Before she was an All-American, before she was breaking records, before she was leading Cathedral as the nation’s best high school volleyball team, Nia Robinson was awkward on the court. Soccer was her sport. She was trying out because her best friend played and it “looked fun.”
Sure, she was tall. But that didn’t mean much. Coaches told her to shag the ball. She stood there. She had no idea what they meant.
That was in sixth grade. Next fall, she will be playing collegiately at Northwestern.
What turned her into one of the best players in the nation? Coaches. Teammates. Pure talent. Hard work. A competitive fire paired with an infectious, fun-loving personality. Maybe some luck.
Results didn’t come early. Shelby Mudd, her friend who was the reason she tried out for a team in the first place, didn’t mince words.
“I’m not gonna lie, she was not very good,” said Mudd, a senior for Cathedral. “She was tripping over her feet. She was growing.”
But Mudd remembers when it clicked. She doesn’t know what changed in Robinson, but the results came fast. It was a practice during her 13U season, right before nationals.
“All of the sudden, she started being athletic,” Mudd recalled. “All of the sudden. It was pretty cool. We were at practice one day, and she just started hitting balls straight down. We were like, ‘Where has that been all season?’ Then we started winning.”
She started being Nia Robinson, superstar.
Robinson doesn’t know what clicked that day. But what matters is that it did. Scott McQueen, the co-owner of Circle City Volleyball who has coached Avon High School for 15 seasons, coached Robinson during her 14U season. He says physical ability only goes so far, even for a player of Robinson’s caliber. She has an extra gear that gives her an edge.
“Everybody can jump high at this level,” he said. “Being able to have an understanding of what you’re trying to do and what you have to do to prepare yourself to be as successful as possible is more important than the height that she jumps.”
Physically, she’s made adjustments, too. As she has continued to get better, so have those around her. So, she looks for whatever ways she can to gain an advantage.
“She’s learned the ability to control her swings,” McQueen said. “She’s a much better attacker from the back row than she used to be. She has a lot better plan of what she’s going to do when she goes up and swings. She’s made the progress you expect out of kids who are good athletes and can play at the highest level.”
Robinson knows that evolution will have to continue as she faces tougher competition in the near future.
“In the Big Ten, everyone can do what I can do,” she said. “Everyone can hit hard. I have to find that unique factor that makes me special.”
Her decision to attend Northwestern came in the spring. Robinson had originally committed to Wake Forest, but decommited after a coaching change there. While there are no ill feelings toward Wake Forest, she “thought maybe there might be a better opportunity somewhere else.”
Northwestern fit the bill.
“I knew I wanted to find a coach and a program that fit me,” she said. “I wasn’t just worried about the coach. I wasn’t just worried about the academics. It had to be a good collaboration of both. Northwestern did it perfectly for me. I love the girls on the team, I love their chemistry and they’re striving to be a better program, but they also care about the academics.”
But before Northwestern, she has several more weeks to make an impact at Cathedral.
Robinson’s numbers are eye-popping. 1,192 kills, the second-most in program history; 2,471 career spike attempts, the most in program history. A 46.1 kill percentage.
“She’s definitely the hardest hitter I’ve ever coached,” Cathedral coach Jean Kesterson said. “When she hits the ball, coaches are very aware. She can hurt you. She’s going to leave a mark if she hits you attacking the ball.”
Her impact on the court is one thing. Her impact off it is another.
Mudd says “she’s never experienced anyone with a better attitude.” Kesterson says Robinson “has a bubbly energy” and a “passion for the game.” She’s found a balance between dedication and joy that can be hard to find.
“Being one of the leaders on the team, I’m supposed to have a steady performance,” Robinson said. “I’m supposed to be the best I can be every game, and I need others to rise to the occasion and play with me.”
“A lot of people get it wrong when they think you have to be this intense, focused, driven person,” Kesterson said. “If you play with a love of the game and make your teammates play better and more relaxed, that’s the sign of a great volleyball player. Right now Nia’s role is to keep people relaxed.”
In almost any other program, Robinson would be the standard for success. As a member of the Fighting Irish, she’s just a piece of fabric woven into the tapestry. And she’s more than fine with that.
The history of Cathedral’s volleyball program is well-documented. Seven state titles. Sixteen All-Americans. An undefeated season and a season considered the nation’s best team.
In Kesterson’s office, the names and achievements of the program’s All-Americans line the Wall of Fame. One day soon, Robinson will join that group. But when she walked into the gym as a freshman, she was overwhelmed by the shoes she and her teammates had to fill.
“I was nervous when I first came in,” she said. “I walk into this amazing culture of the people on the Wall of Fame and the older players welcoming us in. It was an eye-opening experience, and I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.”
She raved about the welcoming attitude of the seniors during her freshman season. Now, as she wraps up her season, she wants to offer a helping hand to those who look up to her.
“I have to be the one that picks everyone up,” she said. “If someone’s not playing well, it’s my responsibility to make sure they’re OK. The pressure is from myself, wanting to be the best I can be and to be that senior leader that people remember.”
Robinson calls Cathedral “the best volleyball program you could ever be a part of.” She will leave the program as one of the best to don a uniform, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’ve built up such a good program. Every team treats us with respect, everyone knows who we are. We want to keep that going. This is our family. No one wants to see their family fail. We want to be the best of all time and we want every other program to know that this is the best program.”