Kelly Hunter has about one week left of living the life of a normal teenager, which is about one week more than she’s used to having.
Nebraska’s highly regarded recruit out of Papillion-La Vista South will come to Lincoln on Sunday, start summer school the next day and will begin summer workouts with an eye on competing for the starting setter job she’s been eyeing since committing to the Huskers three years ago.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it. I’ve been committed so long and now it’s finally here,” Hunter said. “It’s so weird. In some ways I still feel like I’m a freshman in high school all over again.”
If Hunter’s first season at Nebraska resembles her first season at Papio South, it would be hard to label it as anything but a success. Hunter started from Day 1 for coach Gwen Egbert. Alongside outside hitters Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, her future Husker teammates, the Titans went 159-6 with three Class A state championships in her four seasons.
Last year, Papio South finished 41-1 with its only defeat coming to national power Louisville (Ky.) Assumption. PrepVolleyball.com named the Titans the No. 1 high school team in the country, and gave Hunter the Andi Collins Award as the top high school setter.
But stepping into the same position at Nebraska will take more work, Hunter said. The Huskers have never started a true freshman as the team’s lone setter, and Hunter has been running a 5-1 system for only two seasons. Still, Hunter said she’s spending her last days before moving to Lincoln putting herself in the best position possible to be the starter when NU opens the season in August.
“I’m trying to get in the best shape I can,” Hunter said. “As a setter, it’s just reps, reps, reps, and work your location. Be perfect I guess. That’s what you try to be every time as a setter. You try to be perfect.”
Setting is a Hunter family legacy. Kelly’s mother, Lori (Melcher) Hunter, played at Nebraska from 1977-1980. Her sister, Lindsey, was a first-team All-American at Missouri in 2005 and is now an assistant for the Tigers. That pedigree, along with Kelly’s high school accolades, led to an expectation that Hunter could be the first rookie to run the Husker offense.
Hunter watched this spring as NU’s roster underwent a game of musical chairs at her position. Sophomore setter Alexa Strange left the team after the conclusion of the Huskers’ exhibition season to focus on beach volleyball. Hunter then began hearing rumors from other recruits that Nebraska was looking to bring in a transfer setter.
A week after Strange’s departure, NU added Mary Pollmiller, who started her first two seasons at Tennessee and was named Southeastern Conference freshman of the year in 2011.
“My first reaction when Alexa left was ‘Sweet, I’m the only one,’” Hunter said. “But I knew you always need to have two setters so I knew there would be someone else eventually, whether from my class or somewhere else.”
Hunter and Pollmiller, who has two seasons of eligibility left, will make for an interesting competition as each has previous experience with Husker attackers. Hunter spent four seasons as the distributor for the Rolfzens at Papio South and with the Nebraska Juniors club. But Pollmiller has chemistry with fellow Tennessee transfer Kelsey Robinson, who emerged as Nebraska’s top offensive option this spring.
“I think (Hunter) can do anything that she decides,” said Egbert, who is now the coach at Doane College in addition to leading the Nebraska Juniors. “If she puts in a lot of time in the summer on the areas she needs to work on, she’ll challenge. She’ll get out there and compete.
“And if she doesn’t (start), she’ll help the team any way she can. That’s the kind of player Kelly is.”
Hunter said in order to put forth her best challenge for the starting job, she’ll need to take initiative by working with Husker hitters this summer. The team won’t practice systems together in the summer, so Hunter may have to work the phone to get a few other players in the gym to learn their tendencies.
That shouldn’t be a problem, said Kadie Rolfzen, because Hunter is a social player who always has something to say.
“Her strength is calming everybody down,” Rolfzen said. “She’s definitely the one that, if it’s going south, she’s the one who stops it. You’ll be dead serious and she’ll say something funny to make you laugh and think, ‘What is she doing?’”
Hunter had a plan for her senior year. Instead of enrolling in college in January like the Rolfzens, Hunter wanted to fully experience her last semester of high school. She gave up basketball and tennis to focus on volleyball while getting some more free time to recharge before starting her college career.
She joked that she finally had more than an hour to get ready for her prom this spring. When she’s not working out, she’s able to spend time at the family’s lake house near Plattsmouth.
“I had a lot more free time because I used to have just one day off between sports,” Hunter said. “I had more time to hang out and be a normal teenager instead of having sports all the time.”
The final part of the plan is three years in the making. To start right away as the Nebraska setter will involve a lot of work, and Hunter is no longer the obvious heir apparent. She’ll have to fight for the job, which makes her want it even more.
“I’m really hoping I’ll get a chance to compete,” Hunter said.
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