When the transfer portal meets ‘real life’: Ally Batenhorst trains with Nebraska before joining rival

LINCOLN, Neb. — In her three seasons at Nebraska, Ally Batenhorst played on two volleyball teams that came within one victory of the ultimate prize. In December, she started at outside hitter for the Huskers as Texas rolled to a three-set win for the national championship.

Then in early January, Batenhorst took a deep breath and called her coach John Cook.

“I was nervous,” she said. “The situation was unique. But you never know.”

Batenhorst decided to leave the Huskers. The conversation with Cook came immediately before she submitted forms to enter the transfer portal with one semester left before she would graduate from Nebraska. 

“I went into this phone call fully expecting that I might need to figure out training on my own,” Batenhorst said.

What she got from Cook, the four-time national championship coach, was an invitation to play with the Huskers during their winter beach volleyball season and train indoors alongside most of the 2024 team this spring. Batenhorst accepted. She will graduate next month in Lincoln and head to USC in the summer to prepare for the fall season.

Imagine a top wide receiver or running back announcing his transfer to a conference rival after a football season, then sticking around for spring practice with his old team.

It likely wouldn’t happen. But Cook opted to take the wide view of Batenhorst’s situation. The coach knew her teammates at Nebraska would appreciate his gesture, and he said he considered Batenhorst’s contributions over three years in Lincoln.

In the transfer portal age, a hard-line stance on roster management might backfire. Not only that, Cook wanted to do right by Batenhorst.

“We have a saying here,” he said. “Once a Husker, always a Husker. We try to live by that.

“I see a lot of other schools just completely cut their (outgoing) players off. These are people who are graduating. They’re in their last semester. To me, that’s different. She’s been here. She’s using her last year to try something new. There’s no ill feelings there. We’ve got great connections. We have great relationships. We’ve had a great run with her being here.”

Nebraska lost Batenhorst, the former No. 3 recruit in the 2021 class, and freshman Caroline Jurevicius to the portal this year. Jurevicius is headed to Penn State. Cook added transfers Leyla Blackwell from San Diego and Taylor Landfair, a first-team All-American and the 2022 Big Ten player of the year at Minnesota.

Blackwell and Landfair will join the Huskers in the summer.

They’ve both separated entirely from their former programs. Not Batenhorst. Her 2.25 kills per set ranked third among Huskers in 2023 who played in more than half of the team’s matches.

“Honestly, I was not expecting it to be this smooth,” she said. “I’ve always had a really good relationship with the coaches here, so they’ve been super supportive of the fact that I do have other goals.”

Batenhorst is majoring in communications at Nebraska. At USC, she plans to study digital media and explore career possibilities in that realm.

Her mother, Susan, quit her career as a TV news anchor in Nebraska when Ally was born. The family, including Ally’s Nebraska-native father Kurt, moved to Houston.

But their roots run deep here. The split from Nebraska, whether it came in May or December of this year, was certain to take a toll on her emotions, Batenhorst said.

“At this point, it’s beyond volleyball,” she said. “This is my life.”

The 6-foot-5 Batenhorst plans to play one indoor season and one beach season at USC. She’s likely to consider professional options in volleyball.


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Practices for Batenhorst at Nebraska this spring work similarly to her regimen of the past three years.

“It feels like I’m still on the team,” she said.

Batenhorst gets individual work in practice and receives attention from the coaching staff while sitting out of team meetings. She will not play in the Huskers’ spring exhibition match on May 4 in Kearney, Neb.

“It shows who they are as coaches and as people,” Nebraska setter Bergen Reilly said of the Huskers’ treatment of Batenhorst. “Once you’re a part of the Nebraska team, you’re a part of Nebraska. They’re not just going to push her out the door and forget about her.”

Without Batenhorst, the Huskers remain loaded at outside hitter.

Harper Murray, the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year, returns on one side. Nebraska adds Landfair and freshman early enrollee Skyler Pierce, the top-rated signee at the position nationally. Lindsay Krause, who alternated with Batenhorst early last season before Krause suffered an ankle injury, is again healthy.

But Cook would have gladly kept Batenhorst if she chose to return.

“You’ve got to have depth, as we found out last year,” Cook said. “Somebody leaves. Somebody else leaves. You try to get the best players you can. It’s like musical chairs.”

Cook, 67, said he’s embracing the “new world order” of college sports. He drew criticism at the final four last season for comments interpreted by some to mean that Texas built a title team out of portal additions. Transfers Madisen Skinner, Bella Bergmark and Jenna Wenaas contributed to Texas’ victory against Nebraska, as did Nebraska transfer Keonilei Akana.

Transfers improved both squads. Merritt Beason, a first-team All-American for Nebraska in 2023, transferred from Florida.

Cook’s teams in recent years received major boosts, too, from transfers Lexi Sun (Texas) and Kaitlyn Hord (Penn State). Landfair figures to fit as a centerpiece at Nebraska in 2024.

The bottom line is many of the top programs swap players annually.

“You’ve got to be able to adapt,” Cook said. “You can either fight it and get frustrated and retire like Nick Saban, or you can try to learn to get along with it. It’s not going to change. If anything it’s going to expand. And now with NIL, it’s changing very quickly. It’s just going to be about where the money is coming from and who’s paying who.”

Still, Cook said, he won’t deviate from the philosophy that led him to offer Batenhorst a smooth exit. Recruiting out of high schools remains the foundation of Nebraska volleyball, he said.

“Some schools have shown that you can go out and live in the portal every year,” Cook said. “But I’m wired and our program is wired to build kids, and our fans want to build those relationships and follow their careers.”

Cook’s greatest accomplishment in coaching, he said, involves Lindsay Peterson, Kelly Hunter and Jordan Larson. They won national championships under Cook at Nebraska and today work for him.

“They went through challenging times in college and now they’re giving back,” Cook said. “It tells me we’re making a difference and that people want to be a part of this program.”

Such a trail has grown more difficult to blaze today.

Players leave under good circumstances and bad. In whatever ways he can manage it, Cook said, he’ll work to maintain a positive experience for players who come through Lincoln — for one year or for four.

(Top photo: Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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