Mary Pollmiller was Kelsey Robinson's setter at Tennessee and continues to be at Nebraska.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Mary Pollmiller: Volleyball’s 'Mother Hen'

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

mother hen, nouna person who fusses over others in an overprotective manner.

Mother hen is a bit of a cliché, if not a misnomer, especially when Nebraska volleyball coaches and players almost routinely use the term to describe a transfer setter who has taken on every leadership role possible as a first-year player on a Top Ten team. They insist the two-word description fits Mary Pollmiller like a glove. But to be sure, we collect evidence from three people who work closely with Pollmiller on a daily basis. All three reinforce why Nebraska’s volleyball team is in good hands with a junior setter for Friday night’s first-round NCAA match against Fairfield at the Devaney Center.

1) Nebraska Head Volleyball Coach John Cook says: “I’m telling you, Mary Pollmiller is a mother hen. She’s our setter. That means she’s the one driving the car and everyone else is just along for the ride. She has the personality to bring everyone and everything together. I mean, she’s had to take care of Kelsey Robinson at two different places – Tennessee and now here.”  

2) Husker Assistant Volleyball Coach Dani Busboom Kelly says: “Mary is so selfless. She wants every single player on the team to succeed, so she’s taken it upon herself to help each player be the best they can be. If a person slides, it hurts the team, so she really makes it her mission to treat everybody the same, to be friends with everybody and to take care of everybody.”     

3) 2013 Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Kelsey Robinson says: “Mary has always been one of those people who works harder than everyone else. She does everything the right way and holds herself to the highest standard. She’s a mother hen in a very good way.”

Huskers' Complete Overhaul Needed a Mother Hen

In Robinson's mind, that’s the most powerful point right there. “Mother hen” may have a “fuss” component and an “overprotection” clause in a dictionary definition, but when a Division I volleyball program is almost totally reinventing itself after massive departures from an Elite Eight team, the Huskers need all the fuss and protection they can get.

“I’m so loose, I try to go for everything and if it happens, it happens,” Robinson said. “I rub off on Mary, and she rubs off on me. One of the reasons we’re such great friends is we’ve been through so much together. There have been some points where we didn’t like each other, but we got through it. The biggest thing about our friendship is at the end of the day, I need her, and she needs me. We carry that on the court. As players, we’re a lot alike. We argue and yell at each other, but as soon as we walk off the court, we’re best friends again.”

It is difficult to imagine where Husker volleyball might be right now if Robinson had decided to transfer to Texas, UCLA or Hawaii instead of Nebraska. That exclamation point gets even bigger if Pollmiller did not follow Robinson to Lincoln instead of accepting an offer to transfer to Iowa State, Long Beach State or Arizona.

Assistant: Pollmiller Wants Everyone to Succeed

Busboom Kelly, who helps coach Nebraska’s setters, marvels at Pollmiller’s ability to blend in with every personality and position group on the team. “That’s really something, and Mary does it all so naturally and so easily,” she said. “Everything about Mary is about the team. She wants everyone to succeed just as much as she wants to succeed herself. Obviously, she’s a very special person and a very special leader. She and Kelsey have blossomed here, especially off the court and leadership-wise. They’re both on the same mission and it all relates to the team, not themselves individually.”

Pollmiller didn’t envision any kind of a reunion with Robinson the “second time around” for both players. When Kelsey and a couple other Vol teammates transferred, Pollmiller wanted to make sure she “did it right” the second time. She decided not to allow visits to interfere with existing schoolwork. “When Kelsey left for Nebraska, we were very, very close, but it didn’t really seem like a goodbye,” Pollmiller said. “Then, when she left, it seemed like ‘geez, she’s gone’ and we obviously would never play together again.”

Suddenly, Nebraska became a viable opportunity instead of version two of Never Never Land. Even though she was older and wiser, Pollmiller looked, listened and processed during her second visit to Lincoln. When she met what would become her future teammates, she was excited. Facilities and attendance weren’t factors the first time around, but they were the second time. “At Tennessee, we didn’t even have our own practice gym. We shared it with the women’s basketball team,” she said while estimating that the biggest crowd to watch her play in Knoxville was 2,000  one-fourth the size of crowds that pack the Devaney Center.

Setter: Whole Program ‘Works Their Tails Off’

Nebraska’s first year in the Devaney “was a bonus,” Pollmiller said. “My whole experience here has been more than I ever dreamed it could be. The facility is important, but it all starts with the coaches. It’s just amazing what they do, and it’s not just the head coach … it’s also Dani (Busboom Kelly) and Dan (Meske). They work their butts off. (Volunteer assistant) Sherisa (Livingston) works her butt off. Our managers work their butts off. We all do, and it’s great to have that environment where everybody’s working so hard and cares so much.”

Even though Cook sees Pollmiller’s personality as transformative, Mary knows differently. “I was quiet, but never shy,” she said. “It’s not like I just learned how to get to know people. All through my teen years, I stepped right into leadership roles. When I first meet people, I am quiet. It’s almost like I observe the room and watch everything. Once I’m thrown into the team, though, I’m an immediate part of it.”

Her mother, Kim, a Registered Nurse, can verify that. “My mom is the sweetest lady in the whole world,” Pollmiller said. “She wouldn’t say a mean word about anybody. Even if she doesn’t like someone, you will never know it. She’s a great lady and will help anybody out. I think I get a lot (of her own personality) from her.” Opposites attract and Mary thinks her parents are proof of that. She does not deny the main source of her competitive fire – her dad, who owns a machine shop in Colorado.

Broekhuis, Thramer Inspire Better Study Habits

Pollmiller embraces high-level competition and her leadership expands beyond that. She's proud to see seniors Morgan Broekhuis and Hayley Thramer frame volleyball's home page on “Hayley and Morgan are the greatest students I’ve ever known,” Pollmiller said. “I take school very seriously, but they make me almost feel bad sometimes because of how much they study. You wonder if it’s worth it, and then they inspire you to study that way and when you do, you realize you can do it and it is worth it to go the extra mile. They both care so much about this team, it’s unbelievable.”

Such observations are part of Pallmiller’s definition of why people say there’s no place like Nebraska. “It starts with the coaches, goes down to the team and is surrounded by the fans,” she said. “Each sport becomes a family and a part of the bigger Nebraska family. This whole state gets behind volleyball and so many other sports. I would say there is no other state quite like this one in terms of unity and support.”

The same principle applies to Robinson and Pollmiller. Neither played on the Nebraska team that lost to Oregon in the Elite Eight last year in Omaha. Both, however, feel a part of that because the experience is woven into who they are now – full-fledged Nebraska Cornhuskers. “It hurts and that’s why Nebraska’s Nebraska,” Mary said.

Check out Mary’s ‘Most Memorable Moment’

Whether it was last year to Oregon in Omaha or last week to Penn State in Lincoln, losing is prime-time motivator. “It’s not like we’re thinking if we can’t beat Penn State, we’re not going to get to the Final Four,” Pollmiller said. “We were up every game. We hit better. We just had too many service errors and didn’t finish. We know we can.”

After Wednesday’s practice, I asked Mary what has been her most memorable moment in her first year as a Nebraska volleyball player.

I haven’t even finished the sentence before Mary’s smiling and ready to deliver a perfect set for me just like she does for her Husker teammates.

“I think the most memorable part of the season is yet to come,” she said.

I smile myself but don’t share what I’m thinking a second or two later.

“Perfect,” I say, walking down the hall before thinking: Spoken like a true mother hen, and that’s a good thing … a very, very good thing.

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The article on Mary Pollmiller was very, very nice and deserving. Thank you. Sincerely, Vern Fiala, Kearney, Nebraska. GBR

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