Few teams lost more than Nebraska, from three All-Americans to both top assistant coaches.
But don’t cry for the Huskers, who will field a roster in 2017 that will keep them in their annual hunt for the NCAA women’s volleyball championship.
As John Cook enters his 18th season in Lincoln, the sixth-winningest coach in NCAA history has every reason to be optimistic. His Huskers won the 2015 NCAA title and last year lost in the semifinals.
But gone from that team are 6-foot-3 twins Amber and Kadie Rolfzen and the all-time Nebraska digs leader in Justine Wong-Orantes, the Big Ten defensive player of the year. What’s more, top assistant Dani Busboom Kelly left to become the head coach at Louisville, and Chris Tamas got the job as head coach at Illinois and took with him his wife, volunteer assistant Jen Tamas. And technical coordinator Natalie Morgan, who handled film breakdown and statistical analysis, was hired as an assistant coach at Loyola Marymount.
“Yeah, we lost a lot. My motto right now is we’re in teaching mode,” Cook said. “Assume nothing.
“That’s what I tell myself every day. Teach, teach, which I love to do. We’re kind of re-inventing. Everything we do we have to explain what we’re doing, why we do it, explain everything.”
Cook said it can be as basic as sending Hildebrand across campus for something and him not really sure of where to go or what to do. Conversely, his other new assistant, former Olympic libero Kayla Banwarth, played for Cook at Nebraska, so that can’t hurt.
“Both Kayla and Tyler are really talented,” Cook said, adding that he hopes that Hildebrand’s wife, Kristin, a former USA national-team captain, will be a part of things, too.
“But, yeah, it has really given me a shot, a boost of energy, with a new staff and kind of a new team in a way. The timing is good, because we’re kind of re-inventing our team, as well. We have some new players. We have some returning players but we’ll have five new freshmen. A third of our team will be freshmen, so it is exciting and it’s energizing and I love it.”
It’s got to help that the setter will be a senior. Kelly Hunter will be a fifth-year player. She is from Papillion-La Vista South, the same Nebraska high school that produced the Rolfzens.
“One of the reasons we redshirted her (after her freshman year) was we wanted her to have a year playing without Kadie and Amber,” Cook said. “She played with them for literally eight years. I’ve been talking to her about how it’s her time now and her team and they won’t be saying. ‘Kadie, Amber and Kelly from Papillion-La Vista and they all did this together.’ I think she’s really motivated and energized and excited an opportunity to maybe even go to another level.”
Also back are junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and senior middle blocker Briana Holman, who played last year after sitting out in 2015 as a transfer from LSU.
“They’re working hard and they know the roles they have are going to be increased a lot,” Cook said about two of the more powerful hitters in the college game. “I’ve seen them work really hard this spring and they’re also energized. Mikaela we’re talking about playing six rotations and Bri getting more opportunities to kill balls and being a leader as a senior. There are some great challenges ahead for those guys but I think they’re excited about working towards and embracing them.”
Senior outside Annika Albrecht hopes to get in the front-row mix.
“She’s only been a three-rotation DS for us and she’s going to have the opportunity to play all the way around,” Cook said.
Lauren Stivins, a 6-foot-4 middle who redshirted last year, is ready to make an impact as a freshman, Cook said.
“By the end of last season she was playing as well as any middle in our gym,” Cook said. “She should be really motivated.”
And Olivia Boender, a super sub, if you will, the past two years, will vie for an outside hitter spot.
“At times she’s shown she can be a super player,” Cook said. “Her issue has been consistency. I’m hoping now that she’s a junior that maturity and the mental part will allow her to be a really good player every day.”
The libero will be junior Kenzie Maloney, who has been groomed to replace Wong-Orantes.
“She actually had equal passing stats to Justine the last two years,” Cook said. “She can pass, but she’s filling some big shoes. But she’s been gearing up for this for two years and we recruited her to be in his position. She’s got a chance to be a pretty high-level libero.”
Two of the five incoming freshmen should make an immediate impact and both are members of the VolleyballMag.com Fab 50, 6-3 middle Chesney McClellan from Maryville, Tenn., and 6-3 right side Jazz Sweet, a left-hander from Tecumseh, Kan., who certainly has one of the great names in sport.
“Jazz’s goal should be to be the Big Ten freshman of the year,” Cook said.
The new players enter a program that went 31-3 last year, 18-2 in the Big Ten, and for almost the entire season was considered the odds-on favorite to win it all. That, of course, was before the Huskers ran into a Texas buzzsaw in the national semifinals and got swept.
In retrospect, was being so highly regarded a burden and did it get to his team?
“It was a burden, but we had prepared so well to handle it and they did such a good job. But what really got us was the wear and tear of how tough the Big Ten was in winning that conference,” Cook said. “And then having to play Penn State a third time (and winning in five in the regional semifinals).
“I think we were just emotionally drained. By the time we got to Texas, we were out of gas. Give Texas credit, they were on a mission to beat us. They had lost to us the last two times (including getting swept in the 2015 NCAA final) and they played phenomenal. We could not rally to match it.”
But all that’s history with what was a different team.
“It’s gonna be fun. We had a great beach season and played really well and these guys like being with each other and like playing for each other,” Cook said. “It’s going to be interesting and I know we’ll compete really hard.”