Randy York’s N-Sider
If I told you that John Cook offered Kelsey Robinson a Nebraska volleyball scholarship 4½ years ago before she graduated from St. Francis High School in Wheaton, Illinois, why would you think she turned down such a prestigious offer? Would it be because: 1) She didn’t think she was good enough to play at Nebraska? 2) She couldn’t visualize herself in the same sentence with Jordan Larson and Gina Mancuso? 3) She couldn’t envision how long it would take to earn a spot on the NU Coliseum’s floor? or 4) No matter how hard she tried, she was not a leader, so she seemed destined more to follow others rather than show ‘em how it’s done?
That buzz you hear is every person who thinks he or she is right, even though the truth is this is a trick question and all four answers are correct. Robinson may be one smashing success in her first and only year at Nebraska, but she most certainly did not see herself as a trailblazer when she chose to attend Tennessee, where she was named the 2010 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, plus an American Volleyball Coaches Association Second-Team All-American … not bad for someone who actually told Cook she didn’t think she was good enough to play at Nebraska's traditional powerhouse. She told me this week she didn’t consider herself worthy enough to follow in the footsteps of Nebraska All-Americans Jordan Larson and Gina Mancuso. Somehow, she thought she might have to wait until the 12th of Never to get a chance to play inside a historical building where some potential legends have had to wait their turn. Before we address Point No. 4, is it really true that Robinson – a legitimate candidate for volleyball’s 2013 National Player of the Year honor – is not a leader? “Kelsey and I had a good recruiting connection when she was still in high school, but she didn’t feel she could play here,” said Cook, Nebraska’s head coach whose Huskers complete their regular-season schedule Saturday night at the Devaney Center. It's a Top Ten battle with Nebraska hosting Penn State, which clinched the Big Ten championship earlier this week. The day before that, Cook surmised and Robinson confirmed that she wanted to be on a college volleyball court quicker so she chose Tennessee while she was still in high school.
Robinson Now Embraces Instead of Avoids Challenge
Here’s the irony of that storyline: After three productive years at Tennessee, Robinson is finishing her first and only year at Nebraska, and in a fast-moving calendar year, she has fully embraced everything that she summarily dismissed as hidden Husker hurdles. “Maybe if I had come to Nebraska my freshman year, I might not have ever played,” Robinson told me. “I would have liked to have transferred to Nebraska a year or two earlier, but everything seems to have worked out for the best.” Indeed. “I never really dreamed that I could compete at the Nebraska level,” Robinson said. “But I also never regret that I decided to go the direction I ended up choosing."
Sometimes, things work out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out. Robinson was an SEC superstar because she developed the competitive energy that reached the level in which she now competes. “The biggest thing for me was just learning how to play at the college level,” she said, “I didn’t have a good freshman year, then did a 180 turnaround after that and was willing to do whatever it took to become great." That includes her own self-imposed three-a-day workouts. After just a year as a Husker, Robinson has come full circle. Confidence has replaced doubt and opportunity knocks from the door that was once closed in her mind. When Robinson realized she could transfer without having to sit out a season, she did some early holiday shopping a year ago, contacting several schools. She ended up choosing Nebraska's last available scholarship.
Huskers Beat Out Longhorns, Bruins and Rainbows
On Robinson's checklist, Texas finished second, UCLA third and Hawaii fourth – all volleyball bluebloods, just like Nebraska. She even considered opportunities at USC and Oregon. Robinson, the 18-year-old who could not envision greatness in high school, has rekindled her heart and expanded her mind after 11 months of living in Lincoln. She has learned how to dream big, using Cook’s inspiring mantra for motivated people to amp up, push the envelope and then ride self-empowerment to the very top. “I visited Nebraska in high school before they came to mind again,” Robinson recalled. “I just wanted to get back to my roots in the Midwest and be a part of tradition. I knew Nebraska had a great program and know John is a great coach. No matter what kind of talent is there, Nebraska is going to make it work. I just wanted to be part of that, so everything made immediate sense.”
Something else emerged quickly. Cook's high-octane level of possibility thinking replaced Robinson’s restricted reasoning. So 36 months after she saw mostly stop signs on the road she’s taken to greatness, Robinson is dreaming big and then equipping herself to add what’s necessary to help make those dreams come true. “I think it’s great the way Coach Cook asks you to have goals and dreams so you will push yourself every day to meet those goals and see those dreams become reality,” she said.
Two Dreams: National Championship, Olympic Spot
Let the record show that Robinson holds two dreams close to heart. “I said I wanted a national championship more than anything and I’ll do whatever I can to help us get there,” she said. And get this: The 18-year-old Illinois girl who wouldn’t put her name in the same sentence with Larson and Mancuso now has a big-deal dream of her own. “I want to make the Olympic volleyball team,” she said, “and I love being pushed every day to learn something that can only make me better." Cook’s leadership is rubbing off on his three senior captains. They include Robinson, who’s having one of the nation's best senior seasons in years, Morgan Broekhuis, who has gracefully accepted a diminished role from her past but remains a valuable contributing leader; and Hayley Thramer, another prime player from the past two seasons whose career was cut short after a second major surgery. Please read about the Huskers’ other two senior captains:
John Cook on Morgan Broekhuis: “Morgan is a great-student athlete. She takes school really seriously and she’s worked really hard in volleyball. You look at our highlights over the last three years, and you’ll see Morgan winning a lot of big matches and involved in a lot of big points. She’s had a great career here and has done a lot of really good things. She’s going to graduate in December with close to a 4.0 in Biological Sciences. Morgan is a great example of a student-athlete who gives everything she has both on and off the court, and that’s what we want all of our players to do."
Morgan in her own words: “It’s going to be sad having that last time out on the court for a regular-season game and experience our fans on a volleyball game day. It’s exciting, but bittersweet. We opened the Big Ten with Penn State, so we might as well close the Big Ten with Penn State, too. We’re excited about hosting a Regional and are looking forward to competing for the Final Four. We’ve grown up as the season has gone on, and our confidence is really high. The excitement comes from our experience and we’re hoping that helps us host an NCAA Regional into the next two weekends. I’ve wanted to be in a Final Four since I’ve been here and I think we have a good chance to make it this year. It’s nerve-wracking to win close games, but I loved it when we beat Penn State and came back to beat UCLA. I’ve been so focused on my last semester and my last college volleyball season that December is getting here before I know it. I don’t know for sure what I’m going to do, but I’d like to give professional volleyball a try before going into nursing. At Nebraska, you get the whole package of being a Division I student-athlete. You learn why character is important both on the court and in the classroom. I’m going to miss the girls most, and I’m glad I got to play in our first season in the Devaney Center. The crowd really gets into it and is so loud, everyone yells “Point Devaney” when they help cause our opponents to make an error. It’s amazing how many people support Nebraska volleyball and want to see us play. People can’t believe we sold out the season before the season started.”
John Cook on Hayley Thramer: “Hayley is a great small-town (Ewing) Nebraska girl story, and we’ve had a lot of them. The difference for her was coming here and making herself into a great player with a lot of hard work. She was a dominating blocker in the Big Ten Conference the last two years, and then, all of a sudden, an injury cut her career short. You really find out about people when something like that happens. Hayley took a huge negative and made it a big positive. She’s made the most of her opportunity to be a part of this team, and I think the experience she’s had here will give her an edge in going on to become a physician’s assistant. When you’re an athlete and have to rehab back from two major injuries, she’ll have a sixth sense in how to handle people who are injured or hurt."
Hayley in her own words: Injuries in general either make you or break you. It all depends on how you react to it. When I tore my shoulder and had surgery, a lot of people told me it’s how you look at it and approach it. My life values and morals see a glass half-full rather than half-empty. I don’t believe in dwelling on negative events that happen in life because it won’t get you anywhere. I concentrate on making it a positive. After a great junior year, I was looking forward to making my last season my best. My second injury was more devastating than the first because I knew it was over. No more playing at Nebraska in front of large crowds in the best Division I atmosphere. We beat UCLA when it was ranked No. 1, Illinois when it was No. 1, plus Penn State and Texas. You miss experiences like those no matter what. To have it all taken away so abruptly was the toughest part for me. I never even thought about not staying with the team. I wasn’t going to back out on my word and commitment. I grew up saying what I was going to do and then following through with it. I feel fortunate to help with the team. I graduate in December in Nutrition Exercise and Health Science. I’m hoping to get into a P.A. program, but have also committed to help (former teammate) Maggie Griffin coach a club volleyball team for 13-year-olds. I know how much girls like that look up to us. I was there not that long ago, so I’m really excited. I’ve learned that you can lead in so many different areas, whether you’re playing or not. Kelsey, Morgan and I all have different roles as captains. We’re all doing what we can to make the Final Four. The national championship is our ultimate goal. We’ve had that focus since we started two-a-day practices last spring. Even before that, I said we could win a national championship, and I still believe that. In fact, I believe that even more now than I did back then. I’ve seen what this team can do and how well they play together. You can see during games how much they energize each other and the crowds we get here. That’s the fun part. We’ve grown through this season in what we’ve accomplished and what we can still accomplish. Girls come to Nebraska to win national championships. It’s a competitive mindset built into our tradition, and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.”
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