LINCOLN — It was understandable in August when the Nebraska volleyball team entered the season without the traditional lofty preseason expectations.
The Huskers graduated three All-Americans from a year ago. Two more players transferred in the offseason. The NU roster would have 10 new players who had never played together and never gone through a Big Ten schedule.
So coach John Cook decided that to get where the Huskers wanted to go, the players would have to get to know each other off-court before they would learn to play together on-court. They went through an offseason program designed to foster interpersonal relationships, with three team leaders being responsible for team-building activities.
With No. 11 Nebraska (16-4, 9-2 Big Ten) alone in second place in the league after being picked by coaches to finish fourth, it would be hard to argue against the effectiveness of those offseason efforts.
Then the Huskers spent the first couple of weeks of the season trying to find an identity and finally settled on a regular starting lineup that includes four players who are full-time starters for the first time in their college careers, three of them true freshmen from NU’s top-ranked recruiting class.
Among the unknowns: Would Nebraska’s two Tennessee transfers, outside hitter Kelsey Robinson and setter Mary Pollmiller, be ready to excel not only as players, but as leaders? After ballyhooed careers at Papillion-La Vista South, would Amber and Kadie Rolfzen be difference-makers right away in the Big Ten? Could freshman libero Justine Wong-Orantes, a high school setter, fill the void left when Lara Dykstra left the team after last season?
The answers, so far, have been a resounding yes. Robinson is a leading candidate for conference player of the year and first-team All-America honors. Kadie Rolfzen is NU’s second-leading attacker, and Amber has unseated two-year starter Morgan Broekhuis as the starting opposite hitter. Wong-Orantes has started at libero every match.
“Teams develop as the season goes on,” Cook said after Wednesday’s win over Illinois. “And we’ve had the opportunity to have the most development because we have so many new players, so many young players.”
While the high level of Big Ten volleyball gives few true breathers in the schedule, the Huskers have been dealt a fortunate setup for Cook to bring the team together at a reasonable pace.
NU will have played seven of its first 12 conference matches at home after Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. contest with Northwestern (13-9, 5-5) at the Devaney Center. And the last two weeks, the Big Ten Network has chosen a Husker match to feature in its weekly Wednesday time slot.
To see how far his Huskers have come so quickly has energized Cook.
“There are days where you wonder if it’s worth it, but when you see your team evolving, that’s why we coach,” Cook said. “You can’t buy the feeling you have when you see your team start believing.”