LINCOLN — When Kelsey Robinson decided to spend her final college volleyball season at Nebraska, she wanted to measure herself against the Big Ten standard, facing off with players in what has proven to be the nation’s toughest conference in 2013.
Robinson blew through any preseason expectations, winning the league’s player of the year, and leading the Huskers to success she admits she didn’t even think about when she arrived in Lincoln. If Robinson and Nebraska earn a pair of wins on their home floor this weekend, the Huskers will go to the final four for the first time since 2008.
It’s a place Robinson didn’t dare to imagine until recently.
“I think this is more than what I expected,” she said. “That’s just exciting. As a player, you live for those kind of matches. You can only dream about getting that opportunity.”
Nebraska (25-6) goes into Friday’s 7 p.m. regional semifinal match with San Diego (26-3) playing its best volleyball of the season after earning sweeps in the first and second rounds last weekend. But reaching the national semifinals will require the Huskers to continue what coach John Cook said has been a seasonlong upward trend of improvement.
The Toreros come to the Devaney Center with a 17-match winning streak and victories over Hawaii, Southern California, Illinois and BYU. San Diego also pushed Texas in a five-set loss early this season.
“Our team knows what San Diego has done and how good they are,” Cook said on Thursday. “All you have to do is watch them on video. We know we have a great challenge tomorrow.”
The Toreros are a veteran team looking for the school’s first trip to a regional final. Four seniors and two juniors make up the starting lineup, which has been the same in all 29 matches this season.
San Diego makes teams uncomfortable with a speedy, somewhat non-traditional 5-2 offensive system that sends most of its attacks through the middle, as opposed to the outsides, and relies on quickness to beat a larger block.
That makes the Toreros difficult to stop despite their starting outside hitters both standing 5-foot-9.
“It is amazing,” said senior middle hitter Chloe Ferrari, San Diego’s leading attacker. “Nebraska is just such a cool environment to play in. Honestly, I would not want to play anywhere else.”
The Lincoln Regional is one of the rockier roads through the tournament. Nebraska finished second in the Big Ten, and the three other teams in Lincoln are conference champions. That includes defending NCAA champ Texas, which likely awaits the winner of Nebraska and San Diego. The Longhorns play unseeded American in Friday’s first regional semifinal at 5 p.m.
But if these are knock-kneed moments for the Huskers, you wouldn’t know it from Robinson, who said the team was under more pressure last weekend to beat Oregon to advance to Lincoln Regional.
“I think now, after getting through the first and second round, we can just relax and play and do what we know how to do,” Robinson said.
Nebraska arrived at this weekend’s regional despite relatively quiet nights from Robinson in the first and second rounds. She had a total of 14 kills and hit .256 in NU’s first two tournament wins, well below her regular-season averages of 4.38 kills per set and .321 attacking.
Robinson’s impact is sometimes not reflected in the box score, and Cook said NU’s first two opponents shifted their defenses toward Robinson, forcing other Huskers to come up big.
Still, he knows when the moment calls for a season-altering swing, the Big Ten player of the year will have her say in sending the Huskers beyond her dreams and one step closer to the final four.
“At the end of the night,” Cook said, “Kelsey is going to have some big swings on some big points, because left sides are going to determine a lot of big points when you get into these big matches.”