In a new setting, Lexi Sun hopes to become a well-rounded star with defending champion Nebraska
If Lexi Sun could give her younger self some advice, it would be to take just a little more time to make her college decision. But she also realizes that probably wouldn't have made much difference. She had to get some college volleyball experience to truly know what she wanted.
Sun, who was the top recruit in the nation and played her 2017 freshman season at Texas, has relocated 800 miles north to Nebraska for the 2018 season. She joins the defending national champion Huskers for a fresh start, but not because there was anything really wrong at Texas. It just didn't fit Sun the way she thought it would.
So over the spring, the highly coveted 6-foot-2 outside hitter went through the recruiting process again and visited a place that she hadn't previously. This time, she was seeing it with the eyes of a college student rather than a high school kid who had spent her whole life in Encinitas, California, just north of San Diego.
Much as she loves home, she had decided getting away was a goal for college. Initially, Austin, Texas, seemed the perfect location. But she made that choice as a prep sophomore, and says that what felt "right" back then has changed.
"After learning a lot about myself, what I was looking for and where I could grow, it came down to Nebraska," Sun said. "I think it's different for every person. A lot of players do know exactly what they're looking for and go to that place, and they thrive there.
"I didn't plan on going through recruiting a second time. But it did come to that point."
In NCAA volleyball, players generally don't have to sit out a year when they transfer, unless their previous school doesn't give them a release. Nebraska has had good success with transfers in recent years with players such as setter Mary Pollmiller and outside hitter Kelsey Robinson from Tennessee, and Briana Holman from LSU, who was part of last year's title team.
"I think with these young women, once they go to college, their perspective and their priorities change, in terms of what they want long-term," Huskers coach John Cook said of those who've transferred in. "A program like Nebraska, its location might not be 'cool' for someone from Texas or California or someplace like that. But I think the way we run our program, the crowds we get, might make it more appealing to someone who is older.
"The people we've produced for the Olympics -- we had three of 12 on the  team -- show we are a program that helps players develop if they want to have a career beyond college. And with the attention they get here, it's pretty special, too. It's a big deal."
Sun is just now getting a taste of the popularity of Nebraska volleyball. Her first draw was Cook, whom she'd previously only spoken to on the phone. He is also a native of San Diego, and they bonded that way.
Once she was in Lincoln this summer, Sun discovered the state capital has a small-town atmosphere in a good way for an outgoing personality like hers. Even if it surprised her a bit at first.
"In California, everyone is on the go, and just busy and worrying about themselves," Sun said. "In Nebraska, I was caught off guard, because I'd be walking around in the grocery store or whatever, and people are so friendly here. Everyone says hi and is so sweet. I was like, 'What's going on?' But I realized it's just the people and what Nebraska is like."
The embrace is particularly warm for a Husker volleyball player. The program has five NCAA titles and it remains a tough ticket even after the Huskers moved from Nebraska Coliseum to the larger Devaney Center in 2013. The Huskers have sold out all their home regular-season matches since 2001. Sun was about 3 years old when that streak started.
"There is so much love and support for Nebraska volleyball, I think it's just cool," Sun said. "I am excited to get to be in that environment soon."
The Huskers are glad to have her in a season of transition with eight new faces on the team. Sun was an all-Big 12 first team selection last year at Texas, which went 27-3 and lost to Stanford in the regional final. Sun averaged 3.27 kills per set, and her total of 337 was second on the team. She also had 151 digs, 65 blocks (eight solo), and served 19 aces.
Her goal is to become an even more well-rounded player, which is important for a national-team future. Sun's pure talent is obvious; her big kills are thrilling. But she knows there are areas where she's just scratching the surface of what she can become.
"Like with a lot of high-profile recruits, they're all hyped up and come out of high school and rely on their athleticism, and they are just better than other kids," Cook said. "In college, a lot of the women catch up, and it's a lot more competitive.
There is so much love and support for Nebraska volleyball, I think it's just cool.Lexi Sun
"Lexi's next step is learning how to be a true six-rotation player. Taking as much pride in making a dig or a great pass as she does a big kill. Because that's what she's been rewarded for in the past; she has a great arm and she jumps well. So the mindset of doing other things well is what we're trying to develop in her."
Sun craves that constructive criticism now.
Sure, there are times she looks around thinking, "Where's the beach?" And she knows her grocery-store conversations with well-wishers will increase in frequency and length as she establishes herself with Nebraska.
But, in this second-chance situation, Sun says she is very happy to be where she is.
"I lived in the same house and went to the same school my whole life. I was very used to everything around me," Sun said. "I love San Diego, of course -- how could you not? -- but I think it was important for me to go out of my comfort zone and experience something new and different while I can.
"Now, I'm doing that again. I think I have grown a lot being out of my comfort zone, which is super important for me. It's awesome getting to experience new places in the world and different people."
But Cook and Huskers fans hope for the next three years, Sun will find that Lincoln truly is the right home away from home.