LINCOLN — When Nebraska began its inaugural sand volleyball season last year, it was a learning experience for everyone. Only a few Huskers had played competitively on the sand before, and even the Nebraska coaches found themselves playing catch-up.
Everyone felt a little more settled on the shifting sands of NU's indoor sand court in the David and Carol Alloy Strength Complex Friday as the Huskers began practicing for their second beach volleyball season.
“I think I'm a thousand times better sand coach than I was last year,” said Nebraska assistant Dan Meske, who also works with the beach program. “There was a lot of learning involved. The great thing is the sand volleyball community, the coaches are great people, and I learned a lot from other coaches and our team competing.”
Meske said this year the team will work out on the Alloy Complex's sand courts twice a week at the start of preseason practice, with one day also set aside for an indoor workout and conditioning session. He said players were somewhat fatigued a year ago when they practiced four times a week on the sand, which can sap players' energy more than an indoor workout.
Nebraska will play its competitive schedule in Hawaii and Arizona during the team's spring break in March. Last season, Nebraska played all its sand matches in California during spring break and picked up four dual victories, including wins over Loyola Marymount and UCLA. The Huskers also dropped 3-2 duals to Hawaii and Southern California, and finished the season ranked No. 6.
Sophomore Kadie Rolfzen, who played on the Huskers' sand team after starting college early last year, said the team developed nuances of the game during the beach season that paid off during this fall's indoor season.
“Just reading the ball, being able to pick up the shots, even the middles being able to move their feet a little quicker,” Rolfzen said. “Stuff like that. Little bitty things, not the major things, but the little things that make you better.”
Sand volleyball matches feature two players on each side of the net. College teams play a series of five 2-on-2 contests, each in a best-of-three sets format. The first two sets go to 21 points, and if necessary, a third set goes to 15.
Meske said Friday most of the Huskers with remaining eligibility will play during the beach season, but sophomore middle blocker Meghan Haggerty will not compete on the sand. She will, however, train and travel with the team. Freshman setter Kelly Hunter also is out with a foot injury sustained late in this fall's indoor season.
The Huskers must replace their top beach duo from a year ago. Kelsey Robinson finished her eligibility and now is playing indoors professionally in Puerto Rico. Robinson was paired with Alexa Strange, who transferred to Southern California to focus on beach volleyball last spring.
Nebraska also has five newcomers to this year's sand roster with limited sand experience — freshmen Alexa Ethridge, Brenna Lyles, Melanie Keil and Kira Larson, plus junior Mary Pollmiller, who joined the team last summer.
However, one NU freshman is already ahead of the curve. Justine Wong-Orantes, the Huskers' starting libero during the indoor season, was one of the country's top prep sand volleyball players while growing up in Cypress, Calif. Wong-Orantes competed in the 2011 world youth sand volleyball championships and is the youngest-known player to earn a AAA (top) rating in beach volleyball at age 12.
“Playing beach, you get to do all the contacts. I'm a libero in indoors, but I get to hit on the beach,” Wong-Orantes said. “A lot of us short people get excited that we get to hit and we get to do all the concepts on the beach.”
Meske said despite her age, Wong-Orantes was named the team's beach volleyball captain for the season.
“She's a kid that really understands the game and has competed at the highest level,” Meske said. “She's a kid we want to be a leader indoors, so we're challenging her to be a leader on the sand.”