LINCOLN — Playing volleyball on the beach had always been where Alexa Strange felt most comfortable, so it was no surprise she became part of Nebraska’s top duo this month during the program’s first sand campaign.
What her teammates might not always have seen, however, was the time she spent preparing for life after the beach. Strange was in the gym, alone, before and after the team’s sand workouts, putting up ball after ball to hone her setting skills.
“It’s one of those skills that you need constant repetition to get better at it,” said Strange, who will be the Huskers’ only setter during the spring exhibition season, which begins with a 3 p.m. match Saturday against South Dakota in the NU Coliseum.
It will be the first time since 2008 that the Huskers enter the year without a returning starter at setter. The position has been occupied the past three seasons by All-American Lauren Cook, who ended her career as one of NU’s all-time greats. Decorated freshman Kelly Hunter from Papillion-La Vista South, part of the program’s touted recruiting class, will arrive this fall. But for the next month, Strange has the job to herself and is looking to prove she isn’t just a caretaker during the four spring exhibition matches.
“Really, there’s no other setter here. There’s no pressure on me,” Strange said. “I just have to show everybody what I’m capable of and what I can do. So it’s the best position I could possibly be in.”
Strange stood out on the beach, as she and Kelsey Robinson established themselves as one of the country’s top sand volleyball pairings. Her competitiveness outdoors impressed coach John Cook, himself a former beach player. Cook said Strange’s fire is undoubted. The question is whether the sophomore-to-be from San Clemente, Calif., can develop the technique to play the sport’s most technically demanding position.
“The hardest adjustment going from sand to indoor will be setting, because it’s so different,” Cook said. “Her head is spinning right now from that, but she showed us she’s a warrior, a competitor, and knows how to win.”
Strange will have plenty of guidance. Cook coached the Husker setters last year, and assistant Dani Busboom-Kelly also played the position at Nebraska before becoming a libero. Busboom-Kelly and Strange stuck around on the practice floor Thursday to discuss feet and hand placement.
“What’s really good about them is they complement each other,” Strange said. “Dani is a lot more technical with me, while Coach (Cook) is more motivational with me at the same time. He sees things she doesn’t see, and she sees things he doesn’t see.
“They’re a really good combination. Sometimes it’s like an overload of information because it’s just so much, but I feel like I’m getting a lot better because of them.”
Setter is one position where Nebraska is looking to replace a departed starter, and the next month could go a long way to determining starting jobs in the fall. Four players who are essentially newcomers will vie to fill the two left-side hitter spots vacated by departed All-Americans Gina Mancuso and Hannah Werth.
Robinson, a senior transfer from Tennessee and the 2011 Southeastern Conference player of the year, figures to be a favorite, along with highly regarded freshman Kadie Rolfzen from Papillion-La Vista South. Kadie’s twin sister, Amber, another national top-10 recruit, is training at opposite hitter along with two-year starter Morgan Broekhuis. Sophomores Kelsey Fien and Alicia Ostrander also will work to prove themselves at outside hitter this spring.
Cook will also rotate outside hitters at the libero position during exhibition matches. NU must replace two-year starter Lara Dykstra, who transferred to Pepperdine after last indoor season. Incoming freshman Justine Wong-Orantes also figures to compete for the libero job when she arrives this summer.
It makes for a lot of questions this spring, and a quick turnaround from the sand season, which ended last weekend. The Huskers were just getting back to indoor fundamentals this week, but Cook said the game environment Saturday will be an eye-opener for his relatively young group.
“We have a lot of new players who haven’t been out there much,” Cook said. “Now, they’re going to have to perform. There will be a crowd, the band, and all that stuff going on. This is great preparation for us to get through butterflies and nerves and hopefully, by the end of April, we’ll be playing good volleyball.”
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