Published Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:36 pm
VOLLEYBALL
NU's Kelsey Robinson playing at another level

LINCOLN — Kelsey Robinson had put up All-America seasons, been named a conference player of the year and ultimately was recruited by Nebraska for a second time. And yet her old doubts remained.

Could she shine at a school that wallpapered its new arena with conference and national championship banners? Could she star on a team in the country's best volleyball conference? And could she be that player while turning into the leader her new coach was demanding her to be?

They might seem like silly concerns now. Tuesday, Robinson was named the AVCA national player of the week after yet another weekend of showing she may be the best all-around player in the Big Ten.

If that last superlative is in question, here's one that isn't. Robinson is, without question, Nebraska's most indispensable player. A six-rotation outside hitter, she leads the team in kills (4.55 per set) and digs (3.89), while establishing herself as the Huskers' top passer. Her 5.67 kills per set in league matches leads all Big Ten players, and she's on pace to total the most kills by an NU player since the rally scoring format changed to 25-point sets in 2008.

“It's hard to find outside hitters who can do everything, and I think that's what makes Kelsey exceptional,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “She can beat you with her defense, she can beat you attacking, she's learning how to win blocking, serving, and she's a great passer. Those kids are hard to find.”

But Robinson's doubts about whether she could compete in the Big Ten lasted longer than you would expect, even up until as recently as the start of conference play two weeks ago. They had lingered ever since Robinson spurned Cook's original offer to join the Huskers.

Then a prep star at St. Francis High School in Wheaton, Ill., Robinson turned down Cook's overtures to come to Nebraska, instead signing with Tennessee. Cook was perplexed. The Volunteers had a respectable program in the Southeastern Conference, but couldn't match NU's pedigree or promise. To Robinson, a player who harshly critiqued her own faults, it made a twisted sort of sense.

“I didn't think I was big enough. I didn't think I had the skill set to play here,” she said. “He always reminded me, 'You underestimate how competitive you are and how much you want to win and how much that drives you.' ”

Somewhere during Robinson's time at Tennessee, her expectations for something less turned into a desire for something more. She decided to give it a shot to spend her final college season at a place that valued tradition and hard work, and not only encouraged its players to meet their peak, but demanded it.

Among Cook's requisites for Robinson would be that she push herself to lead a young team that replaced five of six starters from a year ago. To do that, Robinson would have to mature from the player Cook saw at Tennessee — a talented individual who was often too bothered with trying to be perfect herself to encourage a teammate.

“She's always just kind of been the Lone Ranger. 'I'll just take over,' ” Cook said. “What we've worked with her on is convincing her you can't do it by yourself in this conference. You've got to have all these other guys helping you. This is a total team game.”

Cook imposed those expectations before Robinson even set foot in Lincoln, spelling out his vision during her second recruiting process. He gives her regular feedback on her leadership after practices and matches, including worksheets that ask Robinson to evaluate herself. “What kind of leader and teammate was I this week? How could I do better?”

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Coaching Robinson stirs Cook's memories of former All-American and current U.S. National Team member Jordan Larson, another highly skilled outside hitter who, rather than being a vocal leader, wanted her play to speak for itself.

Robinson is not an in-your-face teammate, Cook said.

“She's a very positive, encouraging player on the court,” the coach said. “She's pulling them together, which is what Jordan did. That's why she reminds me some of Jordan. They also know she wants to win and she plays every point really hard.

“Jordan hardly ever talked to the team. Kelsey doesn't really talk to the team, but when she's in the battle or in the moment, she's engaged and she's competing.”

Robinson has now found a balance between elevating her own game and rallying her teammates. She has reshaped her body through NU's strength program, and her added quickness has made her an even more agile floor defender.

But now she's also looking for chances in practice or in matches to boost a teammate. She now knows what it's like to believe you can do something simply because someone else is demanding it.

“Every time we come into the huddle, I'll try to say something or connect with somebody or help somebody out,” Robinson said. “Tag a teammate. Me and Justine (Wong-Orantes), as soon as I high-five her, she'll grab my hand and hold it for one second. That one second might seem silly to somebody, but for me and her, that's helping her refocus.”

And it is helping Robinson see the total package Cook knew she could become. Four years and a change of scenery later, she now believes it herself.

“I'm thankful for the journey I took to get here, but I needed to learn how to play and compete and figure some things out,” Robinson said. “I took a little bit of a different route, but I'm happy it got me here.”

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