mother, Alison, who was a 1,000-point scorer and one of the leading shot-blockers in Fairfield women’s basketball history, has a genetic kidney disorder and was the recipient of a kidney transplant during Kate’s freshman season at Nebraska. Medication associated with Alison’s condition actually weakens her immune system, making her more vulnerable to the coronavirus. A nurse herself at an elementary school, Alison was hospitalized for a day because she developed coronavirus-induced pneumonia. Alison was able to fight through the illness, although everyone in the Cain family knew they were in a serious situation.
“While my family was sick, it was very scary and our daily activities were very unpredictable, especially since my mother was struggling so much,” Cain said. “But after a few weeks of remaining quarantined in the house, my entire family was cleared of the virus.”
As soon as they learned the news from Cain, Nebraska Coach Amy Williams and the Huskers were extremely worried for the entire family.
“We were obviously very concerned when we heard that Kate and her family were impacted by the virus, especially when we found out how severely it was affecting Alison,” Williams said. “We immediately wrapped Kate and her entire family in our thoughts and prayers. We felt such a strong sense of relief for the Cain family, as their symptoms began to subside and their health returned to normal.”
With the direct effects of the virus behind them, life has returned to a new version of normal for the Cain family, and Kate is completing final projects and exams before focusing on the summer.
“Now that everyone is better and stable at home, it has been pretty boring,” Cain said. “Although I enjoy getting to see my family at home, since we don’t get those opportunities often, we are all getting really stir crazy.”
The Cain family is athletic, competitive and hard working. They are not at all accustomed to sitting around the house. Kate’s father, Tim, was an All-American basketball player at Manhattan, while Alison starred for the Fairfield women’s basketball team in college. Kate’s older brother, John, is a 6-10 left-handed pitcher in the Los Angeles Angels organization, while her younger brother, Chris, a high school basketball player, plans to compete at Cushing Academy this season.
“It’s been frustrating trying to work out. I can’t see friends, and even the hassle of going to the store, but I understand the precautions needed to prevent people from becoming ill,” Cain said. “I feel very fortunate that my family got through the sickness.”
While she hasn’t been able to go to a gym, Cain has benefited from the family hoop at home, and she has worked to stay on task with individual workouts provided by Nebraska Women’s Basketball Strength Coach Stuart Hart.
“Since all the gyms are closed I am really fortunate to have a hoop in my driveway,” Cain said. “Other than shooting when it is nice outside, I’ve been doing the home workouts that Stuart sent the team. I have been doing just about any athletic activity I can do just to keep moving. It’s been kind of difficult to create the most normal and structured workouts right now, but I’ve been working with what I have.”
Now that Cain and her family have moved past their own bouts with the coronavirus, she is ready to focus on being a leader for Nebraska on the court as a senior in 2020-21.
A two-time Big Ten All-Defensive selection, Cain wants to work to get her game to an All-Big Ten level overall. More importantly, she wants to help carry Nebraska back to the NCAA Tournament – a feat she helped the Huskers accomplish as a true freshman in 2017-18.
“Plain and simple, I want to play in the NCAA Tournament again. I am going to have to be a leader and perform consistently on both ends of the floor in order to do that,” Cain said. “Despite the adversity that may come our way, I need to remain mentally tough and push our team to overcome the obstacles we may face. I am willing to do whatever it takes to get us back to the tournament, and I am ready to push myself to be the best player and best teammate I can be.”
Cain is no stranger to facing challenges on the court. Originally signed to play at Delaware after being ranked as one of the top-100 players in the nation by ESPN out of high school, a coaching change for the Blue Hens sent her in search of a new place to play even before she ever arrived on campus at Delaware.
“My college experience has definitely had its share of adversity. Even from the beginning, committing to Nebraska after a quick recruiting process after de-committing from Delaware was very stressful, and the adjustment was not easy,” Cain said. “I dealt with a lot of homesickness, especially my first two seasons, but I’ve grown up a lot being far from home.”
She made her decision to join the Huskers in June of 2017, just a few months after Nebraska completed its worst season in school history at 7-22. She made her collegiate debut with 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks off the bench in a win over SIU-Edwardsville in Lincoln on Nov. 11, 2017. She started the next 31 games for the Huskers, helping them produce the biggest turnaround in the nation in 2017-18, posting a 14-game improvement in the win column to finish 21-11 and advance to the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Cain earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive Team and the Big Ten All-Freshman Team by averaging 9.9 points and 7.0 rebounds while adding a then-Nebraska school-record 100 blocked shots. Along the way, she created an unforgettable moment in Husker history by recording the first points-rebounds-blocks triple-double in school annals with a career-high 22 points, 14 rebounds and a school-record 11 blocks in a win over Florida Atlantic at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Dec. 19, 2017.
“On the court there have been so many great moments and games at Nebraska. From beating Duke in a close game this past season to beating Iowa at Iowa my freshman year, there have been so many games where our team really rallied together and played for each other. I love those games,” Cain said. “Personally, I also really enjoyed getting the triple-double my freshman year, too. It really helped me realize that I’m capable of playing a big role in this program and definitely boosted my confidence as a freshman.”
As a sophomore, Cain’s production slipped slightly to 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 79 blocks, and the Huskers lost more games (10) by two possessions or less than any team in school history.
The frustration of a mediocre sophomore season helped fuel Cain during the summer of 2019. She started her junior season stronger and quicker than her first two college seasons. After she extended her streak of consecutive starts in a Nebraska uniform to 91 games, Cain closed the year averaging 9.3 points, a career-best 7.2 rebounds and a school-record 101 blocks. She claimed her second spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive Team, and helped Nebraska to a three-game improvement in the win column with a 17-13 overall record.
Still, as the season came to its unexpected close before Nebraska could compete in the postseason, Cain was not satisfied with the way the year ended on the court.
“I’ve always wanted to be a great basketball player, since I was little,” Cain said. “Growing up in such an athletic and competitive family, I’ve always been encouraged to do my best and push myself to win and succeed. There is so much I can do to elevate my game to an All-Big Ten level, and I’m going to work my hardest to reach that goal. I think in general, I need to be more consistent with my scoring. I’d have games where I’d be a scoring threat and others where I wouldn’t score at all, so I need to work on my consistency. I need to make sure I’m staying in the weight room so I can get stronger down low. I also need to develop more post moves going toward the basket, so I can draw more fouls and get closer shots. There are so many things I need to work on, but I think those are very important.”
Cain has shown throughout her career that she is not afraid to work on weaknesses in her game. She has proven that with physical and mental focus she can create positive results. As a freshman, Cain hit just 42.9 percent (24-56) of her free throws. As a junior, Cain hit 68.3 percent (28-41) of her attempts at the line and gained confidence throughout the season, which is helping to encourage her to attack the rim more.
“Basketball-wise, I’ve really struggled through periods where I lacked confidence and began to question my abilities and my role on the team,” Cain said. “I’ve always been really hard on myself in a lot of different areas in and out of basketball, but I’m extremely fortunate to have had the continuous support of my family, teammates, coaches and our team’s sports psychologist to help me through the highs and lows. The struggles have taught me a lot about myself and what I can overcome. I will continue to learn from the obstacles I face.”
Cain knows that Nebraska’s success in 2020-21 will require more than just her own increased individual production on the court. The Huskers will lose senior leaders and four-year starters Hannah Whitish and Nicea Eliely to graduation, along with seniors Grace Mitchell and Kristian Hudson. Like hundreds of schools around the nation, the Huskers also lost several transfers. Those departures have opened the door for a large group of first-year players who will be looking for leadership in Lincoln this coming season.
Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said Cain has the tools to elevate her play and become a stronger leader for the Huskers.
“I’m proud of the growth Kate has made in her first three seasons at Nebraska, and looking for her to have a great senior season,” Williams said. “Kate is very motivated to make her senior year her best. She has always had a very high basketball IQ and the ability to pick things up quickly, but she is starting to really understand the importance of the other aspects of the mental side of the game. She is working hard to do the things that keep her confidence high and allow her to stay focused through challenges.”
Cain, who expects to earn her bachelor’s degree as a management major from Nebraska in August before beginning pursuit of her MBA, will be the only returning senior on the Husker roster. She knows leadership and team chemistry will play key roles in Nebraska’s success.
“I’m definitely prepared to take a bigger leadership role this year,” Cain said. “Although I try to be helpful off the court and give consistent efforts to lead by example in practices, I’ve never been the most vocal leader. I’m going to have to be more comfortable expressing my opinions and pushing myself and my teammates to make sure we can accomplish our goals.”
Cain knows she won’t be alone in providing leadership. She is looking forward to the return of fellow fourth-year Husker Taylor Kissinger to the court, after Kissinger redshirted in 2019-20 with a hip injury. Cain also knows she can rely on the presence of junior-to-be Sam Haiby, who started all 30 games for Nebraska at guard as a sophomore.
“I’m definitely going to feed off of teammates like Taylor, who has been here just as long as me and brings a new perspective by playing a different position and having a redshirt season,” Cain said. “Great teams have great leaders, so I know how important it is to really step up this year.”
Cain is also expecting to have help inside with the return of sophomore-to-be Isabelle Bourne. The 6-2 forward from Canberra, Australia, played in all 30 games for the Big Red last season and capped her freshman campaign with a career-high 16 points, six rebounds and a career-high five blocked shots against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament.
“I was really impressed with Issie’s play last year. It was easy to see the raw talent she had with her moves and the athleticism she brought to the table,” Cain said. “With a year of experience playing in the Big Ten, Issie is going to be able to bring so much more to the team next season, which is exciting to think about.”
Cain is also excited about the opportunity to work with a large group of newcomers to the Nebraska program, who are hopeful about the chances of learning and growing together on and off the court in 2020-21.
“We have a lot of new faces coming in this year, and I’m very excited to see how all of these pieces come together. We have a lot of players who want to win and play together as a unit, and with so many weapons it’s exciting to see what the future will hold. I’m really excited to help get our team back to the NCAA Tournament, and I’m very optimistic when thinking about the future and the pieces being brought in. I want to end my career at Nebraska in the most positive way possible, and I want to put Nebraska on the path to remain successful after I leave.”
SOPHOMORE / CANBERRA, AU
For thousands of basketball players and millions of basketball fans around the world, “March Madness” had a whole new meaning in 2020.
Rather than representing the rabid excitement of fans coming off the “February Frenzy” that builds to a fever pitch with conference tournament games, league titles, buzzer beaters and the Big Dance, this year’s version of March Madness meant billions of people accepted the benefits of social distancing, sheltering in place and quarantining amidst the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus.
For Nebraska freshman Isabelle Bourne, the madness of 2020 included an abrupt end to the college basketball season for her and her sister, Callie, an unexpected 36-hour trip home to Australia, and two weeks of quarantining with her family.
Not exactly what Isabelle Bourne expected when she joined the Huskers, but the 6-2 forward from Canberra, Australia, known by everyone around the Nebraska program as “Issie” (sounds like IZZY) has no problem dealing with the unexpected. In fact, the No. 1 word she uses to describe herself is “resilient,” just ahead of “trustworthy” and “hard-working.”
Ask yourself, how many 19-year-olds would choose those three words to describe themselves first. FYI, her fourth word was “fun.”
Her bright eyes, beaming smile and rich Australian accent greet everybody and every challenge with a breath of fresh air. Even the completely unexpected news that her country was calling her home immediately in mid-March amid the pandemic.
“When I found out that things were getting really bad and our Australian government was saying that anyone abroad should get home now, I packed up my things and left within two days. I was very lucky to get home when I did,” Bourne said. “Fortunately, Callie and I were able to travel home together on the long, 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney. I got back to Australia on March 21st after about 36 hours total of traveling through airports. Callie and I then had to quarantine for 14 days. I am very happy to be home and safe with my family, and I am very grateful we are all still healthy.”
The striking conclusion to Isabelle Bourne’s freshman season came just days after she erupted for career highs of 16 points and five blocked shots against Michigan in the 2020 Big Ten Tournament.
“Issie had some real flashes of brilliance in her freshman campaign, highlighted by her performance in the Big Ten Tournament,” Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said. “She grew more and more comfortable with where her opportunities were going to be to contribute for our team. She is a dependable teammate, and we look for her to step into more prominent role on the court and as a leader as we return for next season.”
The strong performance by Bourne off the bench put her in a good place mentally and physically to help the Huskers potentially continue in the postseason. But the coronavirus ended the possibility of postseason play for both Issie and Callie.
“I was very disappointed, but I understand it was in our best interest,” Bourne said. “Idaho State may have made the postseason too, they were still waiting on a few more results.”
Despite the disappointment the entire Bourne family has kept rolling with the punches down under.
“My parents (Trent and Ann) and older sister (Emma) have been working from home, and Callie and I still had online classes to complete, so we kept busy with all that,” Bourne said. “Callie and I have also been doing at-home workouts together, but we are missing the gym a lot.”
No surprise that one of the top young players in Australia who grew up as the youngest child in a basketball family would be missing the gym.
Isabelle’s mom, Ann, was a basketball player growing up. Isabelle’s older sister, Emma, plays in the Canberra Capitals Academy, while Callie is entering her junior season at Idaho State in 2020-21. While Callie averaged 4.1 points and 3.6 rebounds as a freshman for the Bengals, she increased those numbers to 12.0 points and a team-best 6.6 rebounds as a 5-9 guard this season. Isabelle will be working for similar improvement in her own numbers in her second year with the Huskers.
Before averaging 5.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.0 block per game as a freshman at Nebraska, Bourne had built an international reputation for herself in the Australian National Team program. A member of the Australian U17, U18 and U19 National Teams the past three years, Bourne was also a member of the Australian U17 3-on-3 Team.
At the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup, Bourne and Australia earned a silver medal by going 5-2 with both losses to the USA U19 Team. The loss in the championship game came in overtime. Bourne averaged 8.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists over seven contests for the Gems at the World Cup.
“Issie is a mature young lady who approaches everything she does like a professional,” Williams said. “Her experiences prior to Nebraska allowed her to play on a lot of different teams for many quality coaches, and she has developed an ability to adapt to different styles and systems.”
Although she came to Nebraska with extensive international experience, Bourne said she grew a lot during her first season in Big Ten Conference basketball.
“I learned a lot about my own game this season,” Bourne said. “For me, a big thing is that I have to come onto the court with confidence in my abilities. I am pleased with how I improved over the season with the help of my coaches, in particular Coach (Chuck) Love. A big focus I have coming out of my first season is to gain consistency in my outside shooting so I can become more of a perimeter threat.”
While Bourne’s home in Canberra is approximately 8,900 miles (more than 14,300 km) away from Lincoln, she was well-acquainted with Husker women’s basketball and its tradition long before she set foot on its amazing campus.
“Growing up and playing with people like Kelsey Griffin has motivated me the most to become a basketball player,” Bourne said.
That’s right, Kelsey Griffin. The former Husker All-American from Alaska has spent her past two seasons in the WNBL leading Bourne’s hometown team, the Canberra Capitals, to back-to-back Australian championships.
Griffin, a three-time WNBL Grand Final MVP and the 2019 WNBL MVP, actually led the Capitals to their second straight championship on March 4 in Canberra, the day before Bourne and the Huskers played their final game of the season at the Big Ten Tournament.
Before Griffin became a dominant player in the WNBL, an Australian citizen and a member of the Australian National Team, she was a member of the 2010 WNBA All-Rookie Team. Prior to spending 10 incredibly productive seasons around the world in professional basketball, she was one of the most dominant and inspirational players in Nebraska women’s basketball history from 2005-06 to 2009-10.
When Bourne announced she was signing with Nebraska in 2018, Griffin provided a seal of approval on Twitter.
“I am beyond excited for both Issie and Nebraska Women’s Basketball!” Griffin said. “I’ve been able to train with Issie and she’s talented, works hard, but above all else is a great person!”
Current Husker post player Kate Cain is looking forward to working alongside Bourne at both ends of the court again in 2020-21.
“I was really impressed with Issie’s play last year,” Cain said. “As a freshman, it was easy to see the raw talent she had with the moves she made, and the athleticism she brought to the table. With a year of experience playing in the Big Ten, Issie is going to be able to bring so much more to the team next season, which is exciting to think about. I really enjoy playing with Issie in practice and in games. As bigs, it’s important to be able to build chemistry on the court and read each other to help open each other up offensively and help each other defensively.”
Bourne knows that in order to fulfill her own international and professional basketball dreams, she has to be willing to put in extraordinary effort.
“I think just continuing to work on my game every day is huge for my development at the moment,” Bourne said. “I have been doing a lot of conditioning, body weight circuits, agility and basketball. Unfortunately, all gyms are shut down in Canberra, but we have a basketball ring in our front yard, so we have been using that.”
In 2019-20, Bourne became the first Australian in history to earn a women’s basketball letter at Nebraska, but she won’t be the only Australian on the Husker roster in 2020-21. Ruby Porter, a guard from Adelaide, will be a freshman for the Big Red this coming season.
“I am very excited for Ruby to contribute to our team next year,” Bourne said. “I have not played with her a lot, but I know she is an extremely hard-working athlete with a really nice shot.”
While it has been an unexpected blessing to have extra time at home with her family because of the pandemic, she is looking forward to returning to Nebraska for the start of fall classes and the resumption of her basketball career.
“As the season went on last year I became more comfortable with our plays and I found more avenues and ways to score,” Bourne said. “I also started to understand the college game much more, and I am still learning.”
SOPHOMORE / INDIANAPOLIS, IND.
Competition. It is the fuel that drives Husker women’s basketball players. Trinity Brady knows she is a tough competitor. The sophomore-to-be from Indianapolis loves to compete and win, even during shelter-in-place restrictions with her family in Indiana caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“The coronavirus has had a huge effect on my day-to-day life because for the most part, I do not leave the house,” Brady said. “I have struggled with finding things to do. At this point, I think that I have done everything possible. One activity that I have really enjoyed is playing cards with my family. Beating everyone has for sure been the highlight of staying home.”
But the 5-11 guard has not limited her competitiveness to the card table, she has also gone to work on her basketball game.
“I have not been able to go to any gyms in Indianapolis, but I have been able to work out and go on runs,” Brady said. “I have a basketball hoop in my backyard, so that has been great. I honestly don’t think it got that much use over the years, but now my brother (Vincent II) and I are shooting pretty much every day.”
Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said Brady’s competitiveness is contagious on and off the court.
“One of the things I love the most about Trinity is that she loves to compete,” Williams said. “If we put a challenge in front of her group in skill work or to the team as a whole, she is going to rally the troops to accomplish the goal. Off the court, she also has to have the best TikToks!”
With the sudden end to her freshman season at Nebraska caused by COVID-19, Brady has turned free time at home with family into a focus for her second season with the Big Red.
“This offseason my focus is staying healthy, working on ball-handling and shooting, and finishing around the basket. I feel like those are all areas I can improve.”
While her parents, Vincent and Jamie, and her younger brother Vincent II may not appreciate her success at cards as much as Trinity does, they easily recognize her competitiveness, determination, toughness and resiliency on the basketball court and in life.
They are also cherishing time together during the pandemic, especially considering the life-altering events they began to face as a family just over four years ago.
On Sunday morning, Feb. 7, 2016, less than 24 hours after helping Lawrence North to a sectional title as a high school freshman, Brady was riding in the passenger seat of a black Lincoln MKT driven by her cousin Garrett Holland on I-65 South outside of Indianapolis. Her brother was also in the backseat along with her cousin’s friend.
They were in the left lane next to a semi-truck, when the trailer of the truck began to weave and ultimately tipped over on top of the moving car. The mangled wreckage was ominous, but somehow, all four passengers in the car escaped with their lives.
Brady was bloodied and bruised after the death-defying accident. She was rushed to the hospital where she was stabilized with a neck brace and diagnosed with whiplash and a concussion. The competitor in Brady, who had been on her way to the gym, said she didn’t have time for the hospital.
“I need to get out of here. I have to go train,” Brady said to the doctor. “I have regionals in five days.”
Ae’Rianna Harris, a senior center at Purdue in 2019-20, and Amber Morgan, who went on to play collegiately at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), were both seniors for Lawrence North and the first of Brady’s teammates to visit her in the hospital right after the accident.
Harris heard that Brady was told by the doctor she would not be able to play at regionals. Harris encouraged Brady by telling her to be ready for state. With Harris and Morgan as senior leaders and future NCAA Division-I players, Brady was not the star at Lawrence North as a freshman, but she did contribute 7.2 points and 6.0 rebounds for one of the powerhouse teams in Indiana.
Brady went home that Sunday night, but suffered a fall because of dizziness and had one of many severe headaches. She would not be back on the court for six months. In December of 2016, 10 months after the accident, Brady was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury after visiting several neurologists. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder became her opponents.
After months of failed diagnoses and medications, Brady finally found answers with Dr. Brad Ralston, who began doing vestibular brain therapy with her six to seven hours per day, five days per week. Brady worked on eye exercises, balancing exercises, and training to improve her reaction time - all areas that suffered following whiplash and her concussion. The exercise-based program reduced her dizziness and vertigo and gave her a fighting chance to beat the pain and long-term effects of the injury.
Within 10 days, the pain that had gripped her for more than a year began to subside. It did not go away entirely. She faced ups and downs throughout the offseason, but she was improving and competing.
Nearly two full years after her terrifying accident, Brady enjoyed a huge junior season at Lawrence North, averaging 21.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists to earn a spot on the IBCA Subway Supreme 15 Underclass All-State Team in 2017-18. She was also a member of the Indiana Junior All-Star Team and the Central Indiana Super Team.
She would not describe herself as completely healthy in 2017-18. In fact, more than four years after the accident she knows she is still recovering.
“I am not fully recovered from my accident,” Brady said. “I still have days that I have extreme migraines and difficulty with other things that the accident caused. The therapy that I do on a regular basis helps tremendously at keeping things under control, for the most part.”
Brady chose to attend Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn., as a senior in 2018-19. The No. 106 player overall in the 2019 high school senior class according to Prospects Nation, Brady believed a year at the prep school would help her adjust to life on her own as a college basketball player.
Brady, who received 20 scholarship offers before ultimately choosing Nebraska over Marquette, Dayton and Illinois, helped Hamilton Heights Christian Academy to a 22-3 record and a final No. 18 national ranking in the USA Today Super 25 in 2018-19.
She came to campus early in the summer of 2019 to begin preparations for Nebraska’s summer trip to Europe. Her fitness level, confidence and comfort grew throughout the summer and preseason. In Nebraska’s exhibition opener with Rogers State on Nov. 2, Brady put up eight points and pulled down eight rebounds before an opponent fell on her in the lane in the closing moments.
The contact to her head and shoulder area put Brady into the concussion protocol. She was extremely sensitive to light and sound. She couldn’t run or exert herself for several weeks. She missed Nebraska’s first 10 regular-season games.
“Concussions could always be an issue for me due to my initial brain injury from the accident,” Brady said. “A hit to the head could take me back to the same issues that I have suffered since the accident. My symptoms also last longer than a person who has not previously had a brain injury.”
Through rest and rehabilitation, Brady returned to play in NU’s next 17 contests. In Nebraska’s Big Ten-opening win over Iowa on Dec. 28, Brady hit her first career three-pointer to give the Huskers a 30-27 lead in the second quarter. She added two assists and her first career steal in the victory over the Hawkeyes. Brady added a career-high seven points with a pair of threes at Rutgers on Jan. 12.
“Trinity has shown great resiliency throughout her basketball career, and we saw that throughout her freshman season,” Williams said. “She had to face her share of challenges on the court with injuries, and off the court with some personal tragedies. Her life experiences have taught her how to bounce back and to stay positive through tough times. Her perseverance is inspiring to her teammates and our staff.”
Despite moments of success, Brady knows her missed time and training at the start of the regular season affected her freshman contributions for the Huskers.
“I feel like missing so much really set me back,” Brady said. “I was not able to do anything with the concussion so coming back was difficult. I was very out of shape and hesitant on the court. On a positive note, I found that watching the team brought me a different perspective. I was able to see things on the sideline that I would have never noticed while playing.”
Brady’s continuing recovery from her traumatic brain injury has demonstrated her resilience and made her appreciate the gifts that surround her.
“I feel like the accident and the recovery from the concussion have matured me and made me more grateful for life and all of the ups and downs that it brings,” Brady said. “It has taught me to not take things for granted.”
SOPHOMORE / EAST HAVEN, CONN.
An ambitious and meticulous competitor, Nebraska sophomore-to-be Makenzie Helms has grown up committed to making the most out of every opportunity.
While the coronavirus outbreak has been devastating to many around the world, especially near her home on the East Coast, Helms has focused on maximizing the opportunities the break from organized basketball has provided in multiple areas of her own life. From creating stronger family connections, to personal health, individual basketball development and academic success, Helms is focused on the positives following her return to Lincoln after spending nearly two months at home in Connecticut.
“I moved into my new house in Lincoln on May 8th and have been in Lincoln since, starting my pre-session class,” Helms said as the Huskers prepared for voluntary on-campus workouts to begin on June 1. “We have access to the outside courts around campus. I hate the double-rim, but it definitely builds character.”
Helms has been itching to get back inside Nebraska’s spectacular practice home at the Hendricks Complex, and she is ready to take advantage of her second season with the Big Red.
“I feel as though I am in a great position to get significant time this season,” Helms said. However, I plan on working the hardest I ever have this summer to be my best self for the season. My freshman jitters are gone, and I cannot wait to contribute in so many ways on the court next year.”
The 5-8 guard from East Haven, Conn., competed in 13 games overall including seven conference contests and Nebraska’s game against Michigan in the 2020 Big Ten Tournament. She was a contributor in each of Nebraska’s final seven games during the season, after working to complete her recovery from a string of surgeries to relieve pain from compartment syndrome.
“Kenzie showed a lot of resiliency in her freshman season here at Nebraska,” Coach Amy Williams said. “She had to miss out on a substantial amount of training during the summer and preseason, which made her transition to college basketball even more challenging. As the season progressed, she became more and more comfortable in our system.”
Helms battled the pain in her legs from compartment syndrome during her high school career as well, including surgery before her high school senior year, but the pain didn’t stop her from being named the 2019 Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year. She was also ranked as the No. 27 point guard in the nation coming out of high school by ESPN after averaging 26.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 4.3 steals as a senior for the East Haven Yellowjackets.
Following her outstanding senior season in high school, Helms underwent a second round of surgery to alleviate leg pain and was limited throughout the summer of 2019. She played three minutes in Nebraska’s season-opening win over Alabama A&M on Nov. 6, but her time on the court was limited throughout non-conference play while she continued her recovery.
“Missing time on the court last summer had both positive and negative effects on me mentally,” Helms said. “Positively, I got to watch my team thrive and be together. Negatively, I felt like a burden. It was great watching my team, but I was upset that I could not contribute and be part of my first practices as a freshman. Coach Williams did the most she could in order to make me feel connected. Regardless of the situation, I was still an important part of the team, on the sidelines or not.”
Helms continued to gain strength and make adjustments to the college game without seeing much time in the first half of the season. But as the pain subsided, her legs gained strength and her fitness level and speed improved, and Helms began to earn more playing time.
In early February, she bounced off the bench to spark a 10-0 Nebraska run against nationally-ranked Indiana. She finished with three points and three assists in seven minutes to help the Huskers rally from a 25-point deficit to tie the game late against the Hoosiers. Helms also played well in a win over Penn State (Feb. 13) before notching three assists in a near-upset of nationally-ranked Northwestern in Evanston (Feb. 16).
While Helms’ statistical contributions were limited to 10 points, eight assists and six rebounds for the season, her personal growth was undeniable and her understanding of what she can do to help Nebraska improve as a team also became apparent.
“On the court, I got a sneak peek of what it really is like versus Big Ten competition and that calls for a quicker shot release, tighter handles and crisp passes” Helms said. “My focus during this offseason is getting my ball-handling tight and effective, while also becoming more consistent with my three-point shot. Off the court, I learned to communicate on a deeper level with others. Here in Lincoln, everyone is eager to succeed. Our student-athlete community is inspiring.”
Williams said the fire Helms brings to the gym each day can go a long way to helping Nebraska continue to build its program.”
“Kenzie brings a lot of energy and passion to our team in practice and on game days,” Williams said. “Our staff is excited to maximize that energy and passion for a full offseason and heading into her sophomore campaign.”
Helms is not only thankful for the other Husker student-athletes, she is also extraordinarily appreciative of Nebraska Women’s Basketball Athletic Trainer Ashley Rudolph. The Huskers’ full-time team athletic trainer helped make Helms’ second round of surgeries for compartment syndrome a success because of Rudolph’s care and diligence in coordinating Helms’ rehabilitation and recovery.
“Ashley is a godsend. We improved every day, and I will never be able to thank her enough for the relief that I have felt in the past year. Any time off the court is beneficial for my legs, but I have been running and feeling great,” Helms said. “Our approach to my recovery was what I would describe best as ‘no-nonsense.’ With my condition, there will always be that pain occasionally, but now it is nothing in comparison to the past. I feel absolutely blessed and genuinely feel indebted to Ashley because of the relief.”
Helms has plenty of reasons to thank talented and caring healthcare professionals. Her mother, Jocelyn, is a nurse in the Griffin Hospital Intensive Care Unit in Derby, Conn. Jocelyn has spent extensive time on the COVID-19 floor since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Makenzie’s sister, Cassie, recently graduated among the top of her class from nursing school at Quinnipiac University and will be working at Yale Hospital in New Haven, Conn. – the same hospital their father, Lance, works as an armed protection officer in the psychology ER. Lance was also a decorated officer in the East Haven and Hamden police departments.
“I am proud to call Lance and Jocelyn my parents because they are two of the strongest people I know,” Helms said. “They both worked incredible amounts of time while I was home. I believe my mother said Yale Hospital had more cases than the entire city of Lincoln.”
Because of her family’s potential exposure to the virus while she was home in Connecticut, Helms chose to limit her exposures outside of her immediate family.
“It was difficult to be home and not get to see my friends as often as I desired, but due to my parents’ occupations I felt that it was best to isolate myself while home. It was positive in the sense that my little brother (Logan, 4th Grade) and I bonded in so many ways that we had not before.”
As a new group of Huskers begin workouts for the 2020-21 season, Helms feels stronger physically, mentally and emotionally, eager to help herself and Nebraska continue to improve regardless of the challenges in front of them.
“I want Husker fans to know that I am extremely anxious to make my mark, and I promise to take full advantage of each opportunity when I step on the court for my team to succeed,” Helms said. “I cannot wait to be back on playing in front of the best fans in the nation.”
FRESHMAN / MINNEAPOLIS, MINN.
One of the first missions of any successful team is to build a strong sense of family. The Nebraska women’s basketball program works each season to form bonds to unify all the members of the team so they are prepared to overcome challenges on and off the court.
Freshman Annika Stewart brings an extensive basketball family background to her first season as a Husker. The first commitment in Nebraska’s seven-player group of newcomers for the 2020-21 season, Stewart made her intentions known in July of 2019.
Now, almost a year later, she is on campus and chomping at the bit to get her college career started by helping to build great team chemistry this summer with her Husker teammates.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” Stewart said the day before her first workout as a Husker. “I’ve been waiting for my college experience for a while, and I’m pumped to start working and being with the team.”
Nebraska’s 2020-21 team includes six returning players, and Stewart knows one of the Huskers’ first tasks is to develop team unity and a sense of family.
“We will all be learning and adjusting a lot,” Stewart said. “But I think that all seven of our different experiences along with the returning players will mesh well and give us a unique advantage above other teams.”
Part of Stewart’s confidence in Nebraska’s ability to develop unity comes from her experiences as a member of a basketball family. That basketball family background meshes well with Husker Coach Amy Williams, who also comes from a tight-knit basketball family of her own, which includes a father who was a high school coach, a sister who is college coach in Minnesota and a husband who was a long-time college coach.
“Annika comes from a basketball family, which has led to a highly skilled and high IQ basketball player,” Williams said. “She has been around coaches and teams her entire life, and she understands what it means to be a great teammates. She knows what makes good teams thrive.”
Annika’s older sister, Hannah, was a four-year contributor at Iowa. As a senior starter, Hannah helped Iowa to a Big Ten Tournament title by earning a spot on the Big Ten All-Tournament Team. It wasn’t always picture-perfect for Hannah at Iowa, including a freshman season in which Hannah played in just 12 games and a career that included three seasons as a non-starter. Annika knows she has learned a lot from the challenges that her older sister faced as a college basketball player.
“Hannah has helped me in so many ways,” Annika said. “We are very close and watching her go through four years, just hearing about all the ups and downs, has prepared me for what to look out for. Any questions I have, I go to her first and she always knows what to say. She had a challenging, yet rewarding four years, and I hope I can learn from her to make my experience the best it can be.”
After watching her older sister’s high school career culminate with Miss Basketball honors in the state of North Dakota and a third straight state tournament MVP award at Bishop Ryan Catholic in Minot, Annika began her own high school career as an eighth grader in 2015-16. Her mother, Julie (Wald) Stewart, was the Class B Coach of the Year in 2015 after leading Bishop Ryan to its third straight state title. Julie had also played her high school basketball at Bishop Ryan before heading off to the University of North Dakota to compete in both basketball and track in the late 1980s.
Annika’s father, Peter Stewart, is also a basketball coach. Peter was a long-time junior college head coach at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Wash. When Annika was a toddler, Peter was the head men’s coach while Julie was the head women’s coach at Peninsula. In 2010, Peter accepted the men’s head coaching position at Minot State to plant the family firmly back in North Dakota.
The competitive nature of the Stewart family, which also includes older brother, Eli, who will be a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 2020-21, went beyond the basketball court.
“My siblings and I are very close, and we grew up in a very competitive home,” Annika said. “When I was younger, they never let me win at anything. We would race up our hill and I would always lose, then cry about it.”
Annika spent both her eighth grade and freshman seasons at Bishop Ryan, playing for her mom. The family connections at Bishop Ryan go even deeper, as five of Julie’s brothers (Annika’s uncles) also played high school basketball for the Lions.
After coming off the bench as an eighth grader, Annika averaged 15.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman for Bishop Ryan. She earned all-region and all-conference honors while helping Bishop Ryan to a 20-5 record in 2016-17. Julie Stewart improved her six-year record as a head coach at Bishop Ryan to 145-14.
Despite multi-generational ties to Bishop Ryan, the Stewart family moved to Minneapolis prior to Annika’s sophomore season. Julie became an assistant coach and math teacher at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn.
Peter continued to stay close to the game after ending his college coaching career at Minot State in 2012. He has served as the director of player development for the Wayzata Basketball Association and was involved with the North Tartan summer basketball program that not only produced his daughters Hannah and Annika, but also current Husker junior guard Sam Haiby.
Annika became a starting forward on the varsity for one of the power teams in the state at Wayzata, continuing to play and train with her basketball family.
The move not only put Annika up against a higher level of competition day-in and day-out, it also helped prepare her mentally for her transition to college life.
“It was definitely hard leaving my closest friends and family right before my sophomore year, but the move really taught me a lot,” Stewart said. “Just the ability to adjust will help me a lot in college. I also think that being away from friends and family is never easy, but I know I’m joining my second family here in Nebraska.”
In her first season at Wayzata in 2017-18, Stewart averaged 10.0 points and 6.0 rebounds for the 25-3 Trojans to earn All-Lake Conference honors. Her numbers improved as a junior, when she averaged 12.2 points and 7.0 rebounds for 26-3 Wayzata, while capturing All-Lake Conference and All-Metro honors.
Her first two seasons in Minnesota helped prepare her for a huge end to her senior season in 2019-20. Stewart averaged 20.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists while hitting 65.5 percent of her two-point field goal attempts and 41.5 percent (39-94) of her threes. She was also nearly a 90 percent free throw shooter (51-57). She led Wayzata to a 24-5 record with three losses to national No. 1 Hopkins and Gatorade National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers.
“I was very grateful for the competition I was able to face in Minnesota,” Stewart said. “Hopkins is a very talented team, and being our biggest rival, I was always so pumped going into that game. Just going up against that type of talent will help me transition into collegiate basketball.”
Midway through her senior season, Stewart and the Trojans were challenged by the loss of their team’s leading scorer to an ACL injury. Stewart stepped up in a big way, averaging 25 points per contest over that 12-game span. Stewart’s response to the loss of her injured teammate helped her realize another level in her own game.
“I think my game really turned around when our star player got hurt,” Stewart said. “It was very unfortunate because she was such a presence on the floor and was our leading scorer. I knew I had to step up in more ways than one. Being a leader on the team, I am most proud of how we overcame challenges and fought with all we had.”
A first-team Minnesota Class 4A All-State selection, Stewart erupted for a season-high 36 points in a sectional semifinal win over St. Louis Park. That effort came after scoring 27 points in a win over Armstrong to open the 4A playoffs.
“As a senior, Annika really showed the versatility she has as a basketball player,” Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said. “She is a confident and consistent perimeter threat. She has the ability to score around the basket and makes good decisions on the court.”
Stewart’s career culminated with 27 points in a season-ending loss to Hopkins in the 6-4A sectional championship game. Although her season ended in a loss, Stewart appreciates the fact that it may have been a blessing in disguise for the Trojans because they got to play their season to completion, rather than having COVID-19 end her high school career.
“I’m very fortunate that I got to finish my basketball season and did not end with an unknown. I couldn’t imagine making it to the state championship and not being able to play,” Stewart said. “I’m also blessed that my family, friends and I have remained healthy in regards to COVID-19. We went to online school, and we were not able to go on spring break, have prom or graduation. I was pretty bummed about a lot of events that did not take place, but I try to look at the bright side of it, like how I was able to spend a lot of time with my family and friends.”
Stewart continued to work out and train five days a week during the spring despite going without gym access. She did her training on the turf fields at Wayzata High School, while getting her basketball work in on outdoor courts near her house.
She arrived in Nebraska in early June to begin the process to get ready for voluntary workouts with her Husker teammates. She immediately started bonding with her new Husker family, including her roommate, fellow freshman Whitney Brown.
“Whitney and I have been going for runs and going to study hall from 1 to 4 p.m. to work on our Nutrition 101 class,” Stewart said. “I am very excited to work out and get back in the gym.”
While Stewart starts the work of building her new Nebraska basketball family together with her teammates, she is confident that her own family will be along for the ride.
“I’d be surprised if my parents missed a game,” Stewart said. “They went to every game of Hannah’s that they could. If they missed one of Hannah’s games it was to watch one of mine.”
JUNIOR / STOCKTON, CALIF.
MiCole Cayton is a happy but hungry Husker.
The graduate transfer from Stockton, Calif., has spent the last three seasons trying to work her way back to the court full time after suffering an ACL tear late in the first game of her sophomore season at California in November of 2017.
Now, nearly five years since she originally committed to becoming a Husker, Cayton is finally at Nebraska – a place she calls "home."
"I am beyond happy. I have always called this place my second home, and I knew this place was very special ever since I was 17 and committed to play here," Cayton said. "When my mom, dad and younger sister moved me here a few weeks ago, it was the first time my mom and sister had come to Lincoln. They never understood why I loved this place so much, but by the time it was time for them to leave, they refused because they had loved everything about this place. That was a real sentimental moment for me."
Although Cayton is happy to finally be living in a place she is already calling home, she knows nothing is guaranteed when it comes to health on the basketball court. But it is her intimate knowledge of the struggle and hardships that have come along with her college career that have made her so hungry to be a Husker.
"I am approaching this season as a fresh start, back home where I started," Cayton said. "I have always called this place my home, so I feel like I am picking up where I left off, except that it is definitely a fresh start. I am so happy to be back in this environment with all of these Husker fans."
Cayton originally signed with Nebraska out of high school as part of a top-15 national recruiting class in November 2015.
However, her plans changed following Nebraska's 2015-16 season that concluded with a coaching change.
Amidst the uncertainty, Cayton chose to stay closer to her family and compete for Cal. She was an All-Pac-12 Freshman honorable-mention choice in 2016-17 after starting 13 games, including the last 12 of the season for the Bears. She scored a career-high 18 points to start that 12-game stretch with a win over No. 13 UCLA, and ended the 12-game span with two starts in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
After a strong summer of 2017, Cayton opened her sophomore season with 13 points, including a career-best three three-pointers in a win over always-tough Saint Mary's (Nov. 10). But she suffered a torn right ACL with 1:47 left in the win over the Gaels and missed the rest of the 2017-18 season.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2018-19, Cayton returned to the court to play games against Pacific, Tulane and San Diego in November before undergoing surgery to repair cartilage in her right knee, ending another season in Berkeley.
At times, the emotional toll was tough on Cayton. She continued to fight to find the motivation to continue to work and believe she could overcome the physical challenges she faced with her knee injuries.
"I experienced what it felt like to be alone in a process all by yourself. I experienced what it felt like to be lonely and sad," Cayton said. "Regardless of those feelings, I couldn't just sit back and feel sorry for myself. Instead, I maintained a positive mindset through it all and kept pushing myself to get better every day. I attended rehab every day of the week, and I was very determined and positive that I was going to get back on the court very soon."
More physical adversity defined her fourth season at Cal. She did not play in 2019-20, undergoing another surgery to replace cartilage in her right knee. The Bears also underwent a coaching change before her final season in Berkeley, with Charmin Smith taking over for Lindsay Gottlieb, who accepted an assistant coaching position with NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers.
"It was very hard for me the past three years physically, mentally and emotionally, but God only gives his battles to his toughest soldiers and I am beyond glad he picked me," Cayton said. "There were still a lot of things I needed to develop within myself and I really needed to mature, so while I wasn't playing basketball I was learning how to become more of a team player from the sidelines. I was learning more about my teammates, trying my best to take on a leadership role, and be a positive senior role model for them on and off the court. I am blessed that God placed me in this situation because it has only helped me to prove to myself that I can handle anything."
Cayton is also confident that her time on the sideline learning the nuances of the game while working to help her teammates has made her a more intelligent basketball player.
"I was able to learn how different my teammates are on the court and that not everyone was me, so I took different approaches toward everyone on the team in the way I voiced things to them," Cayton said. "I was able to be in coaches' shoes and demonstrate to my team what I was seeing as they were playing. It helped me to become a way smarter basketball player. I am really looking forward to doing the same thing here at Nebraska and sharing my knowledge and experience with my new teammates."
While Cayton's abilities as a leader and teammate have grown through her experiences working to overcome injuries, it is clear she has the hunger, the heart, and the resiliency to be a leader for the Huskers on the court.
"My ACL is as good as new and it has had three years to get stronger. According to MRIs it seems to be no problem at all," Cayton said. "The loss of cartilage had to be restored and those two surgeries have been done. I will bring a lot of experience, leadership and vocal talk to help this team succeed this year. I think I will also bring my quickness, my ability to get to the rim and my ability to play defense and to shoot from the perimeter."
Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said Cayton's energy and experience could help her make an impact for the Huskers.
"MiCole has an infectious competitive spirit and drive to be her very best," Williams said. "Her high energy and passion along with her experience as a collegiate athlete make her a great fit for our program."
Cayton's spirit, energy and passion for the game started with a life-long admiration of former NBA star Kevin Garnett, who was a 15-time All-Star and 12-time member of the NBA All-Defensive Team from 1995 to 2016.
"Kevin Garnett is the reason I play basketball," Cayton said. "His desire, hunger and drive just makes me super-excited and gets me all hyped up to keep going and never quit."
Garnett, who spent 21 years in the NBA and is regarded as one of the greatest power forwards in league history, wore No. 21 as a star for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The same number that Cayton chose to wear at St. Mary's High School in Stockton and at California. As a Husker, Cayton will be wearing No. 5 - the number Garnett wore while leading the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA title.
"My favorite player of all time is Kevin Garnett, because of his infectious energy, ability to lead, and the amount of heart he plays with. His passion, desire, and hunger for the game symbolize all of the reasons why I refused to give up after three years of injuries."
While Garnett serves as Cayton's inspiration, her tireless work ethic and commitment to finishing challenging tasks has been derived from people much closer to home.
The daughter of a teacher (Michael) and a nurse practitioner (Karen), Cayton focused on her academics while working tirelessly on her rehab from injury. She earned her bachelor's degree in legal studies from Cal this spring.
She sees herself becoming an attorney specializing in education in the future. However, she has decided to pursue a master's degree in agricultural sciences at Nebraska while she continues what she hopes will be a two or three-year career on the court.
"Our family knows a lot about hard work and dedication," Cayton said. "They will never let me give up on my dreams no matter what, and that also shapes me into the person I am today."
While her parents and three sisters (Kayla, Michelle and Anissia) have helped mold her as a person, Cayton's faith has strengthened her resilience during challenging times.
"I am the type of person that holds God really close to my heart, and I know he has a plan for me three years later," Cayton said. "Every day he has been guiding me in the right direction and so far everything has been very successful. I can't wait to see what the man above has in store for me. It's all his plan and his timing. I have grown in so many different ways, I am more mature, and I feel like I know what my purpose is. Now it's time to put it all to action."
REDSHIRT SOPHOMORE / DALLAS, ORE.
Ashley Scoggin will be the oldest player on the Nebraska women’s basketball team in 2020-21. She joined the Huskers on May 2 – six days before her 22nd birthday.
The elder stateswoman among the Huskers will be a redshirt sophomore, and nearly a full year older than senior-to-be Kate Cain and two months older than Nebraska’s four-year starter on the wing last season – Nicea Eliely.
No religious missionary work broke up Scoggin’s college career. No military service took her away from the game prior to her enrollment.
No, the 5-7 guard experienced a different kind of spiritual basketball journey of maturity while fighting her own battles against untimely injuries.
Coach Amy Williams and the Huskers are hoping the growth Scoggin has experienced will help them on and off the court in 2020-21.
"We are excited to add Ashley to our Husker family," Williams said. "She is a play-making guard with experience and maturity and will provide us with another consistent presence from behind the arc."
Scoggin showed her strength behind the arc by hitting nearly 40 percent (53-134) of her three-pointers last year at Salt Lake City Community College. She also knocked down nearly 95 percent (17-18) of her free throws and displayed her play-making skills with 52 assists, while averaging 10 points and 5.2 rebounds over 25 games.
Her performance at SLC last season came after nearly five years of knee injuries and surgeries that kept her out of competition for all but six games during that five-year span. Scoggin, who moved to Lincoln full time just 17 days after signing with the Huskers, could not wait to take the next step in her improbable basketball journey.
“I am beyond excited to be here at Nebraska,” Scoggin said. “I am very hopeful for my first season at Division I. I have spent my whole life dreaming about playing on this stage. After going through my injuries to be able to play at this level, I just have to keep getting better each and every day.”
That is exactly what Scoggin has been doing, on and off the court.
“The past six weeks have been amazing. Even though life isn’t normal right now, it has been a great transition for me,” Scoggin said. “Getting to know the area and campus has been great. Classes have been going good as well. I finished my pre-session class with an ‘A’ and I am currently taking Introduction to Human Development and Introduction into Family Finance.”
She is also loving life in the weight room and in the gym at the Hendricks Training Complex.
“The workouts with Coach (Stuart) Hart have been going great. They are challenging, but I love being in the weight room. It’s been really good to get back into the groove of things with workouts and court work,” Scoggin said. “Each day we go to the practice facility and my roommates and I are there from 9 a.m. to noon almost every day.
“Monday, Wednesday and Friday we lift with Coach Hart for about an hour and a half, then I go get treatment and physical therapy. Depending on how long that takes I go and get shots up in the gym. On Tuesday and Thursday I get treatment and do physical therapy for about an hour and a half and then go to the gym to do ball-handling, shooting and play pick-up.
“When I played again for the first time since March, I was rusty, but I have been feeling more fluid each time we play. There is also a time slot at night now for a couple of days during the week for an hour and half when we can go in and do more on the court. Overall, I am there for about 3-4 hours every day out of the week getting back in shape and working on my game.”
Her love for the game of basketball practically oozes from Scoggin when you hear her talk about her workouts. She is truly thankful for the opportunity to just be in a gym.
“When I feel down, I always go to the gym and I might just be there for hours,” Scoggin said. “Even if I couldn’t do much because of an injury, I just loved the feeling of the ball in my hand, the smell of the gym, the sound of the net when I would swish a shot.”
Scoggin is an undeniable basketball junkie whose love of the game has been tested by adversity after adversity the last five years. Instead of turning her back on the game she loved, she has been drawn even closer to it. She has used the adversity as motivation to take her game to a higher level while growing and maturing as both a player and a person.
Scoggin’s love for basketball began as an elementary school student and blossomed as a budding high school star in Portland, Ore. As a freshman in 2012-13, she averaged 15.7 points, five rebounds, four assists and five steals for West Salem. She transferred to Westview High School for her sophomore season in 2013-14 and averaged 10 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals while helping Westview to a third-place finish at the Class 6A state tournament. Scoggin played her sophomore season alongside current WNBA player Jaime Nared (Las Vegas Aces) who is in her third professional season after a four-year career at Tennessee.
Scoggin’s game grew as a junior at Westview in 2014-15, when she averaged 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals. She captured her second first-team all-metro honor as a junior and was attracting significant national recruiting interest.
But her life took a major turn in July of 2015 in Seattle, when she went for a steal at the top of the key in a summer AAU game. Her feet got tangled with her opponent and she injured her left knee. Two doctors evaluated her knee and determined no ligament tear had occurred.
Scoggin not only went back into the game, she played on the knee into August, before it was officially diagnosed as a torn ACL. She underwent surgery in September of 2015 and missed her high school senior season. Not only did she lose her senior season, she also lost all of her college basketball scholarship offers.
“When I tore my left ACL I became depressed,” Scoggin said. “The thing I loved most was taken away, and I didn’t know how my body was going to respond. I am a very positive person, and going through my injuries I kept my head up. I look at the bright side of life as best as I can. I remember thinking, ‘even though this really sucks and I wish it didn’t happen, I can come out of this a better player than I was before, just take it one day at a time.’”
Without a basketball scholarship, Scoggin chose to delay her enrollment in college. She sat out the 2016-17 season, focusing on her rehabilitation and her game. She worked out with a trainer and other college players from the Portland area. But with no games to play in front of coaches, no significant offers from four-year schools came her way.
So Scoggin enrolled at Salt Lake City Community College prior to the 2017-18 season. After more than two and a half years between her last high school game and her first junior college game, Scoggin scored 26 points on 8-of-12 three-point shooting in 21 minutes against Western Wyoming CC on Nov. 2, 2017. The next day, she added 17 points against Eastern Wyoming.
She started four more games for the Bruins, before suffering a torn right ACL following a game with Trinity Valley CC on Nov. 17, 2017.
Scoggin underwent surgery Jan. 15, 2018 and missed the rest of the 2017-18 season for the Bruins. Since she only played in six games, Scoggin was eligible to receive a medical redshirt for that season.
Back on the court in July of 2018, she felt her right knee pop for the first time since surgery. She was told her ACL was not torn, but according to Scoggin, her right knee never “felt right” after it popped. Scoggin called her surgeon and explained what she felt. He told her to take two weeks off before resuming full activity. At the end of two weeks, something still felt wrong in her knee. She called her surgeon again and he told her to take another week off. She still felt the same at the end of the third week.
Finally, she called her surgeon in Portland again and told him, “I need an MRI.” A week later she had an MRI, and then met with her surgeon. He did a knee exam, and according to Scoggin he told her she had no ligament damage. Her ACL was performing as expected.
Scoggin went back to Salt Lake City in August to start school and workouts with the Bruins. She had been playing and practicing with the team for about two months. Her leg felt weak, sometimes to the point of feeling like it was “just going to give out.” Her knee popped two more times before she decided she needed another medical opinion.
As she prepared to start her redshirt freshman season on the court in Salt Lake City in 2018-19, she had an evaluation from one of the Utah Jazz team surgeons. Her new surgeon ordered another MRI. In November of 2018, it was determined that when her knee popped in July of 2018 her ACL had come completely detached from her femur. The surgery on her right knee in January of 2018 included her ACL being put in at the wrong angle. It was doomed to fail.
Right ACL surgery number two and her third ACL surgery overall followed, and she missed the entire 2018-19 season.
While frustrated by her injuries, Scoggin seemed to be getting stronger mentally, physically and emotionally as she went through the rehabs and the surgeries.
“The biggest thing I would have to say is I'm a fighter,” Scoggin said. “No matter how many times I fall, I will get right back up. Coming back from not only one ACL, but three is hard. I learned how to pick myself up, and keep going.”
Like her own personal journey, Scoggin has learned to find inspiration in some interesting places.
“In some instances, I think of the movie Finding Nemo, when Dory says, ‘just keep swimming, just keep swimming,’ and no matter how dark it is, you will reach the light,” Scoggin said. “I have learned how to take adversity and come out of something that could have ended my career, to have it be a positive and make me a stronger person. Each person has their own journey, unique to them. It took me a while to understand that, but once I did it helped me move even further in the right direction.”
After minor meniscus repair in September of 2019 kept her off the court for Salt Lake City CC’s first two games of 2019-20, Scoggin was finally able to get back on the court for a basketball game with two minutes off the bench against South Plains College on Nov. 15, 2019. It was nearly two full years since playing her last game for SLC.
She came off the bench the next day against New Mexico Junior College and scored nine points in just 12 minutes. After that, she was a starter for the Bruins the rest of the season.
Although she was in the starting lineup, she knew she was still knocking a lot of rust off her game, and she had doubts that her performances would rise to a high level.
“My biggest fear was being less of a player than I was before I got injured,” Scoggin said. “Some of my friends who have torn their ACL said they never could play the same after surgery. I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to be the girl who came back with a vengeance. People would see me play and they would never know I had torn my ACLs.”
Scoggin knew her recovery and return to the court would be anything but an overnight success story, and she drew strength from some confidence-boosting advice from her father, Craig.
“What have you been doing while you’ve been out? Watching film, studying the game, working on your game. You're older, smarter, and you're stronger,” Craig Scoggin said. “Not only are you stronger physically, but you are mentally. When you go out on the court, outsmart them first and the rest will come.”
Ashley took that advice to heart. Through her first five games last season, she averaged 7.2 points per game, but she could feel her legs beginning to find themselves underneath her. She was also starting to feel the game’s pace again.
On Nov. 29, 2019, she erupted for 22 points on 6-of-9 three-point shooting against Eastern Wyoming. She consistently scored in double figures during December and January. By February, she was regularly playing 30-35 minutes per game, including a 40-minute effort at Utah State Eastern on Feb. 22, 2020.
For the season, Scoggin averaged 10.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals. She earned first-team All-Region 18 honors and was a member of the Region 18 All-Tournament team while helping the Bruins to the NJCAA Region 18 title and a 20-7 overall record.
The Bruins had a shot to compete in the NJCAA Tournament, which would give Scoggin a chance at greater exposure to Division I coaches. However, the coronavirus outbreak placed another unexpected turn in the road for Scoggin by forcing the cancellation of the national tournament.
“I have always wanted to play at the highest level my game would take me. That has motivated me tremendously,” Scoggin said. “When I was going through my injuries I was not going to let any hurdle stop me from reaching my goals. I wanted to prove to myself that I could come out of it and reach my dreams.”
So Scoggin treated the virus like another hurdle and set her mind to sprinting right over it.
She was motivated at home in Oregon by more words of wisdom from her father: “The world steps aside for people who know where they are going.”
Scoggin knew she was going to play college basketball, but she didn’t know where. She knew that she wanted it to be now, and she was going to find her own way to get there.
“I have wanted to play at this level since I was in the sixth grade, watching college basketball on TV. I wanted to be like them. I never lost sight of that. In high school, going to JUCO, going through my injuries, I never gave up,” Scoggin said. “I am going to keep coming at something until I get it. No matter what. I have a strong will and I am like that on the court as well. It tells you I’m tough and I have grit. I fight for what I want.”
Since college coaches weren’t going to get a chance to see her play, she decided to start reaching out to them directly. She sent more than 100 emails to college coaches, including one on a Saturday night to Nebraska Assistant Coach Chuck Love.
Coach Love responded within five minutes by text. He and Scoggin talked for about 90 minutes that night in April. Soon after, the Huskers offered her a scholarship. On May 2, she signed her letter of intent. On May 19, she was in Lincoln taking classes and preparing for voluntary workouts.
Although the start of the season is still months away, Scoggin is hungry to finally get a taste of Division I competition.
“I believe when you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe you will be successful, and I have used that to motivate me,” Scoggin said. “I still have a long way to go, but this is the start of another chapter in my book. I love and have a passion for the game. I want to be out there on the court so I can look back and say when I am done with my career, ‘I did that.’ I want to be proud that I accomplished what I set my mind to. I also want to be a role model for those who may be going through something similar and for them to have hope they can do it, too. If I can do it, anyone can. You just have to believe.”
FRESHMAN / GRAND ISLAND, NE
Whitney Brown is chasing her dream to play basketball at Nebraska. The 5-8 freshman from Grand Island grew up imagining herself as a Husker while following her older brothers and sisters from gym to gym to watch their games.
"It has always been my dream since I was a little kid to be a Husker, so when I was given the opportunity it was my dream come true," Brown said. "It will be an honor to represent my hometown with ‘Huskers’ written across my chest."
Brown, a two-time Super-State and All-Nebraska guard, received her opportunity from Nebraska Coach Amy Williams with an offer to be a preferred walk-on for the Huskers following Brown’s junior season at Grand Island Northwest High School when she led the Vikings to the 2019 Class B State title.
“Whit is excited for the opportunity to represent her home state and wear the Nebraska uniform. She understands what that means and will take full advantage of the opportunity each day,” Williams said. “She has a great work ethic and has a great understanding of what it takes to win. She has a selfless commitment to team and will be a great addition to our efforts toward unity.”
Brown capped her high school career by averaging 17.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals as a senior to carry Grand Island Northwest back to the state semifinals at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
With approximately three months separating her final high school game and her arrival on campus in early June to begin voluntary workouts as a Husker, Brown couldn’t wait to continue her next step in pursuing her dream.
“Being able to be back at Pinnacle Bank Arena and having the opportunity to call it my home court is surreal. It’s truly a blessing and I can’t wait to get on the court for the first day of practice and take every bit of it in,” Brown said. “I couldn’t be more excited to play in front of some of my hometown fans. To be able to play so close to home is something I will really cherish these next four years.”
The lone Nebraska native in the Huskers’ seven-player class of newcomers, Brown joins redshirt junior Taylor Kissinger as the two Nebraskans on NU’s 2020-21 roster. Brown, who grew up approximately an hour away from Kissinger’s home in Minden, shares a love for the long-range shot with her fellow Central Nebraskan.
“My greatest strengths as a player are my three-point range, my ball-handling skills, and my ability to lead,” Brown said. “I’ve always worked on being able to nail it from deep and being consistent with it. Every day I put the work in the gym to increase my accuracy and become the greatest three-point threat I can be.”
Brown’s love for the game started at home. The daughter of Mick and Lori Brown, Whitney is the youngest of six children. She grew up in the gym watching her family members play, including her three brothers, Bobby, Brock and Brook, and her sister, McKenzie, who was a star at Nebraska-Kearney (2015-18). McKenzie started 109 games for the Lopers and finished 12th in school history with 1,350 points, while setting the UNK career record with 249 three-pointers. McKenzie was also the 2014 Omaha World-Herald Girls Athlete of the Year after leading Grand Island Northwest to a pair of state basketball titles.
“I definitely learned a lot from my sister in general. She is my biggest supporter, the best role model and the best overall sister a girl could ask for,” Brown said. “Her college experience helped me know what to look for in a college, a team and academics. She still helps me work out at home. We go on runs together. I trust my sister with my life, and she has been my biggest influencer in sports and all my decisions.”
Whitney fondly remembers putting her time to good use at McKenzie’s games.
“At my sister’s games, I use to sit on the bench and dribble or run out on the court in between timeouts and halftime and take two balls out there to work on my moves,” Brown said. “It always just came naturally to me.”
Although she was the youngest of six children, Whitney displayed leadership skills at a young age.
“Something else that came natural was leadership. I knew from the start of my athletic career that in order to become the best I could be and make my team the best we could be, I would have to step up and lead with my voice and actions,” Brown said. “On every team I’ve been on, I’ve tried my best to step into the leadership role and lead my team to success.”
While the basketball and leadership skills came naturally, the competitive fire came at home.
“We were always very, very, very competitive,” Brown said. “Being the youngest, I got picked on and pushed around, but it was the best thing for me because it made me stronger. My siblings are a huge reason why I’m where I’m at today. I was basically at every game my siblings ever played, even some of their practices I went to and worked out on the sidelines. They taught me every move I know. They taught me grit, hard work, struggle and resilience. Every human is faced with their fair share of pain and struggle in their lifetime. It’s what you choose to do about it that makes you the person you are today. My siblings are the reason why I can push past pain and struggle. They taught me to be stronger than I could ever imagine physically and mentally. They taught me how to have fun but still be the best I can be.”
Brown also displayed her athletic skills, competitive nature and leadership abilities in other areas at Grand Island Northwest. Along with being a four-time varsity letterwinner in basketball, she also earned four letters while helping the Viking volleyball team to three Class B state tournament appearances. She was also a two-time state qualifier in the 3,200-meter run on the track. An academic all-state selection in both basketball and volleyball, Brown was also the president of the student council and the National Honor Society.
“Being a multi-sport athlete was awesome in every way,” Brown said. “It was so nice for a change in seasons and pace every so often. It was even better to have different teammates and coaches and make all kinds of different bonds and relationships.”
Growing up the youngest member in a competitive basketball family gave Brown a similar background to fellow Husker freshman Annika Stewart. Brown and Stewart discovered plenty of connections in their first days as roommates on campus in June, which has made the transition to life on campus easier for both of them.
“Anni and I got along right off the bat, and having the same class as her and going to workouts with her in the morning has been great,” Brown said. “We’re together every second of every day and it’s been great to make a new life-long friend.”
Brown and Stewart expect those connections to grow throughout the season.
“At first, I was definitely nervous to room with somebody I had never met before, but I am so glad I met her. We have so much in common, but we are very different too, which makes it even better because we make each other try new things and laugh all the time,” Brown said. “We both love shopping, eating lots and lots of food, and watching any and every Netflix show. “We will be roommates throughout the whole year along with Ruby Porter coming hopefully mid-August.”
Brown also expects the bond she is forming with Stewart and the rest of the Huskers is going to pay big dividends during the season.
“Team chemistry is going to play a huge role in our success this year, and I am not one bit worried about it because from the minute all of us girls stepped in the weight room together, joined Zoom calls, or texted in our group messages, you could sense the team chemistry,” Brown said. “From my perspective, we’ve already got great teamwork, encouragement and a strong bond. We scrimmaged each other a couple times, had movie nights and team bonding activities and have been working out together the past three or four weeks. Week by week, we are getting closer together and stronger on the court.”
While Brown feels great about her first month on campus and the direction the Huskers are headed together, she knows it is up to her to make herself the best she can be on and off the court.
“My goals are to get better, stronger, and faster in my four years of college and Nebraska was the one that could help me achieve that the best,” Brown said. “I’m excited for my first season to be repping ‘Huskers’ across my chest, and I plan to work hard, keep my head down and help the team out in any way I can.”
Brown’s desire to improve was a motivating force for her to get on campus as early as possible this summer.
“I was really looking forward to getting to campus and being able to work out in all the facilities and use all the different gadgets that Nebraska has,” Brown said. “In fact, I was counting down the days until I got to go in and lift. The advanced technology here is one of the reasons why Nebraska really sold me.”
Brown is spending the summer focused closing the gap between where she was as a high school player and where she needs to be as an effective college guard in the Big Ten.
“I need to get quicker, and I need to get more physical,” Brown said. “I have a great mid-range game off the court, but in games I sometimes forget to utilize it, and I think it could really take my game to the next level. Even the things I consider my strengths need work, and I will always be expecting to improve any and every aspect of my game. That’s why I am excited to see what Nebraska can do for me. Each girl on this team is going to push me in different ways, and I can’t wait to see the amount of improvement I make in just one year.”
JUNIOR / LAIE, HAWAII
Bella Cravens is not afraid to take a risk in order to achieve her dreams.
The junior transfer from Laie, Hawaii chose to leave Eastern Washington after an all-conference sophomore season to continue her basketball career at Nebraska.
While a move halfway across the United States to a campus she had never visited may seem like a risky move, Cravens said she has her share of experience with leaps of faith.
“I like to jump off cliffs into the ocean for fun when I’m back home.”
Just as Cravens uses her knowledge of the nuances of the waters, the winds and the waves when she makes her dives off the solid rocks in Hawaii, she gained insights into her leap to Nebraska with information from trusted sources closer to home.
“I was aware of (Assistant Football) Coach Tony Tuioti being here and that did help in my decision to come to Nebraska,” Cravens said. “The Tuiotis are close family friends of mine, and we actually grew up together in the same town before they moved away. I think for my parents especially, knowing I would have them here was very comforting.”
Tuioti was a defensive lineman for Hawaii from 1996 to 1999, before beginning his coaching career as a graduate assistant with the Rainbow Warriors. He was also the head football coach at Kalaheo High School in 2003 and 2004. After a move to Las Vegas to pursue other high school coaching opportunities and continue his education at UNLV, Tuioti returned to Hawaii and spent six seasons as a full-time coach for the Rainbow Warriors from 2008 to 2013.
Tuioti returned to the mainland with the Cleveland Browns in 2014 and 2015, before spending the 2016 season at Michigan. He also spent two seasons at Cal (2017, 2018) before joining Coach Scott Frost’s staff at Nebraska.
Tony and his wife, Keala, have seven children, and that large family feeling resonates with Bella, who is the fourth of Mark and Sharlene Cravens’ six children.
In addition to the strong family connection with the Tuiotis at Nebraska, Cravens also became aware of another local tie to the Huskers - volleyball player Keonilei Akana – after Cravens signed with the Big Red. The 2019 Honolulu Star-Advertiser Player of the Year, Akana was once a club volleyball teammate of Cravens.
“I know Keonilei Akana from home. We’re from the same community and we even played club volleyball together for a little,” Cravens said. “I didn’t know that she was committed to Nebraska when I signed. I thought she was going to USC, so I didn’t even think to reach out to her for her insights.”
Cravens’ leap to Nebraska followed a breakout sophomore season individually at Eastern Washington.
She averaged 10.4 points and a Big Sky Conference-leading 8.5 rebounds per game for the Eagles. The 6-3 forward produced six double-doubles, including a career-high 28 points to go along with 10 rebounds in just 20 minutes against Northern Arizona (Feb. 22). She hit 10-of-12 field goals against the Lumberjacks just days after going 8-for-8 from the field against Sacramento State (Feb. 20).
Remarkably, the honorable-mention All-Big Sky selection attributed at least some of her offensive outburst late in the season to frustration.
“I was tired of losing,” Cravens said. “We were having a rough season, and it was really getting to me. I remember being so frustrated. We had a really young team, only one girl had been in the program for three years, the rest of us were either in our second or first year so there wasn’t much leadership. I think I just decided that I needed to step up. I thought that by improving my game I could help the team more.”
During a four-game stretch (Feb. 15-27) as a sophomore, Cravens averaged 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.8 steals while hitting 69.6 percent (32-46) of her field goal attempts. A drastic contrast from the 3.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks she averaged as a part-time starter for Eastern Washington as a true freshman in 2018-19.
While frustration may have served as a major motivator for Cravens, hard work to improve her own game and growing experience both on and off the court helped her achieve success.
“I was a lot more comfortable offensively my sophomore year compared to my freshman year,” Cravens said. “I think it was because I was a lot more confident in my abilities. I had been working on it and looking to score more to better expand my game, and with the work came success and confidence.”
While her offensive growth gained headlines and accolades for Cravens, she knows that defense and rebounding are the foundation of her own game. Last season, Cravens ranked No. 66 in NCAA Division I with 1.7 blocks per game, while ranking No. 92 nationally with 8.5 rebounds.
”I feel that my biggest strengths on the basketball court are rebounding and defense,” Cravens said. “Those were always my main focus, so I feel that they always came a lot more natural than offense. I feel that my game has the most potential for growth on the offensive side, specifically expanding my perimeter game.”
As Cravens continues to expand her offensive game, Nebraska Coach Amy Williams believes Cravens has a bright future for the Huskers.
“Bella is an excellent athlete who is motivated to become the best player she can,” Williams said. “We have a strong need for the things she brings to the table, and we believe her best basketball is still in front of her. We can’t wait to pour into her as a Husker.”
Cravens is also craving Nebraska’s commitment to helping her develop on and off the court.
“I think it is evident that what I need most is support in development,” Cravens said. “I want to be part of a total contribution component. I want to feel the support from staff and team members. I want to compete at a higher level and evolve into a well-rounded basketball player. I feel Nebraska is the best fit for me.”
Through her first six weeks on campus in Lincoln, Cravens is feeling the support she pursued.
“I think the facilities and the support I’ve received academically and athletically are the most surprising,” Cravens said. “It seems like here at Nebraska they really want to see me succeed in all areas of my life, and everyone here is so willing to help with anything.”
Cravens is also feeling a family atmosphere within the Husker women’s basketball program, while rooming with fellow 2020-21 transfers MiCole Cayton, Nailah Dillard and Ashley Scoggin.
“My first few weeks on campus have been great despite a few hiccups we’ve faced as a team as far as COVID restrictions,” Cravens said. “I’m adjusting well to life in Lincoln, however the first week I was here, the five-hour time difference really messed up my sleep schedule. We haven’t been able to do much as a whole team due to all the restrictions, but we’ve had a few open gym runs, get-togethers at teammates’ houses the first couple weeks and things of that manner.”
While Cravens works to grow her game, she will also be waiting to hear from the NCAA whether she will be granted a waiver to be eligible to compete for the Huskers in 2020-21.
“I really hope I get this waiver and the opportunity to play for Nebraska right away,” Cravens said. “I haven’t heard anything back about the waiver regarding the timeline, but it would be great if it was granted.”
With a waiver, Cravens would have a chance to become the first women’s basketball letterwinner from Hawaii in Husker history.
Although she would be the first Nebraska women’s basketball letterwinner from the Aloha State, the Huskers have a rich Hawaiian heritage across many sports, including college football’s first Rimington Award winner Dominic Raiola (1998-2000), two-time All-America baseball pitcher Shane Komine (1999-2002) and three-time All-America volleyball setter Fiona Nepo (1995-98).
“I actually did not know that I had that opportunity (to be the first women’s basketball letterwinner from Hawaii),” Cravens said. “Now that I know it, I am super-stoked to put on for the state of Hawaii!”
SOPHOMORE / SACRAMENTO, CA
After experiencing a roller coaster first season in college basketball, Nailah Dillard was looking for a new basketball family in a safe and consistent place she could call home.
As a freshman at Texas Tech, Dillard played in 23 games, including a career-high 10 points in 28 minutes off the bench in a win over Oklahoma in Lubbock (Jan. 22). The next game, she made her first career start against No. 1 Baylor in Waco (Jan. 25). She had nine points in 27 minutes against the defending national champions. She started the next game against Oklahoma State (Feb. 3) but played just nine minutes and then did not see action at all against Kansas State (Feb. 5).
It is a brief sample of the highs and lows of Dillard’s freshman season on the court in Lubbock, but it is just a small part of the story.
“As a 17-year-old girl coming out of high school, I guess I didn’t know what to expect from college, college basketball or college coaches,” Dillard said. “The bond I had with my teammates was incredible, and they will always be my lifelong friends. Unfortunately the relationship I had with my coaches was nonexistent.”
The 5-9 guard out of Inderkum High School in Sacramento, expected her new college basketball home to be back in California after making the choice to enter the transfer portal and leave Texas Tech. She expected to find the safety, security and consistency she was seeking in a place she knew as familiar.
“I entered the (transfer) portal with the goal to play closer to home, where I could get more emotional support from my friends and family,” Dillard said. “I was recruited by several amazing teams in California and really turned down most of the teams outside of California because my heart was set on coming home. I was pretty vocal about my previous experiences and what I was looking for…someone to care about me on and off the court.”
Then Nebraska called.
At first, Dillard didn’t even want to respond to the Husker coaches, but through the encouragement of her father, Jason, she took the call and the recruiting process began.
“At first, I was like ‘where’s Nebraska?’ My dad knew of the amazing Husker fan base and thought I would enjoy the athletic experience,” Dillard said. “Immediately I had a connection with all the coaches. Coach (Amy) Williams made me feel safe. The coaches took me and my family on a virtual tour and spent quality time getting to know me. I was sold.”
Dillard officially became a member of the Husker family on April 15, 2020, when she signed to come to Nebraska with fellow West Coast transfers MiCole Cayton and Bella Cravens. Those two are now her Husker roommates, along with another West Coast transfer, Ashley Scoggin.
“We are all already so close,” Dillard said. “We are some of the girliest basketball players you will ever meet, so that’s definitely something we all have in common. I hate that we’re in a pandemic, but I feel very connected to my teammates. Our coaches did an amazing job getting us together on zoom calls before we even got to Nebraska and now that we’re all here we are bonding and really getting to know each other.”
It is that strong sense of family that Dillard was hoping to find, after growing up in her own tight-knit family in Sacramento.
Her father, Jason, is a real estate broker, and her mother, Damia, is a social worker. Her parents provided the foundation for her success on and off the court.
“My father has been my coach and toughest critic from day one. My mom licks my wounds and puts me back together again. My dad exposed me to the game, pushed me to be my best, traveled the country with me, and always placed me in the best position to advance my career. My mom tried to ensure I had a balanced life with friends, family and time to be a girly girl. I needed them both, and they both did a well-balanced job of raising me.”
Nailah also has a twin sister, Naomi, who was a co-captain alongside her on the basketball court at Inderkum High School. Naomi also went to Texas for her college career, pursuing a career in medicine on a full academic scholarship at Prairie View A&M just outside of Houston.
“My parents always said together we are the perfect person. Nay has always wanted to be a doctor, and while I played AAU she spent her summers in science camp,” Dillard said. “Being a twin is like being born with a best friend. I never had to be afraid because my twin was right there. We have the same best friends and did everything together. Separating from her to go to college wasn’t easy. Last year, we were both in Texas and she drove hours to watch me play as often as she could. We talk all day every day. She knows everything about me.”
In addition to playing basketball together, Nailah and Naomi also shared a love of music, and strengthened their family bonds by singing in the church choir.
“I grew up in the church and church choir. Nay is a soprano and I’m an alto. We have led many songs at church which helped us with public speaking and our overall confidence,” Dillard said. “I love music. Music is poetry. I love all genres of music but mostly listen to Gospel, R&B, and 90s throwback R&B. I love the messages that songs bring. They speak to me. Gospel is so uplifting, inspiring, healing while R&B tends to speak to my mood, my heart or my pain. I’m always singing something, and I’m pretty decent, too.”
While Dillard sees the uplifting power of music, she also knows the power of the spoken word to inspire, advocate and protect others. That recognition may be leading down a path of eventually pursuing a law degree while currently majoring in criminal justice at Nebraska.
Although a career as a lawyer for Nailah may seem like the natural complement Naomi’s pursuit of a career as a doctor, Nailah’s motivation may stem more from being a big sister than a twin sister.
When Nailah was 11, her younger sister, Samaya, experienced a traumatic event as a seven-year-old at her elementary school. Samaya went missing for two hours during the school day, after being punished in school by her teacher. Nailah, riding in a car with their father, spotted her on the streets after Samaya had crossed a busy California freeway.
“This was a devastating and emotional time for me and my family. I was in the car with my dad as we combed the streets searching for her. I was the first person to spot her and nearly leaped out of the moving vehicle to tackle my baby sister. I was emotionally distraught. My little sister was a ghost of herself and was never the same,” Dillard said. “We went to therapy, had news reporters at our house, lawsuits. This never faded to the distant past because it has remained at the forefront of how we all navigate our worlds. In fact, my little sister continues to travel the country sharing her story and was featured in a documentary. She has gone to D.C. to speak to Congress about black girls and instructional racism.”
The documentary “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” was executive produced and co-written by Monique W. Morris, Ed.D, the founder and president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute. The documentary, based on the book of the same name, was screened for the first time near the tip-off of the basketball season last year, featured at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles (Feb. 21) and aired on PBS in mid-March.
These notable experiences for Nailah and her family make the five words she uses to describe herself strikingly significant.
“I am a fighter, an advocate, passionate, loyal and ambitious.”
Pretty good qualities for a lawyer, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teammate and a basketball player.
“We are very excited to add Nailah to the Husker family,” Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said. “She brings another confident presence from behind the arc, and she is also a player that is hungry to expand her game. She takes pride in playing on both ends of the court.”
As a freshman at Texas Tech, Dillard hit 34.6 percent (18-52) of her three-pointers and 74.1 percent (20-27) of her free throws in sporadic action. While her three-point shooting stands out, she characterizes herself as more of a “utility” player on the court.
“Throughout my high school and AAU career, I was a utility player. You put me on the court and tell me what you need me to do. I have played point guard, shooting guard, and played in the post,” Dillard said. “Texas Tech really used me a lot as a perimeter shooter, but I have a well-rounded game. I work really hard on trying to create my own shots and get on the shooting machine as often as I can. Hitting threes feels great, but I want to help my team win wherever I’m needed.”
A second-team All-California selection as a high school senior in 2019, Dillard averaged 22 points per game. As a junior at Inderkum High School, she scored 40 points in a win over Woodland (Jan. 10, 2018), just five days after pumping in 34 in a win over Yuba City. She played her AAU basketball for West Coast Premier. She was also an honor roll student and graduated magna cum laude.
“The facilities here and the academic support are definitely top notch, and I truly feel so blessed to be able to play here and represent this great school,” Dillard said. “I chose Nebraska because I wanted to play for coaches who would invest in me and value me as a person on and off the court. I wanted to play for a program that values success, and I am looking forward to playing with teammates and for coaches who love to win as much as I do.”