John Cook’s challenge to Lexi Sun heading into this season was simple: learn how to play Nebraska volleyball.
Year one in Lincoln was a big adjustment for the transfer from Texas. She certainly showed flashes of the talent that had her rated as the top player in her recruiting class coming out of high school, but there were just as many lows as there were highs.
As a sophomore playing the L2 outside hitter position alongside an all-time program great in Mikaela Foecke, Sun averaged 3.11 kills and 2.69 digs per set but only hit .195. Cook said she played a lot of “Lexi volleyball,” relying on her talent rather than reading the court and playing within Nebraska’s system.
Sun’s adjustment period was made even more difficult by an injury that kept her out for most of the nonconference. This past offseason, she was healthy and Cook’s said she’s been at her peak physically all year.
“I think it’s just a year of training,” Cook said. “She missed nine months, so we were just trying to maintain her last fall. Now she’s had a year of training, so if you put in that prep, you should be able to be strong this time of year. That’s what the whole offseason is about.”
The work paid off. Sun was named a first-team All-Big Ten performer on Wednesday after leading the Huskers with 3.57 kills per set (eighth in the Big Ten) on .275 hitting.
“She’s playing Nebraska volleyball, most of the time … She’s disciplined, playing within our system, trying not to do too much,” Cook said. “Those are kind of the main things. She’s trusting her training.”
Her digs are down just a bit at 2.42 per set but she’s improved significantly as a blocker. In 106 sets this season, she has nine more blocks and 11 fewer blocking errors than she did in the 105 sets she played as a sophomore. She still hasn’t reached her ceiling, but this season has been a big leap forward.
“She’s learning how to grind, still learning,” Cook said. “She’s taking steps toward learning how to grind every day, how to be great every day, how to push herself every day. And then I think the other part I’m most proud of is she’s working on the mental part which is controlling her emotions, staying in the moment, learning how to go on to the next play, not worried about everything else going on. That was something we identified a year ago and she’s working really hard on that.
“She’s been working with Brett Haskell and we work on it in practice and I can see her working on it in practice. There are days it’s not going well and she’ll try to fight through it and make it good and finish on a good note where last year if she started off a bad practice, it was going to be a bad day. She couldn’t pull herself out of it. The same thing with matches now—she starts off slow or hits a rough patch, she pulls herself out.”
She hit over .300 in 15 of her 29 matches and had just six matches below .200. Her poor performances were few and far between this season. Cook said Sun has been seeing the court much differently and has been much smarter about mixing up her shots and using the whole court.
“It’s the same as a baseball batter all of a sudden just seeing the ball really well, it’s the same as a quarterback just seeing the field really well, seeing all of his receivers,” Cook said. “It’s just one of those things where you get in a zone, you can just see the court, everything slows down, you can see where everybody is and get there and do what you want. Hopefully that happens a lot with our outside hitters, more than it doesn’t, and there are some nights they can’t see it and then they’ve got to find a way to work through that.”
Just like Cook, Sun said her emotional development is the thing she’s been most proud of this season.
“I would say the emotional aspect of it,” Sun said. “I think that a lot of people overlook it and focus on the physical that everyone can pay attention to, I guess. I think for me, I’ve been working with Brett [Haskell] and just working on that and how it’s helped my physical game as well.”
Sun said everything she experienced in her first season at Nebraska and during the Asia trip this summer has led to this. She’s trusting her teammates to have her back and is doing the same for them, and that has produced the greater level of consistency she’s found this season.
“It’s been very different,” Sun said about this season as a whole. “I think that anyone’s first season here you can just tell how much of a learning experience it is in volleyball and just in life in general. I think having last year and having those relationships under our belt and especially China this summer, I think that’s been big for us and I think it’s showing this year.”
Nebraska postseason run begins on Friday, and the new and improved version of Lexi Sun will have a big say in how far the Huskers go.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.