If Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook was instead a head football coach — and we can’t be certain that thought hasn’t crossed the mind of the former high school football coach — he’d be described as a defensive coach when he was hired. You know, like football coach Scott Frost is an offensive guy.
Training defense has been a major emphasis for Cook going back to when he was the head coach at Wisconsin, and he saw that if he was ever going to have a chance to beat Penn State, he’d have to build a program on the foundation of defense.
Nebraska has the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation based on opponent hitting percentage in 2018. That’s a stat calculated by taking total kills, minus hitting errors, divided by total attempts.
Nebraska’s opponent hitting percentage is .132. It’s that defense that has helped allow Nebraska to once again reach the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 round, even though Nebraska’s offense hasn’t been as effective as last season.
“If you play defense, you always have a chance, you know,” Cook said. “Just look at sports. You got to make stops when it matters most. You got to make stops. In volleyball you got to sideout, too, but if you can stop people when it matters most, and have a chance to score, it puts a lot of pressure on the other side.”
Nebraska’s offense is averaging 1.07 fewer kills per set this season, and has a .264 hitting percentage, down from .282 last year when Nebraska had a three-year starter at setter.
It’s satisfying to Cook that Nebraska has the No. 1 defense. Nebraska’s opponent hitting percentage is its best mark since holding foes to .126 in 2005.
“That just means we serve, block and play defense, so we’re keeping teams from getting kills, basically,” Cook said. “We work really hard on it. I think it’s a total mindset and effort to be a great defensive team. And you got to have everybody bought in, because it’s a total coordination of the six people that are out there.”
Cook and defense go back to when he was coaching high school football at Coronado High School in San Diego. For two years, he was the team’s defensive coordinator.
“My first year I coached defensive ends and outside linebackers,” Cook said. “And then the second year the defensive coordinator left right at the beginning of the season, so they made me the defensive coordinator, and that year we ended up winning the conference for the first time in 30 years, and we were the No. 1 defense in our conference.”
When Cook was an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s national volleyball team, he was the defensive coordinator. It was only in the last 10 years at Nebraska when he assigned an assistant coach to take the lead on coaching defense.
Several teams have had a helpless feeling this year when going up against Nebraska’s defense:
* Of the 25 different opponents Nebraska has played, 12 had their worst hitting match of the season against Nebraska.
* For 17 opponents, it was one of their three worst hitting matches of the season.
* In 13 matches, Nebraska’s opponent hit lower than .100, including two with a negative hitting percentage.
Cook is surprised Nebraska has been this good on defense, considering all the seniors from last year were good on defense.
“Mikaeala (Foecke) has dramatically improved,” Cook said. “Kelly (Hunter) was good; Nicklin (Hames) is a great defensive player. And I think our block is really, really good. And we always try to have six great servers, and I think our serving is as good, if not upgraded from last year. And I think (libero Kenzie Maloney) sets the tone for the whole thing. She’s phenomenal.”