LINCOLN — Over the phone, John Cook wanted to be very clear about what he was asking Kelsey Robinson to do.
The Nebraska volleyball coach wanted to make sure that if Robinson decided to close her college career at Nebraska after three standout seasons at Tennessee, she would do so understanding the added pressure of his request.
The telephone conversation happened last December. Nebraska was graduating three starters with All-America accolades. Another two-year starter had just told coaches she intended to transfer. The 2013 Huskers would need a big-time player, but more important, they would need someone to take charge.
“I told her, 'Don't come here unless you're ready to be a leader, because here's our situation: We have a lot of talent, but we're going to need someone on the court to be a leader,' ” Cook said. “I think she embraced that opportunity, and it's one of the reasons she came to Nebraska. If you're a true competitor and want to be a great player and have a great legacy, that's one of the things you want to have, is to be a leader your senior year.”
By all accounts, Robinson has embraced the challenge posed by Nebraska's unique situation. Most teams aren't counting on leadership from a player who has spent all of eight months on campus. But with 10 new players and only one other senior who will play this fall, the Huskers will turn to Robinson for leadership based on her capability and their need.
There was risk, of course. Even though Robinson's on-court bona fides gave her instant credibility — the outside hitter led the Southeastern Conference in kills as a sophomore in 2011 when she was named the league's player of the year — stepping into an unfamiliar group could have left her on the fringes of the team not wanting to make waves.
There was little time for Robinson to ease into the role. It was essential, Cook knew, to have Robinson arrive in the winter and participate in Nebraska's inaugural sand volleyball season. Starting in January, Robinson began workouts with her new teammates at the team's indoor sand court and participated in team meetings. She quickly found that she was expected and encouraged to be vocal.
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“I think the sand season really helped me lead and play the way I'm used to playing and not hesitate or worry about stepping on anybody's toes,” Robinson said. “The sand season was the best thing I could've asked for to make the transition really easy.”
It was in those workouts and on the team's sand volleyball road trip to California in March that the Huskers first learned of Robinson's white-hot competitiveness that infuses everything from her workouts to her family Monopoly games.
Without speaking individually about former teammates or coaches, Robinson and fellow NU player Mary Pollmiller — another Tennessee transfer — explained that some attitudes within the Lady Vols' locker room were not conducive to winning. Some players seemed unenthusiastic about workouts, leading to fractures within the team.
Which is why when looking for a new school, Robinson was impressed by the priority put on competition in Lincoln and the Huskers' lofty goals. She found a program where players pushed each other and expected to be pushed. It was what she was looking for.
“She came in in January, and I think her work ethic overall helped her get into that leadership role,” senior Hayley Thramer said. “People saw her going as hard as she could in the weight room or on the court or in the sand. I think work ethic really builds that respect from players.”
Cook saw Robinson's fire in the gym, but to further allow her to grow into a leadership role, the coach placed Robinson in charge of one of the Huskers' three “SEAL teams” for summer development. Not only did Robinson have to be a taskmaster in workouts, but she also coordinated bonding activities with freshmen Amber and Kadie Rolfzen and sophomores Kelsey Fien and Sheridan Zarda. Robinson organized group dinners and drilled the younger players over the playbook, determined to have her team achieve the highest score when coaches tested each group at the start of fall practices.
Robinson's competitiveness has become a source of amusement within the NU program. She said she can't get partners for a family card or board game over the holidays because the game will continue for hours if that's how long it takes Robinson to win.
Pollmiller, who played the last two seasons with Robinson, said Robinson's fire makes her invaluable as a teammate and beyond irritating as an opponent.
“She's so competitive, and I think over the years, she's realized she can't just do it by herself so she needs to find a way to win,” Pollmiller said. “That's her way. She wants to win so bad, so she knows she needs help from people, so she leads them through it. She knows how to get there.”
That competitiveness already has been infectious. Though Robinson is sure to be a starter to open the season, teammates and coaches say she won't be outworked in practices. Cook has said each starting spot is up for grabs and told reporters last week that while the young team will likely face growing pains, he was impressed by the effort to win starting spots.
It was exactly what he was hoping Robinson could provide.
“What you guys will see when you see her play is (what) she brings every day in practice,” Cook said. “It's a fun, intensive competitiveness that she brings. She wants to win, and she lets everybody know it. And when she does win, she lets everybody know that. And when she loses, she wants to keep going until she wins. That really has spread among our players.”
For Robinson, her final college season gives her all the urgency needed to reach her goals.
“I finally feel what the seniors felt when I was a freshman. It's do or die,” she said. “There's one season left. I have one chance left. You take things a lot more seriously. There's no time for messing around.”