LINCOLN — With a host of new faces playing a new system inside a new arena, maybe it was to be expected the Nebraska volleyball team was going to have a lot of room to grow at the beginning of this season.
But through the team's 4-1 start, coach John Cook has seen enough flashes of potential to speculate how far the Huskers will have progressed by the time their roster gels by the end of the year.
“We probably have a chance to be the most improved team in the country this year,” Cook said Monday. “We're very athletic. We're starting to play as a team and not as individuals, and that's going continue to be a work in progress.
“I think we have the potential because of our athletes and how young we are and how many new players we have.”
Nebraska, which moved up one spot to No. 12 in this week's AVCA poll, bounced back from a loss to Auburn in the season's opening weekend to earn a pair of victories at the Devaney Center last weekend sparked by a pair of changes.
First, NU switched to a 5-1 system using junior Mary Pollmiller as the lone setter after she split time with freshman Kelly Hunter in a 6-2 scheme for the Huskers' first three matches. The offense responded well, with the Huskers hitting at least .312 in four of the six games they played last weekend against Villanova and Georgia.
Cook said the Nebraska coaches would continue debating running a 5-1 versus a 6-2 at the start of this week, but lauded the stabilizing presence that Pollmiller, who transferred to Nebraska from Tennessee in May, gives to a club that has five new starters.
“She is right now really giving to our team,” Cook said. “She's kind of the team mom. She's organizing people. She's getting people in the right spots. She's talking us through tough situations. Just super positive. She's a very stable, giving player. She can play the game and still talk to those players and get them going. She has a real gift for that.”
The second change came when freshman Kadie Rolfzen made her collegiate debut last weekend after missing the Huskers' opening-weekend tournament in St. Louis recovering from a shoulder injury. The former high school All-American from Papillion-La Vista South replaced Kelsey Fien as the team's second left-side hitter and led NU with a pair of 14-kill performances.
Nebraska will continue to monitor Rolfzen's shoulder, but her all-around skills boost the Huskers not only on the attack, but also their blocking and floor defense. Rolfzen has the ability to play in all six rotations, giving the Huskers a versatile player whom Cook has compared to former NU All-Americans Jordan Larson, Hannah Werth and Gina Mancuso.
“I think it's to be determined, but she's a great blocker, so there's one thing she brings to us,” Cook said. “I play her all the way around, so she can pass and play defense. There's not many 6-3 kids in the country doing that.”
Nebraska's three opponents this week in the Ameritas Players Classic figure to provide another measurement of growth. The Huskers will play St. Mary's (Calif.) on Thursday, Dayton on Friday and No. 17 Iowa State on Saturday at the Devaney Center.
All three made the NCAA tournament last season, providing another test as the Huskers not only learn to play together, but as NU players and coaches continue to adjust to moving to the Devaney Center.
Cook said after Saturday's win over Georgia it's been no small change moving to the new arena that seats nearly twice as many as fans as the NU Coliseum. He reiterated Monday the larger crowd, the addition of the massive video scoreboards and even the building's layout all drive up the intensity level on the court. Managing the added stimuli is just another part of this team's maturation process.
“You got the scoreboards going, the highlight videos, the Tunnel Walk. There's just a lot that pumps these guys up and pumps me up, so I've got to breathe and get them to breathe a little more,” Cook said.
“I think that grows once our kids get used to it and I get used to it. That will grow, but right now it's feeling different than the Coliseum for us, and again, emotionally and how to play in there it's a lot different.”
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Video: NU coach John Cook at the Monday press conference: