LINCOLN — Cecilia Hall’s athletic prowess stands on its own merits, but the sentence had barely left the questioner’s mouth before she provided proof.
“Your coach says you can even walk down the court on your hands,” the questioner asked.
“Yeah. Wanna see?” Hall asks.
Before you can say another word, Hall, Nebraska’s 6-foot-3 middle blocker, has done a literal 180 before your eyes, her height now towering heels-over-head in a Devaney Center hallway, the soles of her shoes coming perilously close to the ceiling.
“If they had big people in Cirque du Soleil, she could be in that,” Husker volleyball coach John Cook said.
Hall’s athleticism has never been in question, but only now are her volleyball skills and confidence catching up. The total package has developed enough for the redshirt sophomore from Linkoping, Sweden, to become a fixture in No. 10 Nebraska’s starting lineup this fall.
Hall fits a pattern of several recent NU middles — an exceptional athlete, skilled in multiple sports, but who came to Lincoln still raw in terms of volleyball skills. Players like Nebraska senior Hayley Thramer, who was an all-state basketball player in high school, and true freshman Kira Larson, who holds numerous North Dakota state high school track and field records.
Track and field was Hall’s first sport as well, where she competed in the long jump, high jump and triple jump. She’s a relative newcomer to volleyball — she didn’t begin playing the sport seriously until her freshman year of high school. For comparison, Nebraska freshman Amber and Kadie Rolfzen committed to the Huskers before even playing a high school match.
Cook recruited Hall to Nebraska after a tip from a high school coach who visited one of NU’s offseason camps. There was no doubt, Cook said, she had the physical tools to be a contributor.
“She’s 6-3. She touches 10-foot-6 (jumping). She runs like a deer. She is quick,” Cook said.
“She’s a great athlete. She’s starting to figure out the game a little bit. She just makes progress every week.”
The big jump for Hall has come in the past two weekends. Over the Huskers’ previous three matches, she has 16 kills while hitting .519 and added 17 blocks. That includes eight kills on 12 attacks in a five-set loss at No. 4 Texas and a career-high eight blocks in Nebraska’s sweep at Illinois last Saturday. Her 1.11 blocks per set leads the team and ranks seventh in the Big Ten.
“I just feel more comfortable,” Hall said. “I feel like I’ve been through it, if you know what I mean. I’m still making, like Coach said the other day, rookie mistakes, but overall, I feel like I’m less-error than I used to be.”
It’s a welcome sight for No. 10 Nebraska (9-2, 2-0 Big Ten) as the Huskers continue to look for ways to get more offense out of Hall and sophomore Meghan Haggerty, NU’s other starting middle. The Huskers are heading into the meat of the conference schedule where they figure to see a ranked opponent each weekend.
Getting the Huskers’ middles involved on offense will discourage opposing teams from sending two blockers at Nebraska’s outside hitters and keep defenses off balance.
The offensive rhythm between new setter Mary Pollmiller and the middles is improving slowly, but steadily, as Pollmiller learns her hitters’ tendencies. For example, Hall likes to run a quick attack best, because she admittedly says there’s less time to think about it. Meanwhile, Haggerty excels at running attacks behind the setter.
“A lot of work is going into it,” Pollmiller said. “(Assistant coach Dan Meske) works with the middles every day. They work by themselves a ton just to get the different things with blocking, footwork even without hitting the ball. Then, when we get in (practice), they talk more, and I talk to them more. It helps.”
There couldn’t be a better time to show off that balance than this weekend, when the Huskers host a pair of ranked foes at the Devaney Center starting with No. 8 Minnesota (14-1, 2-0) at 7 p.m. Friday in a match that can be seen on the Big Ten Network. Saturday, NU faces No. 23 Wisconsin (14-1, 3-0) at 7 p.m. on NET.
The Gophers will bring to town their own weapon in the middle in senior Tori Dixon, who Cook called a national player of the year candidate. The 6-3 Dixon plays all six rotations and leads the team in kills (4.2 per set) and blocks (1.33 per set) while ranking second in service aces.
“It will be a good opportunity for us to shut her down,” Hall said. “We have played teams with good middles, but this will be a real test.”