LINCOLN — Whether it was caused by the nerves of playing in her first Big Ten Conference match or the lingering effects of a recent illness, Alexa Strange felt a knot in her stomach when she came off the bench in Nebraska’s match at Indiana last Saturday night.
The fourth-ranked Huskers were sputtering and in need of a spark while in an unexpected dogfight with the last-place Hoosiers. But while the freshman entered the match trying to fight off the anxiety of the high-pressure moment, her senior setter, Lauren Cook, felt something else.
“My gut instinct was to just trust her and go with it,” Cook said. “I set her one of the first balls when she came in and she put it away. After that, I just had confidence in her and didn’t stop going to her. She did a great job.”
Strange changed the complexion of the match with seven kills in just nine attempts without an error over the final two sets of Nebraska’s five-game win. In her first significant minutes in nearly a month, the San Clemente, Calif., native may have just proven herself a reliable offensive option for coach John Cook.
“All I can do is just show Coach what I can do in practice and in the opportunities I get in the game. Then it’s up to him,” Strange said.
“I know it takes a lot for Coach to trust you and put you out there. I’m just grateful that he believes in me and you have that trust. I don’t want to lose it.”
Before Saturday, Strange had appeared in just eight of the first 14 matches for No. 4 Nebraska (13-2, 5-1) with most of her hitting attempts coming in blowout wins over Colgate and Duquesne. Ten days prior to the Indiana match, she had been sick enough for coaches to send her home and not dress for NU’s match with Michigan State.
So it wasn’t like John Cook had a proven option when he sent Strange in to replace starting opposite hitter Morgan Broekhuis, who was struggling with no kills and an error in seven swings over Games 3 and 4 against Indiana.
But the coach had seen his freshman’s ability to spark the team in practice with her effort — and knew the potential payoff was worth the gamble.
“One thing about Alexa is she always competes, and our team wasn’t competing very hard,” Cook said.
“She brought some energy and fire to our side of the net.”
Strange was recruited to Nebraska without a definite position in mind thanks to a versatile set of skills developed during a standout beach volleyball career. She was an outside hitter and setter in high school, and became the Huskers’ backup setter for this year essentially by default when Lauren Sieckmann left the program in the spring.
At 5-foot-11, Strange is a bit undersized for an opposite hitter — the last three players to staff the spot for Nebraska have been 6-5 — but Strange makes up for her size with skillful shot-making that reflects her beach background where players are adept at finding holes in the defense instead of just hammering attacks.
And she has already made an impression on teammates, providing the same lift in practice that the team needed against the Hoosiers.
“She’s just goofy. Nothing fazes her,” Lauren Cook said. “She’s chill, but in an upbeat way would be the best way to describe it.”
In practices, Strange may spend time with several different position groups, trying to master all the trades of the game. She said she will spend the offseason training rigorously on her setting technique in hopes of competing for the job to replace Lauren Cook next year, and Strange is trying to improve as a primary passer in addition to refining her hitting technique.
“It’s challenging, definitely, because I kind of have to focus on everything, but I like it,” Strange said. “I’m used to running a 6-2 (system) where you kind of run everything anyway. There’s times where it’s frustrating because I feel behind compared to some people when it comes to certain things.”
John Cook declined to say whether or not last weekend’s performance solidified Strange’s chances for an expanded role on the team starting with Friday’s 7 p.m. match against Wisconsin (14-5, 2-4), where NU will look for its sixth win in a row.
But at the very least, knowing Strange has proven she can handle big moments and provide Broekhuis with competition on the right side puts a smile on the coach’s face.
“There’s nothing like competition,” he said.