John Cook understands his audience in a state where football is a really big deal. And, Nebraska’s head volleyball coach just really likes football.
So on occasion Cook uses analogies that compare things in volleyball to football.
I’ve come up with my own volleyball-to-football analogy, but it took some time to put a finger on what I was seeing and hearing because it was so unique to a Nebraska volleyball season. Most often when a volleyball player comes to Nebraska, she plays only one position, and the really good ones are starters for three or four years. There aren’t as many third-string-to-starter stories on the volleyball team.
Annika Albrecht's case is different. The senior from North Aurora, Illinois, played a lot her first three years in the program as a part-time serving and defensive sub, but she always wanted more. She wanted to be a starting outside hitter for the Huskers, where she could smash some of those big kills at the net.
Before this season began, when she talked about her desire to earn the job as a starting outside hitter, what she was saying seemed so passionate. And it stayed the same way even after she had earned that job, and thrived in it.
I heard her answer questions about becoming a starter several times. It felt like something I’ve seen and heard many times over the years with the Nebraska football team. It sounded like Albrecht, after several years, had earned her Blackshirt, the famous jersey worn in practice by the No. 1 defense on the Husker football team.
The final chapters are still to be written on this season, but Albrecht is already one of the best stories of the year. Cook admitted to thinking at one time that because Albrecht is only 6 feet tall that she wasn’t big enough to be an outside hitter at Nebraska, but look at her now. There were 19 players who made the All-Big Ten team this year, and Albrecht is one of them.
After a couple of other failed attempts to be one of the Huskers’ starting outside hitters, she earned the job, and then got really good at it.
Asked if it was fair to say that she was passionate about being a starting outside hitter at Nebraska, Albrecht laughed.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s fair,” Albrecht said. “I hit in high school, and stuff. I don’t know, it’s always been my dream. I remember in high school my home-school coach, she always told me she wanted me to be the next Gina Mancuso (former Husker All-American). She loved Gina Mancuso. She was No. 7, and I wanted to be No. 7. It was just always my dream.
“There is the whole undersized thing, but that doesn’t really mean much to me. It’s just if you can get the job done. I’ve been so lucky to have all the girls in front of me the last three years, and they’ve all been so talented. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from each of them, but to finally have an opportunity has been really cool.”
Albrecht earned the starting job to start the season, but then had a rough beginning, never having better than a .145 hitting percentage in any of the first five matches. Albrecht said her back was against the wall, so it was at least worth it to try some of changes she made in how she hits.
And then Albrecht kept getting better, and at one point led the Huskers in kills in seven straight matches. She ranks second on the team in kills with 330.
Albrecht's slow start to the season was reminiscent of her previous chance as a starting outside hitter, at the start of the 2015 season. Albrecht had a few good matches, but then once the Huskers started playing the big teams like Texas, it wasn’t working. Kelsey Fien was taller and hit better and took Albrecht’s job, and Albrecht headed back to the back row.
This season there were fans who admitted on social media that they thought Albrecht was headed back to the back row again in 2017, but they were happy to say they got it wrong.
“Blown away by Anni’s performance this year,” wrote one person on Twitter. “Incredible all-around talent. I had my doubts if she was the answer at OH this year. Happy to say she proved me dead wrong.”
“I doubted her preseason, said she wasn’t tall enough remembering last year. All the credit goes to her,” wrote another person on Twitter.
Albrecht just kept coming up big for the Huskers. When Nebraska stunned Penn State by winning 3-0, Albrecht had a match-high 19 kills on .400 hitting, six digs and four blocks.
She had 18 kills when the Huskers rallied to beat Wisconsin in five sets. When Nebraska beat No. 14 Michigan State on Oct. 4 in Lincoln, Albrecht had a masterful finish to the match, with eight kills on 10 attempts with no hitting errors in the clinching fourth set.
And by the end of that month at least two girls dressed as Albrecht for Halloween. We can’t say for sure that doesn't still happen if she’s still a back-row player, but the odds go up when you’re a starting outside hitter for the Huskers. Someone posted a photo of the kids dressed up as Albrecht on Twitter, and she saw it. Albrecht wrote back and told the girls to keep dreaming big.
“I just hope they keep working hard, and it’s adorable,” Albrecht said. “Maybe they just had No. 17 jerseys. Either way, it was really cute.”
Precious!! Keep dreaming big girls!— Annika Albrecht (@Annika_Albrecht) October 31, 2017
Before Albrecht arrived at Nebraska, Cook compared her to former one-year Husker All-American Kelsey Robinson, which seemed like a stretch. All we knew at the time was that Albrecht was a walk-on, not that tall and had played for a home-school team. She’d also played with a great club program.
But in her own way, and on her own timeline, Albrecht has proved to be a great all-around player, just like Robinson. Albrecht earned a scholarship after her first season, has played in every set of every match during her career, and ranks sixth in school history in career ace serves with 135.
If Cook could have voted for Albrecht for Big Ten defensive player of the year, he would have. That’s because of how her serving, blocking and digs help make the Huskers so good on defense.
Nebraska has had depth problems at outside hitter in recent years, in part because some players left and Molly Haggerty decommitted, and it’s tough to get great outsides late in the recruiting game. Cook has turned to transfers such as Andie Malloy and Robinson at outside some years to fill the gaps. But Cook says he didn’t try to add a transfer going into this season. Olivia Boender or Albrecht was going to be the one.
“I think Anni made a huge commitment to get the most out of her athletic ability,” Cook said. “And then you take that with her high volleyball IQ, and then we put her in a position where we said, ‘Anni you’re not coming out. You’re going to determine whether we win or lose, and I don’t have anybody else over here that I can put in for you.”
Albrecht stayed in. And the Huskers have won a lot.