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State college coach of year: A crash course on volleyball has led to longtime success for UNK's Squiers
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STATE COLLEGE COACH OF THE YEAR

State college coach of year: A crash course on volleyball has led to longtime success for UNK's Squiers

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Rick Squiers envisioned himself coaching basketball. He even landed a graduate assistant gig at Wyoming in 1989 after college.

But as Squiers quickly learned, maybe his coaching prowess was meant for another sport.

"Sometimes I tell people that one of the quickest ways that I became a volleyball coach was to be about 11-20-something (record) as a basketball coach," he quipped.

So volleyball it was.

Squiers didn't know much about the sport. He turned to others to learn and learn fast. He took a crash course from a friend coaching high school volleyball in Ames, Iowa, which included doing some of the skills himself.

"You ask questions about everything," Squiers says. "You're learning from some of your players.

"Kind of a strange journey in some ways, but that's kind of how it went down."

Last fall — his 21st season at the helm — Squiers led the Nebraska-Kearney volleyball team on a deep run. The Lopers won their first 38 matches. Their lone loss came in the Division II national championship match against Cal State San Bernardino.

After one of its most successful seasons in a rich program history, Squiers is the 2020 Journal Star state college coach of the year.

Last year's Loper team was motivated by a crushing loss in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. They wanted to make up for that, but Squiers also saw a team that knew how to play together.

"In a lot of ways it was the perfect storm of the right kind of people who fit together," he said. "We had really good upperclassmen leadership, but we also had some good young players who weren't afraid to jump into the fray and contribute."

Though Squiers knew he had a good team entering 2019 — led by co-MIAA player of the year and six-rotation standout Julianne Jackson — he said he didn't expect a 38-0 start. It included the craziest comeback in program history. The Lopers rallied from deficits of 20-11 (in the fourth set) and 9-4 (in the fifth) to stun Concordia-St. Paul in the round of 16.

"Several times since the year's been over I've been in the middle of something and just kind of thought, 'That was nuts,'" Squiers said. "You don't play in our league and win all of your games in your conference, let alone all of your games all the way to the national championship match."

It marked the Lopers' second national championship appearance (the other was 2005). Both have come under Squiers, who took over in 1999. Under his watch, the Lopers have been a model of consistency, winning 30 or more matches 15 times while celebrating 16 regular-season conference titles.

Though Squiers was relatively new to volleyball in the early 1990s, it didn't take him long to find his footing. After stops at Seward County (Kansas) Junior College and Remsen Saint Mary's High School in Iowa, he landed at Hastings College, leading the Broncos to three NAIA Tournament berths and three conference championships from 1993-98.

When Patty Sitorius stepped down as the Lopers' coach in 1998, a new opportunity awaited Squiers.

Leaving Hastings wasn't easy, Squiers said. The Broncos were primed for a big run in 1999. But UNK was a destination job.

"At the beginning it was a little scary," said Squiers, who is approaching 1,000 career wins. "It was one of those years where we (Hastings) had everyone coming back. That was kind of going to be our year, but you don't get to pick your timing sometimes."

There was some anxiety during those first matches at UNK. Squiers recalls sitting on the bench during his first match as the Lopers' head coach thinking, "What the heck am I doing here? Do I belong here? Can I hang here?"

Then there as a rough two-match road trip to Colorado. But Squiers and his staff, which included Peggy Meyer, the mother of future Husker Kalynn Meyer, regrouped to win 30 matches and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship.

"In some ways it was a motivator," Squiers said of the start.

The Lopers haven't missed an NCAA Tournament since Squiers' arrival, turning to the state's deep talent pool as well as looking outside the state lines for players. Jackson, for example, hails from Bonner Springs, Kansas.

Now a veteran of the sport, Squiers still considers himself a student of the game. His coaching staff makes it a point to go out and watch other teams' practices, from how Nebraska coach John Cook runs things in Lincoln to hitting a couple of NAIA gyms.

"By no means, I don't have any of this completely figured out," said Squiers, who also closely watched how former Husker coach Terry Pettit and Cook built programs. "It's really interesting to me to watch other coaches run a gym and teach players how to play volleyball."

Squiers, who will turn 55 before the start of the 2020 season, doesn't appear ready to slow down. The Lopers return several key players from last year's national runner-up team, and they added Nebraska transfer Fallon Stutheit in the offseason. Squiers also is getting an opportunity to coach daughters Madison and Anna, both seniors.

There remains a passion to help players get better.

"I think there's a point, from a coaching standpoint, from a maturity level, where you really just kind of do it for the players, and I think that's when things are better," Squiers said. "I don't know when that occurs. You're in survival mode for so long when you're younger, just trying to prove you're not terrible and then trying not to get fired. But I do think you get to a point you just enjoy working with young people in an athletic setting and watching them learn all the lessons that they can learn through that process, so that's kind of where I'm at.

"I like to win as much as ever and probably hate to lose as much as ever, too, but I really think that's become secondary to just really who's our group this year and how can we achieve our potential, because it's so different every year."

Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.

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