Nebraska's Lara Dykstra making her mark
Let's get the obvious query out of the way. Lara Dykstra, the standout freshman libero for second-ranked Nebraska, is not related to Lenny Dykstra, the former baseball player. "I get that a lot, though," she said.
But high achievers run through Dykstra's family. Three older siblings played collegiate volleyball: brother Joey, now a beach volleyball pro, at USC; sister Jenna at Davidson; and sister Devon at Colorado and UCLA. Younger sister Skylar plays at Redondo Union High in Redondo Beach, Calif., where she and Lara were teammates last season.
It all flows from their record-setting dad. Joe Dykstra, a ninth-round draft choice of the Phoenix Suns in 1983, sank 64 consecutive free throws for Western Illinois in 1981-82, an NCAA Division I mark that stood for 19 years.
Graduating from high school early and enrolling at Nebraska in January helped Lara Dykstra beat out two upperclassmen to become one of the few freshmen to start a full season for coach John Cook. Appearing in all 105 sets, Dykstra leads the team with 380 digs, breaking Maria Hedbeck's 1993 school record for freshmen (359).
Although the 5-foot-10 Dykstra did not make the Big Ten all-freshman team announced on Tuesday, she is expected to play a key role when Nebraska (24-4) opens NCAA tournament play in Lincoln on Thursday night against Jackson State (26-9).
"It's rare that a freshman here has a big impact like Dykstra has," Cook said.
It helped to grow up with so many talented siblings. Dykstra often played beach volleyball with her sisters, one reason she has twice qualified for the beach youth world championships. And she loves playing "pepper," the popular two-player, bump-set-spike drill, with brother Joey. He said he never took it easy on her, even after spiking one in her face when she was 8 or 9 years old.
"We were peppering outside at [Jenna's] gym," said Joey, now 23. "We were peppering really hard awhile, and we started jumping and hitting, really getting after it. I hit one that just got the tips of my fingers, and it hit her right square in the face. She started crying and ran inside, and I thought, Oh, no, I've done it now.
"Five minutes later, she came right back outside and said, 'I'm ready now.' And I said, OK, she's ready for more.
That's always been her deal, never backing down from a challenge. Dykstra chose Nebraska over Texas, Penn State, Washington and UCLA in part because Kayla Banwarth was leaving (she's now with the U.S. national team), and Dykstra could play right away.
"She knew she had a shot because we were graduating a great libero in Kayla Banwarth, so she did everything possible to get here in January," Cook said.
Said Dykstra, "Coming early was probably one of the best decisions I've ever made. It was extremely helpful. I got used to the higher level of play. I got close to the girls. The team and the coaches were all very helpful. I got used to the school, kind of juggling school and volleyball right away. I know I'm a freshman, but it feels like I've been here longer than that."
Nebraska's strong spring exhibition schedule afforded Dykstra a chance to establish herself against quality competition, topped by Tianjin Bridgestone, the eight-time Chinese professional league champion who brought two Olympians on the trip. With Nebraska trailing 14-11 in the fifth set, Dykstra served the final five points to complete a 16-14 victory. Dykstra's play in early-season matches against Saint Mary's and four-time NCAA champion Penn State impressed Cook as well.
"That's when she really proved she was up for all this and was going to be really solid for us," Cook said. "I think it was those early matches where she got her confidence that she could do this."
Although Nebraska lost Banwarth, second-team All-American Lindsey Licht and former All-Americans Sydney Anderson and Tara Mueller from last year's roster, Dykstra's contributions behind all-conference first-teamers Lauren Cook, Gina Mancuso and Hannah Werth helped the Huskers qualify for their 30th consecutive NCAA tournament. Nebraska, in its first season in the Big Ten, also ended Penn State's eight-year run as conference champion.
Cook's arrest after an Oct. 30 traffic accident that injured two people on a motorcycle (she entered a diversion program as part of a plea agreement) challenged the focus of the players as well as the head coach, who is her father.
"We've had a lot of things this team has had to deal with, more than any team I've coached," John Cook said. "Not all of the issues are public. But that's part of the development of a team, learning how to deal with things that come up and working through those things and becoming stronger.
"We've weathered a lot of storms and were good enough to win the Big Ten. Nobody else has done that the last eight years except Penn State. That just shows you what this team is made of."
And Dykstra, who never imagined herself at a school in the Midwest until a visit to Nebraska changed her mind, is thrilled to be part of it -- especially now, at tournament time.
"I'm definitely very excited," she said. "This is what everyone's dream is. Being a little girl in California, we always watched the finals and the Final Fours.
"This is why people come to Nebraska, and why I came to Nebraska, because year in and year out, we have the opportunity to compete for a national championship. I am beyond excited to get the tournament started. I think it's going to be a really fun experience."