Published Friday, April 26, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 6:26 pm
Cook's rebuilding project include replacing five Husker starters

A spring exhibition season in which Nebraska suffered a pair of losses for the first time in coach John Cook’s 14-year tenure isn’t necessarily a sign of trouble this fall for one of college volleyball’s power programs.

But it does show the Huskers have their work cut out for them during the next several months to meet their own lofty standards.

“I learned we’ve got a long ways to go,” Cook said. “It’s hard to play without a big-time libero and with a young setter.”

Ball handling and defense are among the areas Nebraska will need to improve before the regular season begins in late August. But those are by no means the only holes for a team that will be without five starters from last year after the team learned this week that senior middle blocker Hayley Thramer suffered a career-ending knee injury in the exhibition season finale last Saturday.

Cook said the 2013 Huskers will be his least experienced group since the program had to replace All-Americans Greichaly Cepero, Laura Pilakowski and Amber Holmquist as well as four-year starter Lindsay Wischmeier following the 2002 season.

A group of newcomers and emerging players took their lumps this spring with wins against South Dakota and Iowa State before losses to Creighton and Wichita State sent NU into the summer with plenty of questions.

Who will earn the starting setter job?

Alexa Strange was the only setter on the roster this spring and ran the Huskers’ 5-1 offense for the first time in college. The sophomore from San Clemente, Calif., guided NU to a .380 attack percentage in the spring opener against South Dakota, but the offense struggled in the other spring matches, never hitting better than .154.

“She showed some nice things, but she’s got a long way to go,” Cook said. “But she’s never really been in that situation. There’s a lot of pressure being the Nebraska setter. It’s like being the Nebraska quarterback.

“Until you get in those shoes, you don’t appreciate what’s demanded of you.”

Strange will likely compete for the job with incoming freshman Kelly Hunter, right, from Papillion-La Vista South, who is considered one of the top setter recruits. However, Nebraska has not started a true freshman as the team’s lone setter in Cook’s tenure. Current Husker assistant Dani Busboom Kelly started at setter as a freshman alongside sophomore Michelle Lynch in 2003 when NU ran a 6-2 offense.

Which newcomer will wear the libero jersey?

Nebraska lost two All-America outside hitters, Hannah Werth and Gina Mancuso, along with All-America setter Lauren Cook. But the program found an unexpected hole to fill when libero Lara Dykstra, who started every match in 2011 and 2012, transferred to Pepperdine after last season.

Sophomore Sheridan Zarda was the only defensive specialist on the roster this spring, but Cook played outside hitters Kadie Rolfzen and Kelsey Robinson at libero during the exhibition season to develop their passing skills. Three newcomers likely will compete to be the Huskers’ primary back-row specialist.

Incoming freshman Justine Wong-Orantes from Los Alamitos, Calif., arrives this fall and may earn the job immediately. Alexa Ethridge of Lee’s Summit, Mo., and Brenna Lyles of Wimberley, Texas, are also expected to join the program as preferred walk-ons and compete for the position.

“Right now there’s nobody we’re penciling into that spot,” Cook said. “We have three kids coming in and it’s going to be a battle.”

Which outside hitters will complement Kelsey Robinson?

Robinson, right, joined the Huskers in January after three standout seasons at Tennessee and quickly asserted herself as a leader and top attacking option. But who will join her on the court for the season opener is far from settled.

Senior Morgan Broekhuis has started the last two years at opposite hitter, but Cook said Nebraska will go with its top three outside attackers this fall and worry about specific positions later, which could open the door for some younger players to compete for a starting job.

One of the players is sophomore Kelsey Fien, who had 26 kills in the last two spring matches and brings a big swing to the left side.

“She’s proven she can be a force and get kills,” Cook said. “The question is can she not make a lot of errors. That’s a maturity thing, too. She’s a young player.”

All eyes will be on freshman twins Amber and Kadie Rolfzen, who enrolled at NU in January after decorated high school careers at Papio South. Amber trained at opposite hitter this spring and showed flashes. Kadie took limited swings this spring while recovering from tendinitis in her shoulder. Cook has been cautious to keep expectations for the freshmen reasonable, but the Rolfzens both will likely be key contributors in their first season.

Can Nebraska replace Thramer in the middle of the defense?

Losing Thramer is a big blow to the Nebraska defense — the senior would have been a three-year starter and was second in the Big Ten in blocks a year ago. The Huskers also will miss her on-court leadership with such a young group.

Sophomore Meghan Haggerty was an All-Big Ten freshman pick last season and figures to start again, but behind her the depth is unproven. Sophomore Cecilia Hall is an impressive athlete, but played six matches last fall. True freshmen Melanie Keil and Kira Larson may be called upon to make an immediate impact after arriving this summer.

How quickly can it come together?

Cook said the biggest positive of the spring was having Robinson and the Rolfzens in Lincoln for both the sand and indoor seasons in order to start building a positive team identity and allowing the two freshmen to get used to the demands of college life outside of athletics.

But with several starting positions unsettled, some of which are likely to be filled by players getting their first taste of college life away from home, the Huskers still figure to have to make up ground quickly once the entire roster assembles this summer.

“It takes awhile to acclimate as a high school senior,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of anxiety, and it takes awhile to get comfortable. We had players trying to fit in and figure stuff out and learn our systems. When you have half your team out there like that, it takes time to build a good team.”

It could make the 2013 Huskers Cook’s most ambitious rebuilding project to date.

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