Ex-Husker Kelsey Robinson receives new assignment, and passes it for Team USA volleyball

LINCOLN — Kelsey Robinson’s homecoming to Lincoln ended on a surprising note. The former Husker made her return with Team USA in the Volleyball Nations League hoping to carve out her spot as one of the Americans’ top outside hitters.

But Thursday morning, Robinson woke up to a surprise when coach Karch Kiraly asked her to wear the off-colored libero jersey to shore up the shaky ball control that doomed the U.S. in its Wednesday loss to Turkey.

Robinson handled the new duty commendably against hard-serving Italy, helping Team USA to a 25-21, 25-18, 25-21 win at the Devaney Center that allowed the Americans to leave home with a winning record en route to Asia for the next three weeks of competition.

“We had been having a little struggle in our serve reception and so we were looking to stabilize in that department,” Kiraly said. “The Italians were doing a really nice job of just bringing a lot of smoke at us, really hitting a lot of hard jump-spin serves.”

“(Robinson) is a world-class receiver. She was one of the best passers at the Rio Olympics.”

It wasn’t the first time Robinson had done the job as a back-row specialist. She was one of the Huskers’ top passers during her one season in Lincoln in 2013 and had played defensive specialist with her professional teams in China and Turkey.

While she was prepared to play libero for the U.S. in 2016 when starter Kayla Banwarth, now a Nebraska assistant, suffered a concussion, Thursday was the first time Robinson donned the libero jersey for the national team after another former Husker, Justine Wong-Orantes, played the first two matches of the week. Robinson finished with a 51 percent positive reception rate, receiving 21 serves.

“It’s just exciting to be on the court for me in any way I can do that,” Robinson said. “Just having the opportunity to go out there and do something I do well, passing and play defense. It was definitely a challenge that Karch put me up to, but I was stoked to be out there.”

Outside hitter Kim Hill had a match-high 13 points on nine kills, two aces, and two blocks for the U.S. Opposite hitter Kelly Murphy and middle blocker Tori Dixon each had nine points in their second starts of the week, and Jordan Larson capped her return to Lincoln with seven points.

Italy matched the Americans with 38 kills, but seemed just as likely to misfire. The Italians committed 23 combined hitting and service errors, compared to only eight for the USA.

Hill, Dixon and Murphy each had a pair of blocks as the U.S. outblocked Italy 8-5, turning around a performance from Wednesday night when Turkey put up 20 blocks in a five-set win over the Americans.

“We just knew we had to come out with a sense of urgency, and I think we did that,” Larson said. “We were attacking from the beginning.”

The improved ball handling corresponded to the best night of the week for U.S. setter Carli Lloyd, Kiraly said. The week marked the most time that Lloyd, who missed part of 2017 with a shoulder injury, ran the offense with what would be considered the Americans’ top unit.

“Clearly tonight was her best of the three nights,” Kiraly said. “It certainly helped to have better service reception so she doesn’t have to get her track shoes on and chase down errant first contacts around the gym.”

The USA was in control from the midpoint of each of the first two sets before falling into their lone bit of trouble in Game 3 when Italy went up 14-11 before the Americans turned the tide. Murphy had three kills in a 7-1 run, putting the USA on top 18-15 when she put away a ball set out of system by middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo. The Americans never led by fewer than two points again.

Anastasia Guerra and 18-year-old Marina Lubian each had nine points to lead Italy, which went 0-3 in the first week of play. Turkey finished a 3-0 start to the Volleyball Nations League earlier Thursday by sweeping Poland (1-2).

With tougher weeks still to come over the next month of the VNL, leaving Lincoln with a winning record was essential to the Americans’ chances of advancing to the final round, which will take the teams with the top five records in round-robin play. The U.S. left the Devaney Center to prepare for an early-morning Friday flight to Japan for matches next week against Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The trip home was all too brief, said Larson, who came right into the U.S. gym after finishing her club season in Turkey. But the coming weeks on the road will give the Americans a much-needed chance to get used to the ultra-fast style Kiraly has implemented and, the team hopes, round into form in time for the world championships this fall.

“We haven’t had that much time together,” Larson said. “We have a lot to learn from this weekend, obviously, but a lot of growth still. But I thought we played well considering.”