About the time Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook started looking ahead to this season, he kept finding examples of why the season might end up all right.
There are several reasons why the year may not be a great one, at least by Nebraska standards. Ten of the 16 players on the roster are new. Just two starters return. Six freshmen could play meaningful roles.
Last season, the Huskers could not get back to the NCAA Tournament Final Four with three All-Americans, so what makes you think it could happen this year? Cook thinks some people are writing off this team, but Nebraska still is ranked No. 10 to begin the season.
Teams having success with freshman players kept popping up on the television to give Cook hope. Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy. The Connecticut women’s and Louisville men’s basketball teams won NCAA titles playing underclassmen.
The Stanford women’s volleyball team won the Pac-12 Conference last year with four freshmen starting. A few years ago, Penn State’s Deja McClendon was the MVP of the NCAA volleyball tournament as a freshman.
There will be growing pains for sure, but if they stick with it, Cook thinks the Huskers can have a great season.
“Our freshman class is very talented. They got the No. 1 (recruiting) ranking, and I think it’s legit,” Cook said. “I think they’ve all come with the mind-set that they’re going to come play and help this team. We’re not dialing it back.”
On Friday, Nebraska embarks on a season with more uncertainty than recent seasons, playing in the Saint Louis Tournament. The Huskers will play three matches in two days, against Louisiana-Monroe, Auburn and Saint Louis. Nebraska is the only ranked team in the tournament, and Auburn is the only other team that had a winning record last season.
It’s been an interesting offseason, and a tough one when senior middle blocker Hayley Thramer suffered a career-ending injury. Nebraska got a big addition when All-America senior outside hitter Kelsey Robinson transferred from Tennessee.
Two more players -- libero Lara Dykstra and setter/right-side hitter Alexa Strange -- transferred to play sand volleyball elsewhere. Now Nebraska may be no worse off at those positions. Setter Mary Pollmiller transferred from Tennessee, and along with freshman Kelly Hunter, gives the Huskers two capable players for a two-setter system.
All three freshman liberos have impressed at times during preseason practice, with Justine Wong-Orantes set to be the starter.
As all the roster movement transpired and the freshmen arrived, Cook was reminded of the 2008 season.
After Rachel Holloway left unexpectedly following the 2007 season, four All-Americans would not be back. The Huskers did not have a setter, so Cook sent libero Kayla Banwarth to a 10-day setter camp. Lindsey Licht was coming off two injuries.
Then it all came together. Sydney Anderson became eligible after transferring from Utah. Tara Mueller emerged to have an All-America season.
How did things work out for that team that had a lot of uncertainty?
“We were swinging to play for the national championship,” Cook said of the 2008 team that won the Big 12 Conference title, and later ran off nine straight points in the fifth set to beat Washington in the NCAA regional final. Penn State beat Nebraska in five sets in the national semifinal played in Omaha.
“That team really embodied what it meant to be a team, and played for each other. That’s the power of being a great team. When the sum of the parts are greater than the parts.”
What makes Cook think the Huskers could get to that point this season? The competition for spots in the lineup has made for a great preseason, and if one player isn’t getting the job done, Cook won’t be afraid to go to the next one on the bench.
The optimism starts with Robinson, who probably will lead the Huskers in several areas.
“Kelsey, I think, is a lot like (three-time All-American) Jordan Larson was,” Cook said. “An outside hitter who is ready to take this team and say, ‘I’m going to put you on my back, and here we go.’ She’s not warm and fuzzy, hug everybody and make everybody happy. It’s like, ‘This is the way we’re doing it; let’s go.’"
Robinson gets only one chance at Nebraska, and will try to push the team to great things.
“It’s like do-or-die right now. You have one season left, one chance left,” Robinson said. “You take things a lot more seriously. There is no time for messing around. Every time I step in the gym, I make sure I have a high work ethic and never give up on any play, just because I know I’m not going to get that back, and December is right around the corner.”