MINNEAPOLIS — John Cook preaches one match at a time, sometimes even one point at a time.
Pardon me if I’m thinking farther down the line.
In regard to his Nebraska volleyball team, I’m thinking one NCAA Final Four at a time.
So, in case anyone’s wondering, next year’s version is in Pittsburgh. In 2020, it’ll be in Omaha.
If you’re a Husker fan, you might want to know those sites because Cook’s program is operating at a level that makes a return to Final Fours (plural) in the immediate future seem probable, if not likely. It’s a program hitting on all cylinders — recruiting, culture, strength and conditioning, coaching. Everything.
Nothing we saw Saturday night in the NCAA Tournament championship match at the sold-out Target Center changes any of that. In fact, you could say it enhances such a notion.
Top-ranked Stanford had to win the battle. Nebraska handed it nothing. The final was 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12. This was a Cardinal squad that finished 34-1, closing the season with 32 straight wins. It captured its second national crown in the past three years.
Nebraska (29-7) never backed down. It lost big in the third set, but stormed back to win big in the fourth. Senior Mikaela Foecke pounded 27 kills in 71 attacks with only six errors (.296). She had nothing to hang her head about. Nobody did.
Meanwhile, sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins played like someone who can carry the team on her shoulders next season if needed, as she pounded 19 kills in 26 attempts with only three errors (.615).
Make no mistake, Cook's crew wanted this title badly. Nebraska wanted to be the first back-to-back national champion in school history. But Stanford got its eighth national crown. Nebraska remains at five, with Cook guiding four of those, including 2015 and 2017.
If you're a Nebraska fan, you can take solace in knowing the Huskers have a ton of returning talent. In fact, NU has no glaring personnel needs. Husker assistant coach Kayla Banwarth, who heads up recruiting, says the incoming class of freshmen is solid. The fact the Huskers got this far with a freshman setter, Nicklin Hames, adds to Banwarth’s belief that the program’s foundation is solid in terms of personnel.
Several young players played key roles Saturday: Stivrins, Lexi Sun (seven kills), Jazz Sweet (10) and Hayley Densberger of Malcolm are sophomores. Callie Schwarzenbach (four kills), Capri Davis (five) and Megan Miller (12 digs) are freshmen.
“I think we’re building a really, really good foundation to have very successful teams the next four or five years,” Banwarth said.
Cook spoke openly in 2015 about the pressure of reaching the Final Four when it was held in Omaha. Not surprisingly, he discusses the 2020 situation openly. No sense dodging it, especially when the program is functioning at such a high level.
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As for recruiting, reaching four straight Final Fours obviously tends to help matters.
“It’s kind of selling itself,” Banwarth said of recruiting efforts in general. “But at the same time, there’s a ton of amazing programs in the country. One of the things I’ve learned in my first few years is if I can get recruits to campus, and they can see the facilities and maybe experience a match at the Devaney Sports Center and see what we’re all about, that’s half the battle.”
Banwarth, even in her travels internationally as a U.S. national team player, says she hasn’t seen a venue as uniquely well-suited for a program as the Devaney. Think what sort of impact it can have on a teen seeing it for the first time.
Think what sort of impact watching this year’s Nebraska team had on players who dream of playing for the Big Red.
Cook has described the 2017 season as being magical because his team overcame critical personnel losses from 2016. This year, though, was in many ways better, he says. Nebraska began the season with eight new faces on the roster as well as a new assistant coach in Jaylen Reyes.
“To be the No. 1 defensive team in the country with a 5-foot-9 setter — it’s not (Jordyn) Poulter out there blocking,” Cook said of Illinois' 6-2 setter. “I’m very proud of what this team’s done.”
He watched Foecke and fellow senior Kenzie Maloney evolve as captains. He watched a group of players become a tight-knit unit that -- get this -- loved to practice. He watched that unit withstand a rough patch in October without flinching.
“You want to see your team get better, go through the process and peak at the end,” the coach said earlier this week as his team enjoyed another Final Four week.
It was a lovely week in Minneapolis, right up until a heartbreaking fifth set.
But watch out Pittsburgh and Omaha. The Big Red masses will be primed and ready.
By the way, putting that out there isn’t putting pressure on Nebraska coaches or players. They expect to reach Final Fours.
They expect to win them. They played exactly like that against Stanford, one point at a time.