LINCOLN — It was an ambitious promise made between two players this summer, neither of whom had taken an official swing in a Nebraska jersey yet.
After summer workouts, Kelsey Robinson would look for a running partner to finish off punishing stair sprints in the Devaney Center. One day, Robinson, who transferred from Tennessee last winter, got her freshman counterpart, Kadie Rolfzen, to go along. During the run, the teammates talked about the season and their expectations.
“We told each other we were going to be there for each other and we’d have to rely on each other,” Robinson said Wednesday. “We were going to be the best outside hitters in the conference and the country.”
The pact might have raised eyebrows in August, but as No. 9 Nebraska (19-4, 12-2 Big Ten) begins its Big Ten stretch run, few could deny that the two newcomers belong in any conversation about the nation’s best outside hitter duos.
Heading into Friday’s 7 p.m. match with No. 16 Michigan State (19-7, 8-6) at the Devaney Center, Robinson and Rolfzen are in the conference’s top 10 in kills, making Nebraska the only school with a pair of outside hitters on that list.
The pair has combined for 53 percent of NU’s kills. But even if opponents know most of NU’s swings are going to come from the left-side hitters, they’re not slowing them down much.
Robinson’s .331 attack percentage is the highest among conference left-side hitters with at least 300 attempts, while Rolfzen has seen her efficiency improve during NU’s six-match winning streak. The former Papillion-La Vista South star has hit at least .296 in five of those six matches.
“As a hitter, she’s developed a lot of shots and she’s playing with a lot more consistency as we get along in the season,” Robinson said. “When it comes down to it, just as much as I want the ball, I trust her to put it away on game point.”
What separates the pair from many is the demand placed on them when they’re not taking swings. Husker coach John Cook covets outsides who can play in all six rotations, meaning passing and defense are essential skills.
Robinson is the Huskers’ best passer and is the only Big Ten outside hitter to rank among the league’s top 10 players in digs. Meanwhile, Rolfzen is on a streak that puts a smile on Cook’s face. If the freshman had recorded one more dig in Nebraska’s Oct. 25 match at Ohio State, she would have a double-double in six straight matches.
“Defense is definitely one of those things you’ve got to work up toward because when you’re in college, the game is twice as fast,” Rolfzen said. “I think just all the defensive reps we get in practice has helped not only my game, but everybody else’s game around me.”
Robinson and Rolfzen had double-doubles when Michigan State earned a 3-1 win over the Huskers in East Lansing on Oct. 12. But after that, the Spartans fell on hard times. MSU has lost six of eight matches and fallen into a three-way tie for fourth place in the Big Ten.
Still, Cook has vivid memories of the Spartans’ quick-run, 6-2 system that gave Nebraska fits a month ago. And with Michigan State boasting All-America outside hitter Lauren Wicinski (4.35 kills per set), the Huskers won’t be the only team with big hitters on the outside Friday.
“They’re still doing the same things,” Cook said. “They’ve got the same players and they can play really good volleyball.”
NOTE: Nebraska’s match Saturday against No. 19 Michigan (16-9, 6-8) has been moved to a 7:30 p.m. start to accommodate fans coming from the Husker football game with Michigan State.