Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook is all in when it comes to his team captains, and that’s had a part in the success of the five-time national championship program.
Former Huskers Mikaela Foecke and Kelly Hunter were All-Americans, but are also known for being great captains on teams that reached the NCAA Final Four.
Cook sees value in players leading the team and giving players a voice when it comes to some decisions about the program.
Team leadership was something Cook viewed as being especially important this season, and he began working on it in January, seven months before the season began.
Both of the captains from last season, Kenzie Maloney and Foecke, graduated. Cook knew it would be a young team this season, and it ended up that way, with no seniors and six freshmen.
So Cook chose to start Lauren Stivrins and Nicklin Hames in a captains-in-training program. Stivrins is a junior but in her fourth year in the program and was a first-team All-American last season. Hames is a sophomore but is a passionate and determined player who helped Nebraska reach the national championship match as a freshman. And Cook prefers to have the setter as one of the captains.
— John Cook (@jcook2) March 4, 2019
The leadership training included meetings with the coaches and Brett Haskell, a sports psychologist who works closely with the program.
By the time the team traveled to Asia in the summer, Stivrins and Hames were unofficial captains, and then it became official.
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The season is off to a good start. Entering Wednesday’s 6 p.m. match against Rutgers (6-7) in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Nebraska is ranked No. 2 in the nation with a 10-1 record.
In Nebraska’s closest match, when it rallied to win in five sets against San Diego, Hames and Stivrins were the team’s best players in the final two sets.
Some of the sports programs at Nebraska have been casual about team captains, but not Cook.
“We try to make a big deal about it because you got to have somebody in that locker room making sure things are going good, and they’re saying the right things and they’re instilling Nebraska volleyball culture,” Cook said. “I can’t monitor that 24/7. They can. They know what’s going on in that locker room, and they know what’s going on off the court. Part of their responsibility is to do that, and then create a standard for our team. Now I can create the standard, but it’s way more powerful if it comes from them.”
Cook said captains are also really big in international volleyball. Former Husker Jordan Larson has been the captain for the United States national team. At Nebraska, the captains have a plaque on their lockers.
Once a week the captains meet with Lindsay Peterson, who coordinates team travel and activities, to help make decisions and talk about concerns. Sometimes Cook meets the captains for coffee to talk about the team.
“I use them as the barometer for the rest of our team,” Cook said. “So that allows me to know when to pace, when to push, when they need a break. So we develop this relationship where there is really good open and honest communication, and I really value the input that they give me.”
Stivrins had a lot of respect for how Foecke and Maloney led the team last season, saying they are the reason Nebraska volleyball is what it is right now. Now Stivrins wants to be great for this year’s team.
“I’ve been here for quite some time and I’ve got to see some really great volleyball players and people come through this program, and so to be recognized as one of those is really amazing,” Stivrins said.