Published Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 10:43 pm / Updated at 9:56 pm
NU's Cook turns to fiery freshmen to deliver digs, add electricity
St. Mary's at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Devaney Center
Radio: 93.3 FM KFFF

LINCOLN — Most freshmen in college sports tend to find life easier if they turn down the volume. Keep quiet, pay attention and maybe you get a few minutes of playing time between hauling water bottles.

But the three freshman defensive specialists on the No. 12 Nebraska volleyball team — Justine Wong-Orantes, Brenna Lyles and Alexa Ethridge — each have found a way onto the court at the start of the season by being heard as well as seen.

“It's honestly pretty cool knowing our coaches and our teammates have that high of expectations even for freshmen,” Wong-Orantes said. “I love that. Sometimes we are even out there at the same time, so it's freshmen side by side. That's really a cool feeling.”

Floor defense was a question mark in the offseason after three departures. Nebraska graduated outside hitters Hannah Werth and Gina Mancuso, both primary passers and excellent floor defenders, while two-year starting libero Lara Dykstra transferred to Pepperdine.

Into that void stepped the three freshmen. Nebraska coach John Cook knew he would need to rely on one of the youngsters to claim the starting libero job, which Wong-Orantes won in preseason workouts. The player from Cypress, Calif., leads the Huskers with 4.06 digs per set heading into the NU's three matches this week in the Ameritas Players Classic at the Devaney Center.

Nebraska (4-1) will open the round-robin tournament hosting St. Mary's (Calif.) (3-1) at 7 p.m. Thursday. NU will play Dayton (3-3) Friday and No. 17 Iowa State (4-2) Saturday, both also at 7 p.m.

By donning the libero jersey, Wong-Orantes became the third straight NU libero to start as a freshman following Dykstra and Kayla Banwarth, who now trains with the U.S. national team. Already her sprawling digs have caught attention. She fell one dig shy against St. Louis of notching double digits in recoveries in each of the Huskers' first five matches.

“I honestly wasn't expecting any playing time. I'm fortunate that I'm even playing right now,” Wong-Orantes said. “I'm just coming in hard every day at practice knowing we have three liberos out there, and they could take my spot at any time.”

Ethridge and Lyles, both walk-ons, have jump-started the team from the service line as substitutes. Ethridge is third on the team with four service aces, and Lyles served Nebraska's 7-0 run to help spur a Game 1 comeback last weekend against Georgia as the Huskers rallied from a 19-14 deficit to win the game.

Cook said he didn't anticipate all three freshmen earning so much playing time, but they quickly opened eyes during Nebraska's season-opening tournament. Ethridge and Lyles currently rank among the team's best servers by the coaches' internal metrics, and their performance even has influenced Nebraska's switch to a 5-1 system, in part because it frees up more of the 15 substitutions allotted per game to insert one of them into the lineup when the team needs a jolt from the service line.

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“The few times I put them in at St. Louis they did some good things, and chemistry-wise they bring an energy,” Cook said. “We've got some pretty stoic players, so we thought chemistry-wise that could help because they're pretty bubbly, energetic kind of kids.”

The three fiery freshmen share a bond both on and off the court, Lyles said. All three are roommates in a Nebraska residence hall and find ways to encourage each other at practice when the inevitable freshman mistake occurs.

“We all three get yelled at for the same thing,” Lyles said, “so we're there for each other when we get yelled at.”

But usually the trio are the ones doing the shouting. You usually can find Wong-Orantes, Ethridge and Lyles at the center of celebrations following a big point. Their diminutive sizes make them most likely targets of an on-court bearhug.

Lyles turned the tables Saturday in the Game 1 comeback against Georgia, when after a Robinson kill, Lyles took a running start and leapt into the arms of the team's senior captain.

“Did you see me jump on her?” Lyles said. “I jumped on her, and we were this close to each other's faces. It was really exciting.”

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