Published Tuesday, December 17, 2013 at 9:12 pm / Updated at 9:28 pm
volleyball
Sheldon: Future looks bright for young Huskers

LINCOLN — The blistering loss to Texas in last Saturday's regional final abruptly ended one of the more feel-good seasons in the recent history of the Nebraska volleyball program.

Ten players new to Lincoln became part of a team that finished second in the Big Ten — the nation's toughest league in 2013 — and made a run to the elite eight, where the Huskers lost to the most formidable collection of athletes on one college volleyball team this year.

Taken as a whole, the season has to be considered a success, even if some fans, watching only the bitter finale against the Longhorns, left grumbling about whether Nebraska has the talent to end its final four drought. Texas' sweep at the Devaney Center leaves the Huskers out of the season's final weekend for the fifth straight year, the longest stretch since NU went from 1991-95 without reaching the national semifinals.

But the Texas roster has the ability to make almost any team look like it's jumping in quicksand. Bailey Webster, the Longhorns' dynamic outside hitter, may have just a handful of athletic peers in the college game. Nebraska coach John Cook suggested she may be in a class by herself.

“Webster is the X-factor that nobody else has,” Cook said after Saturday's loss.

Webster's All-American teammate, Haley Eckerman, a Waterloo, Iowa, native who Nebraska highly coveted in the recruiting process, joined Webster to give the Longhorns perhaps the country's most dynamic outside hitter duo. And the rest of the Texas lineup wasn't exactly lacking height, length and explosiveness.

Would Nebraska like to have an elite terminator like Webster or Penn State's Ariel Scott? Of course. But if that kind of firepower is your measuring stick, nearly every roster in the country is going to come up wanting.

That said, the nucleus Nebraska is expected to return in 2014 gives the Huskers an excellent foundation from which to challenge the nation's elite programs the next several years.

You can't minimize the departure of Kelsey Robinson, who staked a spot in the program's record book despite only one season in Lincoln. The Tennessee transfer earned Big Ten player of the year honors in a season where she had 530 kills, the fifth-best single-season mark in school history, while being the team's best passer and emotional sparkplug.

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However, Robinson is the only expected loss from the starting lineup, and Nebraska is better positioned to fill that void going into the offseason than a year ago, when NU was faced with replacing four starters.

Barring postseason defections — which hasn't been a sure thing for the program recently with Nebraska having players transfer after each of the last four seasons — the Huskers will return a bulk of their production.

“I think this team, knowing we were able to gel together all being new, is definitely a bonus and a positive we can take away from this season,” freshman outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen said. “Although, yeah, we lose Robo next year, (we know) that we can gel, we have the team chemistry, and know we can only go up from here.”

The Huskers will bring back players that accounted for 67 percent of the team's kills, 76 percent of digs and 73 percent of blocks. Five starters figure to return, led by Rolfzen, who was named All-Big Ten after averaging 3.46 kills per set, tops among conference freshmen. Her twin sister, Amber Rolfzen, was named the league's freshman of the week twice this season and started all but one match at opposite hitter.

Starting setter Mary Pollmiller will be back as the team's lone senior and will be looked to for leadership just as much as skill running the offense, and freshman Kelly Hunter figures to push Pollmiller after Hunter recovers from a foot injury.

Freshman libero Justine Wong-Orantes was one of the most improved Huskers by season's end and should be the rock of Nebraska's floor defense next season. Two other freshmen, Brenna Lyles and Alexa Ethridge, made their marks as serving specialists, but could challenge for playing time in more rotations next season.

Additionally, Nebraska will return four middle blockers with starting experience and add to the mix the very athletic Kira Larson, who was the only freshman to redshirt this year. The 6-3 Larson was recruited as a middle but could be moved to opposite hitter to spell Amber Rolfzen or free Rolfzen up for a move to the left.

The recruiting class that will join the team in 2014 lacks the star power of last year's No. 1-ranked class, but should add depth right away. Outside hitters Olivia Boender of Waverly, Neb., and Maddie Haggerty, sister of middle blocker Meghan Haggerty, will come to Lincoln with reputations as physical talents with live arms. Lincoln Pius X libero Sydney Townsend, who joined Boender on The World-Herald's All-Nebraska team, will add to the mix in the back row.

With just one senior returning next year, Nebraska will be young again in 2014. But in her emotional final remarks as a Husker on Saturday, Robinson hinted that the seasoning her young teammates received this year will eventually lead the program to reach the lofty goals by which it defines itself.

“These freshmen are going to be amazing when they're seniors,” Robinson said, “so everybody better watch out when they're seniors because they're going to win it all.”

Jeff Sheldon covers Husker volleyball for The World-Herald.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1201, sports@owh.com, twitter.com/OWHJeffSheldon

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