Photo by Stephanie Carpenter/Nebraska Communications

Albrecht Blossoming At Most Opportune Time

By Brian Rosenthal

You won’t hear John Cook say Annika Albrecht has exceeded his expectations in her first season as a fulltime outside hitter.

That could imply Cook didn’t have faith in Albrecht, and lacking faith or lowering expectations isn’t how the veteran Nebraska volleyball coach has built this program into a perennial power.

“I think every athlete has that belief in themselves,” Albrecht said. “It helps when you have coaches and teammates you know are supporting you, and they give you that confidence you need to bring out that big part of your play.”

That’s why Nebraska’s season of transition and growth has turned into yet another run at a Big Ten Championship.

The No. 7 Huskers (16-4, 9-1 Big Ten) are tied atop the Big Ten standings with Penn State midway through the league schedule, and Nebraska defeated the Nittany Lions in the teams’ only meeting this season.

Blossoming play from Albrecht is a big reason why Nebraska is in this familiar position.

After playing as a back-row sub the previous three seasons, Albrecht has stepped up at outside hitter and, after a slow start to the season, produced at a very steady clip. She’s second on the team in kills with 222, which is 100 more than her career total entering this season, and second in hitting percentage at .263.

Albrecht also has 165 digs, a team-leading 20 ace serves and is tied for fourth on the team with 29 blocks.

“Probably the one area she’s done better at than I thought is blocking,” Cook said. “She’s really worked harder on blocking, because she knows she’s undersized. Occasionally, somebody’s going to light her up and make her look bad, but if you look at her numbers over the course of the year, she’s done a really nice job.”

Albrecht is listed at 6-foot, which indeed is smaller than most of the powerful outside hitters you’ll see across the Big Ten Conference. Cook said Albrecht makes up for her lack of size with astute technique and vision, as well as being in the right spot.

Yes, that a considerably smaller margin for error than most outside hitters, but perhaps they don’t have the other traits that Albrecht embraces.

“Anni’s just the type of player who works her butt off every single play,” senior setter Kelly Hunter said. "She’s just a great example of a teammate and a leader. Anyone could look up to her, whether a libero or a setter, because like I said, she works her butt off.

“She’s a great teammate, and she’s also positive and always giving 100 percent. Those are our core values. One of our core values is, ‘Go for every ball and talk on every touch,’ and she does those things perfectly. I think it’s just really cool to see her really develop and blossom and be such an ‘X’ factor out there for us.”

Albrecht, from North Aurora, Illinois, came to Nebraska a home schooled student who played for the Illinois Crusaders, a home school team that won three straight national home school titles with Albrecht. She also played club volleyball under Rick Butler for Sports Performance 18 Elite.

Albrecht garnered numerous scholarship offers but chose to walk-on to Nebraska, with the unguaranteed scholarship a dangling carrot she grabbed after only one season.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” Albrecht said. “Both my parents went to school here, and we have a bunch of family out here, in Omaha and Sterling and everywhere around here.”

Indeed, Jim Albrecht, a native of Sterling, and Lynne Albrecht, a native Omaha, met playing intramural volleyball at Abel Hall on the Nebraska campus. They played on different teams, but Jim noticed Lynne was sitting on the bench of her team, and asked if she’d like to join his team.

“So she went in and played,” Albrecht said. “And the rest is history.”

The Albrechts have seven children – Annika is the youngest – and Lynne stayed home to teach them all.

“Everyone when I first came in was like, ‘Oh, how did you make friends?’ What kind of a question is that?” Albrecht said. “I would always say, ‘Well, I thought we were friends?’ It’s not like I just stayed in my house all the time. I played on a club team, I played on a homeschooled team, played homeschool sports, had youth group at church.”

All of the Albrecht children played volleyball at some point. In fact, Nolan Albrecht played men’s volleyball at Belmont Abbey, a private, Catholic college North Carolina, and is now the school’s head men’s volleyball coach.

Albrecht never had second thoughts about joining as a walk-on, especially knowing of Nebraska’s passionate volleyball fan base, the facilities, the tradition. She also fell in love with the Newman Center Catholic Church on campus.

“It’s a huge part of my life,” she said. “Everything just seemed perfect.”

Add to that now a senior volleyball season in which Albrecht is contributing in all-around ways for a team that’s far past the transitional phase.

It’s now chasing championships.

“I knew we had the potential but I didn’t know how it was going to happen, so it’s just been really exciting to see how it’s all laid out so far,” Albrecht said. “I think being here for three years already and seeing what the older girls had done and what it took to have that position, it laid down a path for me.”

Albrecht thanks her coaching staff, too, including first-year assistant Tyler Hildebrand, who’s shown her film on undersized players finding ways to produce.

Of course, there’s the overall leadership of Cook to thank, too.

“Coach always talks about ultimate trust, and if you don’t have that trust with your teammates, when you get in stressful situations, or maybe even not stressful, you’re going to fall apart, but that’s what keeps us together.”

And whether expected or not, Cook admits Nebraska had no choice but to have Albrecht shine her brightest, her latest.

“She’s been waiting for this,” Cook said. “She’s really embraced the opportunity, and she’s done a lot of things for us. I think she’s been waiting three years for this opportunity. She’s enjoying it, she’s embracing it.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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