LINCOLN — The first day of practice for the Nebraska volleyball team last weekend resonated with senior Hayley Thramer not so much because of what she saw, but what she could hear.
The middle blocker, who will serve as an unofficial player-coach this season after injuring her knee this spring, took a stroll around the practice gym as the Huskers were paired up for stretching and drills.
She was surprised by the amount of familiar chatter between teammates. The talking created a din inside the NU Coliseum that you might expect more from a seasoned group of teammates than from a club with 10 new players from a year ago, including the nation's top-ranked incoming freshman class.
Thramer asked NU head coach John Cook and assistant coaches Dani Busboom Kelly and Dan Meske if they were hearing the same thing.
“Dani kind of looked at me and was like 'Wow, it's loud in here,' ” Thramer said. “Dan was like 'I like these little guys.' Coach (Cook) was like 'I like the vibe.' So we're already impressing the coaches. I love their work ethic, the communication, the intensity in the gym already. It's only been four days, so it's been great so far.”
It was a welcome sign to Thramer and Cook that these players are starting to feel more comfortable with each other and with the expectations that come with one of college volleyball's top programs — experience or not.
The Huskers will enter the season No. 10 in the AVCA coaches poll, a plum spot for most teams but NU's lowest since 1983. Cook said Thursday at the team's preseason media day that the Huskers have off-the-charts athletic potential and a healthy work ethic, but should benefit from being able to find their way without the weight of being in the national championship conversation.
“It's a lot different than you're ranked top three or four like we have the last couple years,” Cook said. “Then, you feel like if you don't stay there, you've had a bad season. I think it's good for these guys. There's a hunger in the gym. There's a lot of open competitions that also helps that. Yes, I'd much rather be in that position (ranked 10th) than everyone thinking we're going to be a top-three team right off.”
But in the gym, he said, the results so far have surpassed his own expectations.
“Our freshman class is very talented. They've got a number-one ranking, and I think it's legit,” Cook said. “We're really impressed with our freshmen, and I think these guys have come in with a mindset that they're going to play and help this team. We're not dialing it back.”
To illustrate that inexperience doesn't have to be a crutch, Cook pointed out strong contributions made by freshmen to the UConn's women's and Louisville's men's national champion basketball teams, as well as Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy season as a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M last year.
The newcomers have embraced that challenge, freshman outside hitter Amber Rolfzen said.
“I don't think it's necessarily how much experience a team has or how great a senior is,” she said. “I feel like as long as a team has great chemistry and great bonding on the court, they'll be great no matter if they start six freshmen or six seniors. Great chemistry on the court is what makes great teams.”
Cook said Thursday all starting positions are still up for grabs, though it is hard to see senior outside hitter Kelsey Robinson and sophomore middle blocker Meghan Haggerty not figuring into the starting lineup. He called the race for starting setter “a dead heat” between Tennessee transfer Mary Pollmiller, a junior, and freshman Kelly Hunter. The Huskers still could end up using both setters in a 6-2 system.
Freshmen also may figure into the starting battles at middle blocker, opposite hitter and libero. That sets up the Aug. 24 Red-White scrimmage as a high-stakes practice that Cook said will determine who starts the season opener Aug. 30 against Louisiana-Monroe in St. Louis at the Billiken Invitational.
“I've told our guys this: The Red-White match is going to be the most pressure-packed of the year,” Cook said.
To give the young Huskers the hottest trial by fire, Cook announced Thursday that Nebraska would play the first half of the Red-White scrimmage against a star-studded alumni team featuring Olympians Jordan Larson and Nancy Metcalf, former All-Americans Lauren Cook, Gina Mancuso and Brooke Delano, and former team captain Jordan Wilberger Sauer. The match will be the first one played in the renovated Devaney Center in front of what figures to be a near-sellout crowd.
It's an ideal environment for Cook to prepare the Huskers for a meat-grinder schedule that includes a trip to defending national champion No. 1 Texas and the Big Ten Conference slate, which features four teams ranked in the preseason top 10 and a nation-high seven teams in the Top 25.
That means there's precious little time for a young team to find its footing, but the vigor the Huskers have displayed in the gym so far visibly has rubbed off on their coach.
“For me as a coach, the challenge of taking these guys and making them a great team is very energizing,” Cook said. “I'm having a blast. I've been waiting to start this training because of that.”