I was reminded this week of a conversation I had with Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook just before the season began.
As we began an interview I told Cook that I’d heard his name, and the Nebraska volleyball program, mentioned a few times over the summer on sports talk radio shows.
The gist of those discussions was it’s a good thing the athletic department has John Cook and the Nebraska volleyball program, because several of the other sports weren’t doing very well.
The football team had lost four of its last six games of the 2016 season. Both basketball teams had losing seasons. The baseball team won the Big Ten regular season championship, but lost four straight to end the season.
Cook didn’t seem to take any satisfaction in the volleyball program having more success than other programs. And he said the volleyball program had its work cut out for itself in 2017, with no guarantee of another great season, and he was right.
Calling this season a rebuilding year seems like a stretch at a program that can recruit like Nebraska, and that had an All-America setter on the roster, but it was a certainly a transition year after graduating three All-Americans and losing both assistant coaches. The Huskers had big question marks at outside hitter and right-side hitter, and would need help from a few of the seven freshmen.
But then what did the team do? They worked through a slow start to the season, kept developing and won another Big Ten Conference championship last week, once again showing the impressive consistency of the program. Now the Huskers take a 26-4 record and the No. 5 national ranking into the NCAA Tournament, which begins Friday for the Huskers.
The volleyball program has had some down years — at least by its high standards — not that long ago, losing in the NCAA Elite Eight in three straight years from 2012 to 2014.
But in 2015 the Huskers won the program’s fourth national championship, and the Huskers made it back to the Final Four again last season.
The Huskers have won back-to-back Big Ten championships. In those two years the Huskers clinched on the final night of the season, and each time the celebration was on their home court. In those two years combined the Huskers have had a 37-3 conference record, including 18 wins against ranked teams. Nebraska has won 28 consecutive home matches over two seasons.
When Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired in September, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said he wanted the athletic teams to be more competitive. Cook said he was on board with that.
“It’s a great mindset to have,” Cook said. “We try to have that at Nebraska volleyball. We have no excuses, and we’re trying to be the best we can be all the time. That’s something that is hopefully ingrained in our DNA at Nebraska volleyball.”
Cook grew up in California, before moving to Nebraska and Wisconsin to be a college coach. People used to ask him why he left California. Cook gets reminded why when he watches Pac-12 Conference matches on TV, and sees the small crowds.
“I tell everybody, and especially people we recruit from California, for example, and there is other parts of the country as well, but I say, ‘If I’m going to work that hard, I want to be somewhere where it’s important, and people care,’” Cook said. “And that’s what the chancellor is saying. He cares, and it’s important here, and we want to have success.”
The volleyball team won another championship last week, and will now chase another one over the next three weeks. If you’re paying attention more closely during the tournament, or are in the mood for a reminder of the fun the Huskers have already had, here is a season review:
That goes to senior setter Kelly Hunter. After missing the first two matches of the season with an injury, she’s led the Huskers to 26 wins over the final 28 regular-season matches. She’s helped make this season work for the returning players such as Mikaela Foecke and Briana Holman, and the players with new, bigger roles, such as Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend, and the first-year players, such as Jazz Sweet.
“I challenged (Kelly) to be better this year than she was last year, and I think she’s done it, and she’s now put herself in an elite category here that I don’t know if any other setter has done what she’s done,” Cook said.
That’s Albrecht, the senior outside hitter. The former walk-on, who was once described as the LeBron James of her home-school volleyball league, was mostly a defensive specialist during her first three seasons. She was a hitter to start the 2015 season, but it didn’t go well, and that idea was soon scrapped. This season didn’t start too well, either, but she took some coaching advice from assistant coach Tyler Hildebrand, and got a lot better.
Before Foecke started heating up, there was a stretch where Albrecht led the Huskers in kills in seven straight matches. Albrecht ranks second on the team with 307 kills. And on Tuesday, she was named to the all-conference team in her only season as a starter.
“Um, she hits the ball really hard. That’s what she does.”
That’s how Cook answered a question about what Foecke was doing that was working so well to get kills, and it’s hard to argue with his response. I sometimes list Foecke's kills in my notes as, “Foecke bomb.”
Most exhilarating stretch
In the first 2½ weeks of the Big Ten season, Nebraska played No. 2 Penn State, No. 3 Minnesota, No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 14 Michigan State and Rutgers. And that came just after the Huskers, as Cook said, “got smoked” by Northern Iowa. In the win against Wisconsin, NU rallied after losing the first two sets.
If the Huskers go 4-1 to start the Big Ten season, you’re probably feeling really good. But the Huskers won them all, including a sweep at Penn State, and were suddenly in the race for the Big Ten title.
“It’s been fun,” said Albrecht after the Huskers beat three top-10 teams in nine days, and you could feel it in her voice. “Right now it’s tiring. I’m tired. But the adrenaline is pumping and when you’re out there and you have nothing to lose and you’re out there with the team — and we’ve been training so hard for this moment — it just feels so good.”
Holman going down with an ankle injury in the match against UNO. It looked bad. Would the Huskers now be playing with two freshman middle blockers for the rest of the season?
But Holman toughed it out and played the next match, helping the Huskers beat Penn State. She had 13 kills with a .750 hitting percentage in that match.
“This was going to be my last time playing Penn State, so there was absolutely nothing that was going to get in my way of that,” Holman said.
That has be the Huskers’ practice on Halloween last month. The players each dressed as one of the coaches, support staffers or managers.
Hunter dressed as Cook. Maloney was Kristin Hildebrand, who was pregnant at the time.
Hunter was nervous about their surprise plan, because Cook likes to stick to a routine. But Cook loved it, and was OK delaying the start of practice so the group could take a photo.
“(Cook) was cracking up,” Hunter said. “I’ve never seen him laugh so hard.”
Hunter had the team’s equipment manager, Erin Widrig, help her get her Cook costume just right.
“Really ugly Adidas shoes, like old shoes,” said Hunter, describing her costume. “And ankle socks that aren’t like ankle socks, but they’re not crew socks. They’re in between. And then a T-shirt tucked into the basketball shorts, and then a pullover tied around his shoulders. He doesn’t wear that look very much, but when he goes recruiting he always has his pullover tied around his shoulders. And I had to have a wig.”
Best (NU volleyball) celebrity news
It was the day of a Nebraska match earlier this season when former Husker All-America outside hitter and Olympian Kelsey Robinson announced her engagement to Brian Cook. He’s also a professional volleyball player, and John Cook’s nephew. If the couple has children, John Cook predicts those will be some very gifted athletes.