LINCOLN — Temperatures hovered in the upper 30s and a light, cold drizzle fell outside the first practice of the latest college sand volleyball team on Thursday. But inside the Hawks Championship Center, on a makeshift bed of sand, Hayley Thramer could visualize the possibilities.
“It’s all in what you imagine around you,” said Thramer, a Nebraska middle blocker. “Instead of red walls, you picture the beach.”
A day after Nebraska announced a sand volleyball program would become the school’s latest sport, the Huskers went through a two-hour practice, running drills, learning rules and coming to grips with a largely foreign version of the game they have played most of their lives.
“It’s really fun for us coaches right now, because we’ve played the sport, but to translate it to girls who maybe have never seen it before is a really cool challenge for us,” said NU assistant Dan Meske, who will coach the team along with head coach John Cook.
Meske and Cook played sand volleyball competitively and will be tasked with developing a program with a group of players with limited sand experience. Freshman outside hitter/setter Alexa Strange has the most experience of the current Huskers, having trained with the U.S. under-19 program.
Senior Kelsey Robinson trained with the U-21 program last summer and has hopes of continuing her volleyball career on the beach either professionally or internationally after her college playing days are done.
Robinson, who recently transferred from Tennessee, said the extended practices and meetings of the spring season will allow her to get worked more quickly into the fabric of the team before her lone season as a member of the indoor team.
“It’s awesome,” Robinson said. “It helps me get a feel for everybody because you have to play with every, single person. You have to communicate with everybody, which is the most important thing about sand. Just being able to talk to each other and get patience.”
Nebraska will have a couple of months before beginning competition to set the team’s top pairings. Meske said NU is looking to compete in eight matches this year, with all being played in either southern California or Florida over the team’s 10-day spring break in March.
In an NCAA sand volleyball match, each school will send five duos into competition. The first school to win three matches wins the dual.
Meske said the format could lead to a couple of kinds of pairings. Nebraska could pair up one big blocker with a smaller, defensive player. Defensive specialist Sheridan Zarda was paired with middle blocker Cecilia Hall in one drill Thursday. Or, Meske said, the Huskers could match up two players with similar skill sets and let them share the responsibilities.
Thramer was excited for the team to reap the benefits of sand play. Conditioning and jumping on the deep sand of the Hawks Championship Center’s indoor court should also help the team build stamina for the indoor season. Plus, each player will have to refine all of the skills of volleyball to excel on the beach, in contrast to the increasing specialization of the indoor game.
“For me, and I’m sure this goes for the other middles, it’s almost like you have something to prove,” Thramer said. “People don’t see us as defensive and passing players. We don’t play in the back row. So, to be equal among everyone out here, it’s kind of cool.”
Maybe the biggest change, Meske said, is the self-reliance necessary to play sand volleyball, where coaches have limited impact on a match. Coaches aren’t allowed to call timeouts and can have contact with players only between sets or if a player calls a timeout.
With four starters from last year’s indoor club gone in 2013, hitting the beach may be the best thing to see how quickly the next crop of Huskers learns to sink or swim.
“It’s all about problem solving for (players),” Meske said. “The coaches’ job is done during the training. Then, you have to push them out into the world and let them fend for themselves.”
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