John Cook expects to see an improved team in the second season that Nebraska fields a sand volleyball team.

The Nebraska coach doesn’t know if the Huskers will have a top-tier No. 1 pair like they did last season with experienced sand players Kelsey Robinson and Alexa Strange, but expects the Huskers to be a stronger team from top to bottom.

In sand volleyball, having 10 good players helps. The format for college sand volleyball is five two-player teams, playing against an opponent's corresponding five teams. The school that wins the most matches wins the dual.

The combination of having five players who gained experience playing sand volleyball last season – many for the first time competitively – and several new players makes Cook believe Nebraska can field a quality team.

Last year, Nebraska finished with a 4-5 record and a No. 7 national ranking in the final AVCA poll.

Nebraska has been practicing for about a week, and will play each of its matches on the road again this year during a trip to Hawaii and Arizona over spring break in March.

“We’ve already started at a higher level than last year,” Cook said. “We’ve gone from the freshman team, and now we’re to the beginning varsity team in a year. The returning players are all doing really well.

“(German freshman middle blocker Melanie Keil) has played some sand, and she’s been a big surprise. Kira Larson hadn’t played any sand, but she’s such a good athlete. She’s going to be like Hayley Thramer was last year. Hayley never (had) played, and then was on our No. 2 team at the end.”

Both players on the Huskers’ No. 1 team last season are gone. Strange transferred after last season to focus on playing only sand volleyball at Southern California. Robinson graduated in December.

The Huskers will play numerous matches against each other over the next two months to determine who will be partners, and at what position in the lineup they’ll be. Nebraska will probably have 12 players competing for 10 spots for each match.

Likely to be on the No. 1 team is freshman Justine Wong-Orantes. She’s an experienced beach player from Cypress, Calif., who as a youth traveled overseas to play in international sand volleyball competitions.

After being the starting libero during the indoor season, Wong-Orantes enjoys doing more skills in sand volleyball.

“I like hitting, because I don’t get to do that indoors,” said Wong-Orantes, who is the sand team captain. “That’s kind of cool to get to hit and do shots and be tricky with each other. I think that’s fun.”

Kadie Rolfzen and Amber Rolfzen each played sand volleyball last season when they enrolled at NU early, and Cook expects they’ll each be on one of the top teams, and possibly play together. Outside hitter Kelsey Fien and setter Mary Pollmiller could also be in the mix for one of the top teams.

Fien is one of the players who gained experience playing on the sand team last season, playing on the No. 4 pair with Alicia Ostrander.

“Sand is a lot easier this year,” Fien said. “Some of the concepts we were talking about last year I didn’t really understand, and this year it’s just clicking and making more sense. Things are coming to me better.”

Nebraska has been training on the indoor sand volleyball court in the Hawks Championship Center about two days a week, while also mixing in one day of indoor practice, as allowed by NCAA rules.

Last year, Nebraska joined a number of programs adding sand volleyball. The benefits are it allows the players to practice and compete during a time of year when they would otherwise be limited. Having a sand program can also help in recruiting, as more players are interested in playing both indoors and sand volleyball.

Several more schools have added sand volleyball for 2014, including Oregon, Washington, LSU and Arizona. Sand volleyball has not yet reached the point where it holds an NCAA championship. For that to happen, there must be at least 40 programs for at least two years. There are about 40 teams expected to have teams this year, and Cook believes there's a chance sand volleyball could be an NCAA sport by 2017.

For now, there is the AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championships. Nebraska was not able to send players last season because of a conflict with finals, and Cook says that will be the case again this year.

Briefly

* There was a chance the Big Ten Conference could go to a division format for indoor volleyball when Maryland and Rutgers join the league next season, but Cook said following a recent league meeting, he expects there to remain one division for volleyball.

There will still be travel partners with a nearby program, but with more matches played on Wednesday and Saturday, instead of the usual Friday-Saturday Big Ten format, Cook said. There are no plans for the Big Ten to host a volleyball tournament at the end of the regular season.

* Sophomore middle blocker Meghan Haggerty will probably not play matches with the sand team this spring. She’s opted to focus on taking her physical training for indoor volleyball to another level. She’s been doing some sand training, while also mixing in cross-training workouts such as kick boxing and swimming.

* Robinson joined a professional team in Puerto Rico earlier this month, but has a shoulder injury and returned home to Illinois to recover, Cook said.

Reach Brent C. Wagner at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com.