Of the five true freshmen on the Nebraska volleyball team, the one player who coach John Cook knew the Huskers would need to come in and produce right away was right-side hitter Jazz Sweet.

Kadie Rolfzen played that spot last year, but had graduated. The Huskers already had a question mark and depth issues at outside hitter, so it wasn’t possible to convert an outside hitter already on the roster to right-side hitter.

So Cook gave Sweet some advice last spring. He told Sweet she should get in a YMCA men’s volleyball league or play on the higher men’s net. That way she would get used to hitting the ball at a higher contact point, so she was prepared to go against the taller and more physical players she was going to face in college. In men’s volleyball, the net is about 7 inches higher than in the women’s game.

So that’s what Sweet did. Sweet is from Tecumseh, Kansas. She couldn’t get in a men’s league, but her club coach in Topeka knew a few guys who would come play against Sweet’s club team.

“It was rough at first (against the guys), because I wasn’t used to that, but after time it got easier, and it was easier to see the block and change up my swings, and it definitely gave me more range,” Sweet said.

Playing against the guys helped Sweet, because they were bigger than the players she had played against in high school and in club volleyball.

“Once you go against the girls, after being with the guys, it makes it a lot easier to take big swings and see the block,” Sweet said.

At Nebraska, the Huskers also practice against male practice players, including some who are former college players.

Cook says Sweet has stepped in and given the Huskers a chance to be successful this season. When teams focus their blocking on players such as Mikaela Foecke, Annika Albrecht or Briana Holman, Sweet is sometimes able to get an easier kill.

“I think Jazz has been solid. She’s been pretty consistent,” Cook said.

Now that the Huskers are in the NCAA Tournament, and facing really good teams that have prepared for the Huskers, Cook has told Sweet she can really make a difference if teams pay less attention to her.

“She’s got to make them pay. She has a chance to have a big impact in these matches,” Cook said.

The fifth-ranked Huskers will play unranked Colorado in the NCAA Sweet 16 on Friday in Lexington, Kentucky.

During the first two matches of the tournament, Sweet had 12 kills combined with a .360 hitting percentage.

Sweet is hard to defend, Cook said, because she’s left-handed, and because she hits the ball at such a high contact point that she can hit her shots off the top of the blockers, and around the blockers, instead of hitting low and into the block.

“She’s got a lot of different shots and tempos she hits with,” Cook said. “And she developed that in high school and club, because she got a million sets.”

Last week, Sweet was one of the seven players named to the all-freshman team for the Big Ten Conference.

Sweet ranks fourth on the team with 240 kills. She has a .274 hitting percentage. Cook says that a good hitting percentage for a right-side hitter playing in the Big Ten Conference is .250.

Sweet also gets set on a lot of the out-of-system plays that are more difficult to convert for kills. If you took away those plays, Cook said Sweet would be hitting .300 or better.

Next year, Cook says the goal is for Sweet to be a full-time player, instead of having a sub in the back row. He thinks Sweet can be a good back-row attacker.

Sweet got a good taste of the NCAA Tournament last season when she was selected for the Under Armour high school All-American match, which was held during the NCAA Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.

“It was intense, because I had an emotional connection to Nebraska because I was committed, so I really wanted them to do well,” Sweet said.

Sweet said she’s having fun during her first college season, and that she’s gotten more comfortable playing each week.

“Over time I’ve got more comfortable with hitting, and taking big rips, because I know my teammates will be behind me to get the ball up if I get blocked,” Sweet said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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