Hotty Toddy: Nebraska’s Banwarth ready for challenge as new Ole Miss coach

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Kayla Banwarth-Ole Miss-John Cook-Nebraska volleyball
Kayla Banwarth and Nebraska coach John Cook on the Huskers bench during the 2018 NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty …

“I have yet to learn the cheer, but they told me that’s very important,” Kayla Banwarth admitted, knowing that she has a lot to learn about Ole Miss as she becomes the latest John Cook protege to become a head coach.

The Cook tree includes Craig Skinner at Kentucky, Louisville’s Dani Busboom Kelly, Dan Conners at UC Davis, and Chris Tamas at Illinois, all of whom were assistants at Nebraska. 

Banwarth said the Cook has been very supportive of the move. 

“He’s checked in on me every day,” she said. 

Cook has had others who have gone on to become head coaches, too, like Lizzy Fitzgerald Stemke at Georgia and Lee Maes at Virginia.

Kayla Banwarth during the 2018 NCAA final four/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Banwarth, the former Nebraska star and 2016 USA Olympic libero, said becoming a head coach was a goal.

“After this past season this opportunity just kind of popped up,” she said. “Ole Miss wasn’t on my radar, but after talking with them and seeing the campus and meeting everybody, it’s a great place to be and I’m really excited about it.”

If you’ve never been to Oxford, Mississippi, you’re at first taken aback to see how happening the downtown square area is and how pretty the surrounding countryside is. 

“I didn’t know what to expect, but the city is super cool and the campus is beautiful,” Banwarth said. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

What isn’t as pretty is the volleyball program, one that finished ninth in the 13-team Southeastern Conference this past season, one that saw six teams — Florida, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina — get NCAA Tournament bids.

The Rebels went 14-15 overall last season, 6-12 in the SEC, but it was worse than that: At one point Ole Miss was 6-0 in the league, but lost its last 12 matches. What’s more, the team’s two best players were seniors. Outside Emily Stroup led with 431 kills (3.68/set) and middle Nayo Warnell had 207 kills and led with 116 blocks (.99/set). 

“I don’t know if I would call it a rebuild,” Banwarth said. “They ended the season on a sour note, but they have all the pieces in place here, I think, and our 2020 class coming in is talented. I wouldn’t call it a total rebuild, but there are things we’re going to have to improve on and continue to build on. But I feel really good about where we’re at right now.”

She got the job during the Christmas holidays, and junior setter Lauren Bars happened to be in town and Banwarth visited with her, and talked to others on the phone. Meeting the players as they return to school next week is a priority. 

“I’m really excited about the quality of the young women I’m inheriting,” Banwarth said.

Kayla Banwarth exults after the USA beat the Netherlands in 2016 Olympic pool play/FIVB photo

Banwarth, a native of Dubuque, Iowa, knows the sport at different levels, perhaps more than most coaches. She was a walk-on at Nebraska in 2007 but eventually won the starting job that season. 

After the Olympics, one of the things Banwarth did was work as a volunteer assistant coach with Marv Dunphy and the Pepperdine men’s program. She joined Cook’s Nebraska staff in 2017 as the Huskers won the 2017 NCAA title and lost in the championship match in 2018.

Under most circumstances she’d still be one of the better players during practice, but Banwarth, who turns 31 on January 21, is pregnant with a boy and due in April. While she’s building a staff, one of her assistants will be Beau Lawler, the Nebraska video coordinator who happens to be Banwarth’s boyfriend and moved with her to Ole Miss.

Both of them might be in for a little volleyball culture shock. 

There’s the Deep South as compared to the Midwest, the Big Ten and the SEC, and then the love for the sport. Nebraska averaged 8,168 fans for home matches last season. Ole Miss had a total — a total — of 9,081 for the season.

“I think Ole Miss has a lot of similarities to Nebraska, only on a smaller scale,” Banwarth said. “The pitch is going to be pretty similar. My goal is for Ole Miss to be an NCAA Tournament team every year and eventually contend for SEC championships. We play in a power-five conference, to win that and go deep into the NCAA Tournament every year, that’s going to be the goal here and that’s my vision. You’ve got find athletes who are talented and want to buy into that vision.”

That starts next month, when coaches can hit the recruiting trail for the first time in 2020. For Banwarth, that means being out on the road before she has her baby.

“I’m going to be out there as much as I can before they cut me off from traveling,” she said, “and then soon as I can travel again it will be me and baby.”

One thing that baby boy will need to know is the Ole Miss cheer. 

For the record:

Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty, Who the hell are we? Hey! Flim flam, bim bam, Ole Miss by damn!

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