LINCOLN — The most dangerous moment for Nebraska's volleyball opponents isn't when Kelsey Robinson is taking a swing.
Why? Because if that is when they're reacting, it's too late to help.
The real danger comes moments before, while the set is still hanging in the air, giving Robinson the opportunity to slow time to a crawl and see exactly where the dagger strike will be most deadly.
Robinson is not the strongest or quickest attacker in the country. Those honors might go to the likes of Texas' Bailey Webster or Penn State's Deja McClendon.
But with uncanny vision and the ability to process her options in the split-second between her jump and her arm swing, Robinson is on her way to one of the best all-around seasons by an outside hitter in Nebraska history.
The second half of conference play starts Wednesday for No. 11 Nebraska (15-4, 8-2 Big Ten) with a 6:30 p.m. match against Illinois (9-11, 5-5) at the Devaney Center televised on the Big Ten Network.
Robinson, a Tennessee transfer, has put together a season that, if it ended today, would essentially make her a shoo-in for the league's player of the year.
In Big Ten matches, she leads the conference in kills per set (4.84) while ranking second in attack percentage at .385 — an astonishing mark for a left-side hitter who usually draws two blockers.
“She sees the court really well, she doesn't make a lot of errors, she can get kills in the front row and the back row, and she's got every shot in the book,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “She uses the whole court, so she has teams off balance. They don't know if she's going to hit line, gonna hit cross-court, roll shot, tip, hit a little beach shot. She's just got a variety of shots, and that's what makes her so effective.”
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For perspective, most coaches would be happy with their top outside hitter putting up an attack percentage around .260 or .270. Jordan Larson, the gold standard of Husker outsides, hit .286 during her sophomore year in 2006 when Nebraska won its last national championship. Larson's fellow Olympian Nancy Metcalf was named Big 12 player of the year after hitting .334 in 2001.
Robinson is exceeding those numbers in a league filled with tougher competition. She has hit at least .333 in nine of NU's 10 Big Ten matches.
The key is Robinson's ability to process opposing defenses quickly, built on film study and years of both indoor and beach volleyball experience.
“At first it depends on the kind of set you're getting, if you're going fast or slow or high,” Robinson said. “That depends on what kind of shot I make. Then, if I'm too early, I'll try and look for a block I can tool or look for a placement on the court.”
She starts by reading the left-front blocker on the opposing team. If the blocker drops back to the 10-foot line, it may leave a hole in the middle of the court for Robinson's oft-used roll shot, an off-speed attack that drops to the center of the floor that she developed at Tennessee.
If the blockers are late to come together, Robinson will try to rip a shot through the seam, or she may try “a cross-court cutty,” a difficult shot she tries to place on the opposite side of the floor still in the front row.
Robinson realizes her challenges will get tougher in the second half of Big Ten play as opponents become more familiar with her tendencies. During her sophomore season at Tennessee when she was named 2011 Southeastern Conference player of the year, Robinson put up big numbers during the first half of the conference season, only to see teams defend her more successfully the second time.
“That's why film is extremely important going into the next part of the conference,” she said. “You've got to pick up on how they like to defend you.”
Robinson's vision benefits more than her offensive attack. She is the only non-libero among the league's top 10 players in digs, leading the Huskers with 3.49 per set. That's a noteworthy feat since a libero plays in the back row in all six rotations while Robinson spends only three rotations behind the 10-foot line.
The same anticipation and preparation she brings on offense makes Robinson the team's most indispensable back row player. She reads an opposing attacker's shoulder, as well as her teammates' blocking position, to place herself in just the right spot to keep a ball off the floor.
“That's one of the reasons she digs so many balls,” Cook said. “She just knows where the ball is going to be hit and goes there.”