LINCOLN — When Brenna Lyles heard Nebraska’s recruiting pitch, she wasn’t promised instant playing time or even a scholarship. But she was shown a vision for how a 5-foot-5 player would fit in the Huskers’ plans for matching up in one of the country’s best volleyball leagues.
“I think they saw lots of my energy and my good vibes on the court and my hustle,” Lyles said.
The freshman defensive specialist from Wimberley, Texas, is part of the first iteration of a change in NU’s recruiting philosophy in the Big Ten. Sure, coach John Cook is still going to try to coax the nation’s biggest hitters and toughest blockers to Lincoln, but stopping Big Ten offenses call for quick floor defenders to pick up what blockers miss.
In the Big 12 days, Nebraska played its outside hitters in each rotation, attacking in the front row and digging shots and passing out of the back. The Big 12 played most of its matches on Wednesdays and Saturdays, meaning several days of rest between matches.
But once NU moved to the Big Ten, which usually has its teams playing back-to-back nights on Friday and Saturday, fatigue became more of a concern. So Cook decided to follow the blueprint used by other Big Ten teams: putting big-time attackers in the front row and complementing them with defensive specialists who could quickly get to the floor to dig shots and keep rallies alive.
Nebraska still has six-rotation outside hitters like Kelsey Robinson, Kadie Rolfzen and Amber Rolfzen. But Cook is quick to spell one of them — or one of his middle blockers — with Lyles or fellow freshman Alexa Ethridge.
“We’ve recruited to get some kids that we can put in the back row and rest those front-row players,” Cook said. “We’ve got more coming next year because I think when you’re playing these back-to-back matches, you’ve got to have some depth in the back row.”
Last week, NU signed Lincoln Pius X libero Sydney Townsend to join the team in 2014, and expected 2014 walk-on Annika Albrecht from Illinois likely could play a number of positions, including defensive specialist.
Cook has been quick to mention the impact Lyles and Ethridge have had off the bench. Ethridge (13) and Lyles (12) are third and fourth on the team in aces. Lyles added 10 digs off the bench in last Saturday’s win over Michigan playing in front of her parents and grandparents, who had made the trip to Lincoln.
“Getting playing time, it builds a lot of confidence and it helps me play better in practice, too,” Lyles said.
No. 6 Nebraska (21-4, 14-2 Big Ten) hopes to parlay the growing confidence of its young floor defenders into improved defensive performance this weekend, when the Huskers play at No. 25 Purdue (16-11, 7-9) on Friday and unranked Indiana (9-18, 1-15) on Saturday. Both matches start at 6 p.m.
Purdue is the lone team to beat NU in the Devaney Center this season, winning in four sets on Oct. 19. So even though the Boilermakers come into the match having lost four straight, Cook said the Huskers know the danger Purdue poses.
“All I know is how they played against us here,” Cook said. “They played at a really high level, and that’s the level we’re preparing for.”