LINCOLN — Nebraska's decision to add a sand volleyball program to compete in the spring has made this a winter unlike any other for one of college volleyball's elite programs.
Coaches are learning to manage practices differently. Players are learning new skills and roles. Conditioning methods are being re-evaluated.
The winter has turned into one big experiment, Nebraska coach John Cook said.
“We're kind of dipping our toe in the pool,” Cook said. “We can't jump in until it becomes an NCAA sport and other schools around here (establish sand programs) because we have no one to play. We kind of have to go at this in a modified way, but it's a tremendous opportunity, and our players really like it.”
Cook said the sand workouts are largely substituting for what would have been the team's offseason winter conditioning program. The Huskers are still lifting weights but have eliminated much of their sprinting and aerobic work, relying instead on low-impact sand workouts. It's a gamble, Cook said, but so far he likes the results.
“Our players, their bodies feel great, they're in the sand, there's no pounding on them, and to me, they look really good,” Cook said. “We'll see how they jump when we test, but from a coach's perspective, they look really good to me. Plus, they're touching the ball and playing volleyball.
“Any coach would probably tell you, they'd rather have (players) playing volleyball. I can already tell their skills are improving dramatically. Especially the middles who don't have to pass and play defense much (in the indoor game).”
The Huskers are less than a month away from their spring schedule, which they'll play at five sites in southern California from March 14 through 22. Cook said he hopes to have the team's five pairings for sand play set within the next week, allowing three weeks for players to work out with their playing partners.
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Newcomer Kelsey Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee who will be a senior this fall, and freshman Alexa Strange are the team's most experienced sand players, but Cook said he has been impressed with strides made by several other Huskers. He mentioned a pair of middle blockers who have stuck out especially. Redshirt freshman Cecilia Hall “has blossomed” in recent weeks, and junior Hayley Thramer took the top spot this week in the NU coaches' weekly player power rankings.
Cook said it's “huge” to have Robinson and incoming freshmen Amber and Kadie Rolfzen join the team for the spring season since all three are expected to challenge for playing time this fall.
One advantage of the sand season, especially for a team that must replace four starters from last year, is the increased time Nebraska is allowed to spend together. Instead of two hours a week for team activities allowed by the NCAA in the offseason, the Huskers can spend up to 20 hours a week since they are technically “in season.” That time means that not only can NU practice a significant amount, but also take time for team-building activities and leadership meetings.
The workouts have given Robinson a chance to get integrated into a team for which she will be expected to take an immediate leadership role. In Robinson, Nebraska got a surprise addition from not only a two-time first-team All-SEC pick, but also a decorated sand competitor. Cook said the outside hitter achieved the nation's top beach ranking in her age group after a December training camp in Chula Vista, Calif.
“To me, her biggest thing is her competitiveness,” Cook said. “She wants to win, and everybody knows she wants to win. She's very, very competitive. She's very driven. She's somebody we're telling, 'OK, it's time to go. It's time to go to class.' We have to kick her out of the gym and off the court.”
Schedule taking shape
Nebraska has its opponents locked in for this fall's indoor season, and for the second year in a row it will be playing a nonconference match against the defending NCAA champions when the Huskers travel to Texas the weekend before the start of Big Ten play.
Last year, the Huskers hosted 2011 national champs UCLA at NU Coliseum, knocking off the Bruins in five sets.
NU will open the season on the road in a four-team tournament hosted by Saint Louis and will play its first home match in the remodeled Devaney Center against Villanova.
The Huskers will also host St. Mary's (Calif.), Dayton, and Iowa State in the Players' Classic. All three opponents reached the NCAA tournament last season.
Battle at libero
With two-year starting libero Lara Dykstra's transfer to Pepperdine, Nebraska will be looking for a new primary ball-handler in 2013, and the spring and exhibition seasons aren't likely to settle the issue.
Freshman walk-on Sheridan Zarda is the only returning defensive specialist on the roster this spring. Incoming freshman Justine Wong-Orantes from Cypress, Calif., also is expected to compete for the starting job.
Cook said the team will add two walk-ons this fall who are also slated to play in the back row.
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