Huskers get extra time to welcome newcomers with extended beach season

LINCOLN — Since starting a beach volleyball program in 2013, Nebraska used its sand season as a transitional tool, a segue from the end of one indoor season to the start of the next.

But with plenty of changes in the program since the Huskers won the national championship in December, it might be a fortunate coincidence that coach John Cook was able to extend NU’s sand season to nearly double the previous years.

The Huskers’ previous beach schedules spanned two weeks with one week coming during spring break. But this year, the Huskers will be on the beach for nearly a month, beginning with five matches in Arizona this weekend.

That means extra time to welcome two new players who joined the team at semester and say farewell to assistant Tyler Hildebrand, who is leaving the program after one year to become the first director of coaching for USA Volleyball’s beach programs after the sand season.

“This year, coach (Cook) was like, ‘Let’s be the best beach team we can be.’ So we’re training only beach. We’re not working on indoor stuff at all,” Hildebrand said. “We’ve got a beach handbook. We didn’t have that before. And we’re watching video, both individual players and teams.”

Hildebrand said Nebraska’s beach season could be divided into two parts: an undercard in Arizona and the main event in Hawaii. The Huskers haven’t set firm pairings going into Arizona, but will use the five matches to mix some parts and see who plays well together. NU opens with Benedictine on Friday before facing LSU, Cal Poly, Southern California and Arizona State on Saturday and Sunday.

A pair of closed home matches against Missouri State and Missouri Baptist will provide another chance to set lineups before Nebraska travels to the Hawaii Invitational from March 15 through 20. On the way back, NU will play three more matches in Irvine, California, on March 23.

“Last year, we were just kind of in the same teams the whole time,” Hildebrand said. “This year, there might be some matchups where we want to move some people around.”

The beach roster features familiar names from the recent NCAA title team. Seniors Kelly Hunter, Annika Albrecht and Allie Havers will play one final sand season with seven underclassmen who played last fall.

Two newcomers will make their Nebraska debuts after joining the team in January. Kashauna “Kash” Williams might have grown up in Southern California, but said Nebraska’s six weeks of beach workouts was the first time she played an organized form of sand volleyball.

“I’d play for fun, for like two minutes, but it was never competitive,” she said. “So this is new.”

A year ago, Nebraska was a blip on Williams’ radar.

A latecomer to the sport, she started playing in high school. She wasn’t familiar with the college volleyball landscape until Long Beach State coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer, who also coached Williams’ Mizuno Long Beach club team, clued her into what a Nebraska offer meant.

“I started searching them up, and then I was like, ‘Dang, I want to go here,’ ” Williams said.

By contrast, Jasmine Schmidt always knew she wanted to be a Husker.

She was born in Lincoln and chased down volleyballs in the NU Coliseum as a ballgirl in middle school before her family moved to Colorado during her high school years.

Schmidt, a 6-foot-1 lefty, was a combo right-side hitter/setter at Palm Beach Atlantic last fall, but couldn’t shake the dream of playing at Nebraska. Her club coach contacted NU to see if there was room for Schmidt to walk on, and Cook is giving her the spring as an extended tryout period.

“When I heard that, I had to try,” Schmidt said. “I’ve always wanted to come here. Even though it’s not a guarantee, no regrets. I had to come here and try.”

Her goal is earning a spot on the indoor roster as a setter, where the Huskers could use some depth.

Hunter’s eligibility is done and redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton intends to transfer, leaving incoming freshman Nicklin Hames as Nebraska’s only setter known to be in the mix for 2018. Hames arrives this summer, and Cook has said he could potentially add another setter via transfer.

The beach season should help Williams and Schmidt get acclimated not only to their new schools, but coaches and teammates. Williams said the Nebraska winter has already forced her to significantly expand her wardrobe of sweaters.

For Schmidt, it puts a dream she has been chasing within reach. Last fall, she traveled with her mother to Nebraska’s match at Maryland during a break in Palm Beach Atlantic’s schedule. She attended the Huskers’ regional matches in Lexington, Kentucky.

She hopes a good showing in the sand will prepare her for the big audition when Nebraska starts indoor spring practice in April.

“It’ll get me comfortable with the girls, comfortable with Nebraska volleyball and how they do things,” Schmidt said. “I’ll just be able to get my bearings and get comfortable and get loose so I won’t be so stressed out when indoor starts.

“The girls have all been really welcoming, and I’ve had this time to bond with them and learn from the coaches.”