Lincoln Arneal lives in Lincoln and covers Nebraska volleyball for Huskers Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @lincoln_VB
By Lincoln Arneal for VolleyballMag.com
Nebraska’s 2022 season came to an abrupt early end on a Thursday afternoon in December in Louisville, Kentucky. For the first time in a decade, the Huskers failed to advance to an NCAA Tournament regional final after failing to convert several match points against Oregon.
What’s more, the Huskers dropped three of their final five matches to cap off an unpredictable season, ending up 26-6. They began the year as the preseason No. 1, but stumbled down the stretch, finishing second to Wisconsin in the Big Ten. In the end, Nebraska struggled to rebound from losing its emotional leader, Kenzie Knuckles, to a knee injury before the last week of the regular season. All season long, coach John Cook shuffled through more than a dozen lineups as they dealt with injuries and toggled between a one-setter and two-setter system.
We caught up with Cook, who just finished his 23rd year at the helm in Lincoln, a week into the second semester at Nebraska. Cook welcomed six new players to the roster and had just started beach volleyball practices. We talked about last season, what lies ahead, the Whitney Lauenstein-Merritt Beason situation, his thoughts on the ever-changing college volleyball world, and his horse, Bud.
It’s been a month and a half since the season ended, what’s been ruminating in your mind about how things ended? What kind of things are still sticking in your craw?
Well, there’s not really a whole lot to ruminate about because we graduated four players, and Whitney’s gone, so we really lost five starters. So the rumination is, “Hey, half our team’s brand new and we got a good core coming back. Let’s get to work. We better come in and shape and they did.” We had a really great first week. We actually are progressing faster than we thought we would. (Strength and conditioning coach) Brian (Kmitta) is pushing them harder than he thought he could. We started beach and our first match is (February 24).
When I look back on the season, we had a lot of challenges and things we had to work through. I think we, as coaching staff and as a team, did a really good job with it. We were the number one defensive team in the country, and we have never done that before. We got down in the last week and we were playing to win the Big Ten championship. Everybody looks, of course, at how you finish, which for us was losing in the regional third round, everybody feels like it’s a failure, but we just had 10 straight years in the regional final or final four. It came down to a couple points, and we didn’t execute. We had our chances and didn’t. I thought we were a great matchup for Louisville, but Oregon made the plays and we didn’t.
Did you watch the final four at all?
I have watched a little bit of it, but today’s our first day. We’re still going through all of our reports that I had our stats guy do. We’ll start watching video and evaluating. We got time here until we started indoor. We’ll start making a plan and what we want to do and see what we can learn from that. What we’re learning is we did a lot of really good things statistically.
Do you feel like you’ve lost a lot with what you had or you return a lot coming back?
We lost a significant portion of it. I also wonder what would have happened. We had to make a big adjustment during the last week, right before we’re playing for the Big Ten championship. I think Ally (Batenhorst) came in and did a pretty good job and our team adjusted. We flipped outsides. We’ve never made that many changes. I thought our team did a pretty good job of handling that but losing (senior defensive specialist) Kenzie (Knuckles) was a big loss at that point. Now we have nine months, an international trip and the fact that those five freshmen are here and Merritt (Beason) is here. It gives us nine months to prepare for the season. I feel really good about that. So I feel more like here’s what we got coming back. Now, if none of those guys were here and we had seven players here, we’d be sitting there looking like, “Holy crap, we just lost the biggest group we’ve ever lost.” So that’s how we’re looking at it because they came here and hit the ground running.
When (sophomore right side) Whitney Lauenstein came to you and said she was stepping away, were you surprised to hear that?
Yeah, we had no idea.
Did she come to you with her decision made, or was it a conversation? How did that unfold?
She informed us that she no longer wanted to play volleyball.
That happened right after the season, and you moved pretty quickly on (Florida right side) Merritt Beason. Was that the intention to do that knowing how tumultuous the transfer portal can be?
We all canceled our plans. (Assistant coach) Jaylen (Reyes) had a flight to Hawaii. I had a flight to Wyoming. We canceled everything and stayed here longer than we anticipated. When Merritt came in the portal, which was a week later, we had to move because she fits what we were looking for in trying to fill Whitney’s position.
She played with a couple of current players as part of the junior national team. Did you get input from them?
Yeah, They came to me and said, “‘Coach, she’s in the portal. We got to get her.”
Were you surprised by how quickly that all went?
I was ready to go to Wyoming and then we talked to Merritt on Thursday. She went into the portal at noon. We were on the phone with her at 1 because Jaylen just happened to be sitting in there, he saw it and we called her right away. Then she was here at 8:30 the next morning. She was trying to move fast because she wanted to start in January. Some schools start January 2nd or 3rd, right after New Year’s. We just happen to start later. She was moving fast.
I bet that made a good Christmas present for everyone.
She wanted to get it out of the way before Christmas. It was just a total chance how that worked out. But we were not anticipating even looking at the portal.
The next week in December was the Under Armour All-America game with the five girls who were committed. What were your impressions of that game where almost all of them were on the same side of the net?
It was awesome to watch them play. I thought it was pretty high level for an all-star game. I think all of our players at times played really well and stepped up and got to play a lot. It was a great experience. They had fun and Under Armour does a really nice job with that. They were telling me all the things that they do — they basically go all day. They really expose them to potentially what it could be like in a place like Nebraska with a lot of media and NIL stuff. They had reporters around all the time doing interviews, all those things. So I think it’s a great experience to set them up for what programs like Nebraska and what they’re going to be in for.
Is it becoming the norm now to enroll early? All five are here on campus and they’re starting a semester early. Is that something that you talk to them about after they commit? Or are they making the decision that they want to get a leg up and have those seven, eight months to train?
It’s so variable with where they’re going to high school. Are they playing another sport? Do they want to continue to play club? Are they ready to go away to college? So it’s very hit-and-miss. What I’m seeing happen is that these players, they played a lot of club volleyball, so they’re kind of over it. You can only go to Orlando so many times. “OK, I’ve been there, done that.” I think they realize, at least this group realizes, they all have a chance to play as freshmen. A lot of them want to be four-year starters. So if I can get there early, it gives me a better chance. Then we have an international trip, which wouldn’t matter. But, instead of just graduating and coming here and going on an international trip, we now have all spring to prepare for that and just get them a little more acclimated instead of just getting here, taking off and going on a trip. So it just happened that for these guys that worked out.
The only ones that haven’t in the last few years were Maggie Mendelson, who graduated a year early and Whitney Lauenstein, who didn’t because she was competing in track. I don’t know the percentage, but it sounded like a lot of the players in the Under Armour game sounded like they were heading to school right after that game.
I wonder what the percentage was. I think it’s a trend. I have no idea if our recruits next year are going to do it. They know about it, but we haven’t talked about it. We just tell them, if you’re gonna think about it, you got to start preparing with your counselor to make sure you’re eligible. At some point, they send their stuff to us so we double-check it, but it has to be pushed by them and their school. What I saw this year for the first time, both Caroline (Jurevicius) and Bergen (Reilly) came from Catholic schools, and usually, the Catholic schools say no way. So that was the first. I just think times are changing now. They’re gonna have to adjust. I know my daughter (Lauren, who went to UCLA in 2009) wanted to go early and (Lincoln) Pius wouldn’t let her.
Some of these guys will have a chance to go back and go through graduation and prom if they want to or go to a senior thing. So we’re going to try to work with them to be able to do that if they want to.
How have you seen NIL evolve in the last year, year and a half? Have you seen the student-athletes start to figure it out?
It’s evolving all the time. It’s been all over the place, from ABM (Athlete Branding & Marketing) to 1890 (Initiative). Other collectives are trying to form. I think it was a wild wild west a year ago. Everybody’s off doing their own thing. I just think it was very random. Now, what 1890 is trying to do is have it be more organized and planned out. I think everybody understands NIL a little bit better. I think donors understand it better. I feel like it’s a little more organized and they have a plan. One of the only things I said is I want everybody on our team involved in it. We’re not just going to have these three players doing it. Everybody’s got to have opportunities in this – that was my request. Just because I want to keep a close team. I don’t want the haves and have-nots. It’s never going to be equal, but everybody’s going to have an opportunity to be involved in NIL stuff.
How will having Kenzie Knuckles on the inside working for the 1890 Initiative help with the NIL for volleyball?
Let’s be honest. The main thing these collectives are started for is football. But what’s happened is donors who are going to donate to football, say, hey, we want to donate to volleyball as well. So this is a package deal. So they’ve kind of been forced to drag us into that, which has been great. With Kenzie there now, Kenzie is going to be the liaison between our program, between the donors and 1890. So she’s going to help coordinate that. Although ABM did a great job with us and Gerrod Lambrecht did a great job of including us, but now there’s going to be somebody overseeing that. Now it’s way more thought out. This is her dream job. This is what she wants to do. She wants to work with teams. She didn’t want to play anymore and she’s doing a great job.
I imagine it will be a good way to have an ambassador for the program. The other part of the game that has been chaotic is the transfer portal. It seems like Big Ten teams are again loading up with some of the top players in the portal. Are you ready to face Kylie Murr with Minnesota and the revamped Penn State lineup?
It’s like NFL free agency now. I mean, it’s nuts. Personally, I don’t like to see players transfer within the conference. It’s gonna be really awkward for them and for their former teams. I mean, that’s gonna be really hard because we aren’t not the NFL. I don’t know if I like that part of it.
The part I do like is (setter) Anni Evans is graduating here. She’s not going to go be a pro player, but she can parlay her experience here and her COVID year to go get a master’s degree and get it paid for probably. To me, that’s a pretty nice benefit … So she’s using this opportunity for education and to continue to use volleyball to help make that happen.
I’m surprised players like Mac (Podraza of Ohio State) or some of these guys aren’t going pro like Madi (Kubik) did. We’d love to have Madi back. But I think Madi has seen that the fifth-year thing is kind of hard, and with such a large group coming in, I just think she feels like it’s time for new leaders to step up. I respect that. I’m glad you know, these guys can see through that and not just what’s best for me, or “Oh, I’m just gonna go somewhere else and transfer to another school.” But I’ll be glad when the COVID thing is over and I’ll be curious what the portal does. I also think it sends a message at some point where do you try to work through things and make it work instead of jumping so quickly? But you can rebuild the team faster now.
You’re done with the COVID (extra eligibility) years. So you don’t have to worry about that anymore.
Right. We have no seniors.
Another rule change this year, the NCAA is getting rid of volunteer coaches and adding a full-time assistant. You didn’t have one this last year. Do you have any plans to bring someone on in hopes of leading to an eventual assistant position?
I have three different ideas that I threw at Trev (Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts), but it’s up to him on if we’re going to support it financially. And what are we doing with the other sports? So it’s in his court right now. How are we going to handle this? I will meet with him again, and I’ll bring it up again.
It’s hard to find good volunteers because you can’t do anything for them. We’ve had a hard time. I’m not just going to take somebody to just be a volunteer to have a volunteer. Last year, we didn’t have a volunteer. The year before, it was great for Kelly (Hunter) and Kelly used that and parlayed that into a coaching job. So call into Trev’s (radio) show and see what he is thinking. I don’t know.
For a lot of schools, it is a question of resources. Will a lot of schools add a third assistant coach just because they can or will it be more of a resource decision?
I think it is going to be an individual decision for each school. If you do volleyball, do you do every other sport? Basketball already has an extra coach over us. They have a secretary, they have player development, so they really have three more people than we have. So I think we have a pretty good case. Everybody’s calling me like what are you guys doing? I don’t know, but some schools are going in. I heard something that the Pac-12 may just say as a conference, “We’re not going to add it for volleyball.” I’ve heard that from one of the coaches, but I don’t know legally how you can do that. So I think it’s gonna be all over the place. You wonder about the mid-majors and what are they going to do.
Did Bud take the news hard that he wasn’t going to get the full-time job?
That’s a good one. Bud is trying to stay warm right now. He’s in Wyoming, where it was 14 below this morning. We’ve had fun with that. As of right now, he’s our volunteer coach. Maybe we can keep him and Trev can throw in a semi-load of hay.
Lindsay Krause is the only current member (14 players) of the 2023 Huskers that was not an early enrollee. Merritt Beason is the only transfer on the team. Maggie Mendelson enrolled one full year early and the other 11 on the roster all enrolled one semester early.