Sheridan Zarda comes from a successful high school volleyball program at St. James Academy in Lenexa, Kan.
“174-7,” said Zarda, with little hesitation, of her team’s four-year varsity record, which included four state championships.
St. James is one of the top programs in the country. There are talented players, including six from her class that are playing in college. Great coaches. A winning tradition. Does this all sound very familiar to a certain college program?
“It was a lot of fun,” the freshman defensive specialist for the sixth-ranked Nebraska volleyball team said this week. “I like competition. The success comes from all the hard work. That’s why I chose Nebraska, to come here, because the hard work and dedication that they put into every day, every point and every second they’re out there.”
After a recent five-day road trip, Nebraska (9-2, 1-1 Big Ten) is glad to be back at the NU Coliseum on Wednesday for a 7 p.m. nationally televised match against No. 24 Michigan State (13-1, 1-1).
The only match Michigan State lost all season came in five sets against No. 13 Purdue, with Purdue winning the fifth set 17-15.
Last year, Nebraska beat Michigan State 3-2 and 3-0.
Junior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski, a transfer from Northern Illinois who ranks second in the Big Ten with 4.42 kills per set, leads the Spartans.
Zarda is one of three Nebraska true freshmen — middle blocker Meghan Haggerty and utility player Alexa Strange are the others — who have played in most of the Huskers’ matches.
It can take awhile for some freshmen to prove to coach John Cook that they’re worthy of playing at Nebraska, but Cook has shown trust in Zarda. Last week on the road against Penn State, Zarda subbed in for Morgan Broekhuis to pass and play back-row defense. Against Ohio State, Zarda served at times in place of Hannah Werth.
She’s played in eight of 11 matches this season, and Cook is not surprised that Zarda has been able to make a contribution.
“Just because of her personality,” he said. “She’s very confident, outgoing, came from a very successful high school program. They battled against Papillion-La Vista South. She’s got that little person mentality that, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’”
Her size is probably part of the reason why the 5-foot-5 Zarda chose to walk on at Nebraska. It’s tougher for a program to get tall and talented outside hitters, so they often get the scholarships over liberos and defensive specialists.
Like previous walk-ons in the program, there might be an opportunity for Zarda to be on scholarship at some point in her career.
She never came to volleyball camps at Nebraska, which is where many Nebraska players get noticed. Instead, Zarda’s club team was always getting matched up in tournaments against a team from Nebraska coached by Lindsay Peterson, a former Husker and the program’s director of operations. You need to watch Zarda, she told Cook.
Zarda had scholarship offers for NCAA Division II schools, but would have had to walk on to play Division I. Nebraska offered her that chance during her senior year.
“Her choices were to go to smaller schools, or come to Nebraska,” Cook said. “I think she wanted to play in the big time. This is what I tell them: Our (volleyball) budget is $1.2 million and there are 14 players. We’re spending $80,000 a year, whether you’re on scholarship or not.”
Zarda has been a reliable server and passer, and has 20 digs, eight of which came in a match against Duquesne.
It’s very different not playing the whole match like she did in high school, but Zarda is gaining a comfort with her role.
“I’m pretty excited about how the team is playing and how I fit in,” she said. “Coach knows what he’s doing, and if my role is to play, then I play, and if it’s to be the excited one on the bench, I’m the exited one on the bench. And I’m happy just to be part of the team.”
Not long after a high school career where Zarda's team gained national recognition, Zarda was on a college team that spent three straight weeks as the No. 1 team in the country.
Zarda tried to remain low key about the No. 1 ranking. Success was nothing new.
“It doesn’t matter where you are now, it matters on Dec. 15 (following the national championship match) what the results are,” she said.