“Huskers SEAL Team 1, please set Huskers SEAL Team 2…”
Yup, this is going to be a different Nebraska volleyball season. Coach John Cook knows he has a talented group of Cornhuskers. Getting them to where they want to be, competing for another national championship, is a task that he’s attacking from a number of angles, not the least of which is borrowing from the Navy.
“Huskers SEAL Team 3, put up the block. Huskers SEAL Team 2 has the dig…”
In a nutshell, this summer the Nebraska players were divided into three units to get with the program and hold themselves to task.
“I’m a big Navy SEALs guy,” Cook said. “I follow them and there’s a guy here named Jack Riggins who’s a field-team commander and who went to school here.”
But the connection between the SEALs and Nebraska volleyball goes deeper than that. Riggins’ wife is the former Nebraska great Kate Crnich, who lives in Husker lore for her performance in leading her team to the 1995 national championship.
“I heard [Riggins] speak to the football team,” said Cook, who was all too eager to apply some of the SEALs’ principles of leadership to his volleyball squad. “For example, a field team is 16 SEALs. We have 16 kids on our team. They’re divided into four teams of four and each team has a leader. We divided into three groups for the summer and each team has a leader.”
One of those team leaders is Kelsey Robinson, a senior outside hitter who arrived in January after transferring from Tennessee, where two years ago she was the Southeastern Conference player of the year and a second-team All-American. She was joined at Nebraska after the spring semester by another Tennessee teammate, junior setter Mary Pollmiller, the 2011 SEC freshman of the year. It’s no coincidence that Cook put Robinson into a leadership role from the get-go on a team that will likely start at least a couple of freshman and includes 10 first-year Huskers.
Certainly Robinson is a key – when she’s good, she’s really good.
“That’s my challenge, to make her good every night,” Cook said of the 6'2" outside hitter from Bartlett, Ill. “She’s a tremendous competitor and she’s got to be a leader. This is a pretty inexperienced group collegiately and this is a great challenge and test for her. She’s got to make people around her better.”
The other SEAL leaders are senior Morgan Broekhuis and sophomore Meghan Haggerty.
“The SEAL team leaders are in charge of their teams and they have a list of things they have to get done by August 10,” Cook said in late July. “That’s accountability day, when I get ahold of them and hold those SEAL team leaders accountable and make sure all those kids on their teams have accomplished all those things: they know our system and know our terminology, they’re making good choices, they’re doing well in school, they’re working on flexibility. I mean there is a whole list of things. The older SEAL team kids have to teach the younger kids.”
Broekhuis, a 6'5" right side from Colorado Springs, Colorado, embraced her role leading four freshman and Pollmiller drawing inspiration from Riggins’ speech to the volleyball team. “There’s a lot of instruction, but it’s also fun to get know the girls and hang out with them,” Broekhuis said.
Nebraska has a whopping eight freshmen. It’s a class considered by many to be the best in the country, but any acceleration to the team learning process has to help.
Cook discussed another part of his training program. “The theme that goes along with the SEAL team concept is something that I stole from a bank here, BDR: Building Deeper Relationships,” Cook said. “The thing about kids today is they might have 3,000 friends who are on Facebook or they’re Twittering a thousand people, but they don’t understand about building those relationships and what it means to be a true teammate and what a true friend means, to be in a brotherhood or sisterhood.
“So they work on what it means to be a true friend. And we have some sports psych guys who are helping them with that. We’re doing that not just because of this team, but because I think kids today they rely so much on texting and Twitter in how they communicate, they really don’t know how to communicate face-to-face.”
Two of his players who no doubt can communicate with each other better than any of the Huskers are Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, 6'3" freshman outside hitters who happen to be identical twins. They committed to Nebraska the summer before their freshman years in high school. What’s more, one of their Papillion-La Vista South High School teammates, setter Kelly Hunter, is part of that freshman class. Incredibly, their Papillion, Neb., team lost just one match the past three years. The loss came last season to Louisville powerhouse Assumption.
“We were pretty good,” said Kadie Rolfzen, “but the thing that made us so good was our coach, Gwen Egbert. Our practices were 10 times harder than games. It wasn’t even close.”
Kadie was ranked the No. 5 recruit in the country by prepvolleyball.com, while Amber was ranked No. 8. They both touch 10'4".
“Amber is the most competitive when it comes to the defensive side of the game,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “She’s a shut-down blocker.”
Kadie said Amber has started training on the right side and that Hunter is the most vocal player on the team, “but she’s a setter so you kind of have to be. And when things are going wrong she has a lot of comic relief in her.”
The other Nebraska freshman are Alexa Ethridge, a libero from Lee’s Summit, Mo.; Brenna Lyles, a libero from Wimberley, Texas; Justine Wong-Orantes, a libero from Cypress, Calif.; Kira Larson, a middle from Fargo, N.D.; and Melanie Keil, a middle from Berlin, Germany.
“We have a lot of open slots and it’s wide open who’s going to fill them,” Cook said. “It’s a deep class and it covers all the positions. They’re athletic and they’ve all had a lot of success.”
Nebraska has been to 31 consecutive NCAA Tournaments and has won three national titles, one in 1995 and then twice under Cook in 2000 and 2006. What’s more, the program has made it to the round of 16 in 18 of the last 19 seasons, including last year when the Huskers were ousted by Oregon in the regional final.
“We had our shot,” Cook lamented, recalling the four-set defeat.
That team graduated three All-Americans, including Cook’s daughter, setter Lauren, who has played in Puerto Rico since but is now back on campus for the fall. Cook expects she’ll be able to help his team this semester. She’ll no doubt preach her father’s message, that Nebraska can win with freshmen.
“These kids are going to have a great opportunity to step up and be great as freshman,” John Cook said. “I’m telling them that I’ve watched UConn women’s basketball win with freshmen and watched Louisville win with freshmen in men’s basketball. We watched UCLA win here in Omaha with young guys so I keep telling them if a dog is going to bite, he’s going to bite as a pup. So they need to have really high expectations starting off their first year.”
“For me, volleyball is volleyball,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “You pass the ball, you set the ball, you hit the ball. Freshmen is just the name we have. Oh, what class are they? They’re freshmen. That doesn’t mean they’re not as good or can’t do this or that. That’s just my mindset. We have to be ready.
“We came to Nebraska, so obviously we want to be good. We want to contribute, we want to play with the best. Here we are!”
Not that veterans aren’t a big part of Nebraska’s team. Certainly Robinson adds a tremendous dimension and the setting job might be Pollmiller’s, although Cook said he won’t hesitate to go to a 6-2 for the first time since 2005 if he needs to. Both Pollmiller’s and Hunter’s playing-time chances opened up when Alexa Strange transferred to USC to play sand volleyball full time.
One veteran who won’t play is senior Hayley Thramer, a middle from Ewing, Neb., who tore her ACL at the end of the spring indoor season after leading the team in blocking in 2012. The Huskers have an experienced middle in Haggerty, a 6'2" sophomore from Glen Ellyn, Ill., who was an honorable mention All-American last year.
Broekhuis was an honorable mention All-American in 2011. The rest of the team includes libero Sheridan Zarda, a sophomore from Shawnee, Kan.; Kelsey Fien, a sophomore outside from Bakersfield, Calif.; and sophomore middles Cecilia Hall, from Linkoping, Sweden; and Alicia Ostrander from Gordon, Neb.
“We’re going to be a very different looking team,” Broekhuis said, “but we’re going to be very competitive.”
Those veterans all played sand volleyball last spring for Nebraska, which had a strong first season.
“It was great for our kids,” Cook said. “We had middles who had never played anything but middle blocker because they’re so specialized in club and college, but they got to play volleyball.
“For them it was very frustrating at first, but it was fun to watch their development over the spring. I saw them do things I’d never seen them do before because they had to learn how to do everything. They had to learn how to be setters, they had to learn how to be passers, they had to dig, they had to block, they had to serve.”
“You had to do all the skills,” she said. “We get so specialized where we play just front row or just play back row. We had to do everything and I think it really helped us to see the game and learn to play.”
How that experience in the sand will translate to indoors remains to be seen. All the Huskers’ skills will be put to the test this season in a Big Ten conference that includes teams that made up half the final four (Penn State, Michigan) and a non-conference schedule that includes a long-awaited match with Texas. Their longstanding rivalry was interrupted when Nebraska moved to the Big Ten in 2011. Nebraska also goes out of the league to play Iowa State and St. Mary’s.
“I think we can get to the final four,” Cook said. “We’re hosting the regional and we have the talent. The question is how good a team we can become.”
Said Broekhuis, “I think we have a shot at being very good this year.”
Last season, the Huskers finished 26-7 with a record of 15-5 in the Big Ten.
“So I think the story for Nebraska is going to be can we survive bumps early and really become a great team by the end in November and December,” Cook said. “We certainly have the talent and with Mary and Kelsey coming in we have the experience in big matches.
“We have the talent. It’s just a matter of figuring out who to put where in what positions and make them believe.”
If they do, the real SEALs will likely be proud.
Originally published in October 2013