LINCOLN — It was never a secret for the Nebraska volleyball program heading into this season that the main question mark hovered over the middle blocker position. The Huskers had graduated a pair of middles from last season — one of whom, Brooke Delano, had shown capable of playing at an All-America level.
Hayley Thramer was determined to be part of that answer. But no one expected that the junior from Ewing, Neb., could erase that question mark with not just a period, but an exclamation point.
Thramer began the year established as Nebraska’s best blocker, but with a surgically rebuilt right shoulder following an injury in 2010, she was not expected to provide much punch on offense. However, Thramer has blossomed as an attacker beyond the most optimistic hopes of both herself and NU coach John Cook, averaging 2.27 kills per set in Big Ten play.
“I don’t know if I necessarily expected that, but I wanted that to be an option,” Thramer said. “It helps our team to be offensive all the way around and it makes us really hard to defend.”
All five of Thramer’s double-digit kill performances this year have come in league matches, and she has reached double figures in each of No. 4 Nebraska’s past three matches, a streak she hopes to continue at 7 p.m. Wednesday when the Huskers (15-2, 7-1 Big Ten) try to extend their winning streak to eight matches at Iowa (10-11, 2-6).
Thramer’s emergence, along with the offensive ability of dynamic freshman middle Meghan Haggerty (2.04 kills per set, .395 hitting) has turned what seemed like a potential liability into a definitive strength. With the middles producing kills, opposing defenders haven’t been able to key on the Husker outside hitters. As a result, Nebraska has built a diverse, efficient attack. The Huskers’ .317 hitting percentage in conference play leads all Big Ten teams.
“We have to have those middles involved, and you can see what it’s doing for our outsides, the attack percentage,” Cook said. “Our middles are doing a much better job attacking this year than they did last year.”
The first two years of Thramer’s Nebraska career were admittedly forgettable. An electric three-sport athlete at Class D-2 Ewing High School, Thramer played on the same Nebraska Juniors club volleyball team as Nebraska setter Lauren Cook. Thramer was a star on the Ewing basketball team, but would leave as early as 5 a.m. on Sundays during basketball season to arrive in Lincoln for practice with the Nebraska Juniors, whose season runs through winter and spring.
“My basketball coach did not enjoy me being in club volleyball,” Thramer said, chuckling.
Focusing exclusively on volleyball for the first time, Thramer redshirted her first year in Lincoln to work on turning that raw athletic ability into volleyball skills.
But during a spring exhibition match at Minnesota in April 2010, she tore a ligament in her right shoulder and would miss the entire season after surgery.
“She was really down for a while, like any athlete that goes through that,” coach Cook said. “You have what you do well taken away.”
But the extra year away from practice and competition allowed Thramer to see the game from the sidelines. How the offense ran, how teammates came together to form a block and how to get a kill without needing a full arm swing. The mental reps without the immediate pressure to perform allowed her to mature in a way she may not have been able to on the court.
“You see a lot when you’re not playing sometimes,” Thramer said. “As you get older, the game slows down for you. You’re able to see things better. You’re able to anticipate. You’re able to scout better and have an understanding of what’s going to happen before it happens.”
That maturity is allowing Thramer to be an offensive threat with a shoulder that won’t allow her to cut loose with big swings. She started 29 matches last year and averaged 1.04 kills per set, but has taken her shot-making to a new level this season. Occasionally, she will still send a ball straight down to the floor, but Thramer is more likely to tool the opposing block or find empty spots deep in the back corner of the court — shots most middles don’t often attempt.
“She’s hard to defend because she uses the whole court,” Cook said. “If you look at her kills, they’re tips, they’re off the block, they’re corners, they’re cross court, they’re line. That’s what makes hitters very difficult to defend. They use all 900 square feet over there.”
After waiting so long to get back on the court, it figures that Thramer would try to use as much of it as possible.
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