From time to time a former Nebraska volleyball player will come up when coach John Cook is answering a question about some topic.
Justine Wong-Orantes will come up for some of the remarkable digs and other little plays she made, and Jordan Larson because, well, she’s Jordan Larson.
Now that her college career is over, when does Cook expect that Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter's name will come up during future seasons? Cook has a very matter-of-fact answer for that question.
“She’ll come up as the greatest setter ever to play here, in my opinion,” said Cook, a few days after the 2017 season ended and Hunter had led the Huskers to another national championship.
“She’s had more accomplishments than anybody. Three straight final fours, and two national championships. There are only two other setters that are in that league with her in the history of volleyball (Penn State’s Alisha Glass and Stanford’s Lisa Sharpley.) But Lisa Shapley kind of ran a 6-2, so she wasn’t setting a 5-1. Alisha Glass set a 5-1 and won three national championships. So Kelly went into a very elite category.”
Few, if any, athletes in a women’s team sport at Nebraska can match the accomplishments of Hunter. In addition to the team accomplishments, she was a second-team AVCA All-American in 2016. And this season she was one of just two setters to earn first-team All-America honors. She went 16-1 in the NCAA Tournament as the starter.
The AVCA names its player of the year before the season is over, and chose Stanford outside hitter Kathryn Plummer. Two volleyball publications, Prepvolleyball.com and Volleyballmag.com, wait until the season is over, and each selected Hunter as the player of the year.
Hunter is the first player to be the setter on two national championship teams for Nebraska. The other setters on national championship teams are Christy Johnson, Greichaly Cepero and Rachel Holloway.
Her three years as the starter is maybe the best stretch in program history. Now Hunter and Cook are to the volleyball program what quarterback-coaching duos Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost and Tom Osborne were to the football program.
Hunter was a winner. In each of the past two seasons Penn State had a match point against Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament to end the Huskers’ season, and each time Hunter helped the Huskers find a way to win. She had the match-winning kill to beat Penn State in the national semifinals this year. In seven matches against Penn State as the starter, Hunter never lost.
Hunter also showed Cook, and others, how much fun sports can be.
“I think probably the biggest impact is that Kelly has taught me that every team, and all players, have their own personalities, and what they’re about,” Cook said. “I could have tried to make Kelly like some of our other setters, but that wasn’t Kelly. Kelly likes to have fun.
“She just really taught me that there is more than one way to coach and play and more than one way to approach things. I think that’s probably the biggest impact she’s had on me. And you have to let them do their thing, and probably 10 years ago I wasn’t doing that. It was, ‘This is how we’re doing it.’ She really loosened things up, and changed my perspective on things. And she made it a lot of fun.”
Hunter plans to continue to play professionally, and she may be invited at some point to train with the national team. But she’ll probably delay a pro career to complete a graduate program she started this fall. She may play for the Huskers’ beach volleyball team this spring.
“This is the one time in my life when I can play, so I’m going to use that, and hopefully travel a little bit and see some of the world,” Hunter said.
Nebraska senior setter Kelly Hunter and head coach John Cook look back at some photos from a season that the players and fans won’t forget.
The start of Hunter’s career wasn’t perfect. As a true freshman the Huskers started in a two-setter offense with Mary Pollmiller and Hunter, but quickly ended that and Pollmiller became the starter.
The next year, Cook made the decision to start Pollmiller again as a senior, and asked Hunter to redshirt. Cook said that would give Hunter three years to be the starter, and he thought those could be three great years.
Hunter may not have been thrilled that she wouldn’t be the starter, but she knew she didn’t want to waste another year of eligibility where she wouldn’t be the starting setter.
“Coach trusted that I could develop and grow into a player who could play here, and I had to trust in him that it would all work out, and trust in myself,” Hunter said. “At the time it wasn’t ideally what I wanted to be doing, but looking back I would never change it because who knows what would have happened if I played a little more my first year, or had not redshirted my second year.”
Cook wrote Hunter a note during the 2014 season that ended up being meaningful to them both. He told Hunter he wanted her to make the most of the redshirt year, because he thought she could take the program to another level in 2015.
After the Huskers won the national championship in 2015, Hunter walked into Cook’s office and showed him that she had kept the note.
“She brought me the note and said, ‘I’ve saved this and I’ve had it every day in my car,’” Cook said. “The moral of the story is you just never know when you’re impacting somebody, and you’re making a difference.”