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assistant volleyball coach talks to players from sideline
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Coaching from Home: Ribs, ‘The Last Dance,’ and Lots of Volleyball

August 27, 2020

In terms of being at the office, May is probably the lightest month of Jaylen Reyes’ year. Good, considering the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to work remotely for the entirety of it. In volleyball, May represents a dead period on the recruiting calendar, and most of the team is still enjoying time off.

This past year, Reyes added “Recruiting Coordinator” to his title at Nebraska. He’s been with the program since 2018, and his primary responsibilities include coaching up star Husker Lauren Stivrins and the rest of the middle blockers as well as the defense.

For him, the absence of organized team activities doesn’t mean the absence of work. Reyes isn’t married, and he doesn’t have kids. A normal day sees him in the office from 9 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. During the shutdown, he tried to keep a normal schedule, and that absolutely meant keeping on the grind. Exercise every day, don’t spend too much time planted in front of the TV.

Not much time for lounging around. In those pockets of free time, he played golf or grass volleyball with friends in Lincoln who had the space. That and he “picked up” cooking.

“I’m not gonna say I learned how to cook because I thought I knew how to cook, but I really expanded my cooking over this pandemic,” he said. “I feel like I experimented with making baby back ribs. And I think they were pretty good. I’d say that’s probably as experimental as I got.”

Not a ton of downtime to get too crazy.

“I worked a lot, to be honest,” he said. “I tried to make sure I set some time every day to work and do emails and watch video. I really enjoy watching volleyball, so for me it was just trying to figure out what to do there.”

From late April through the end of May, Reyes was in Lincoln but not in the offices. Nebraska asked its coaches to stay away and work from home during the late spring and early summer weeks.

“I tried to just stay connected with people the most I could,” he said. “I’m a pretty big social butterfly, especially like at recruiting tournaments when I see coaches.”

He talked often with Tyler Hildebrand, the Huskers’ newly-appointed associate head coach returning to Lincoln after two years spent serving as the Director of Coaching for the US Volleyball Beach National Team Program.

In June, while the larger sporting world waited with bated breath to find out what would happen with the NCAA’s fall sports, Nebraska volleyball was buzzing.

“June is a big month for us,” Reyes says. “Our freshmen that just graduated high school come to Lincoln and start their freshman bridge program, which is like a summer school. The other returning players are starting summer school. So, everyone’s kind of getting back to campus in the beginning of June (normally).

“June is a big recruiting month for us. I think last year I remember I went 10 or 11 days myself out recruiting on the road, from Florida to Michigan to Chicago to Arizona. Then we also have camps in June.”

All that was different this year. No camps, no recruiting trips, infrequent contact, uncertain times.

Nebraska returned its football, basketball, volleyball, and soccer student-athletes to campus for phased-in voluntary workouts on June 1, so head coach John Cook’s group was making its way back to town, but the Husker coaches couldn’t formally train the team. “We weren’t allowed back in the offices yet,” Reyes said. Challenging times. In more ways than one.

Hildebrand was on the West Coast. Cook was on mountain time. Reyes spent the latter part of May and a good chunk of June in Chicago with his girlfriend.

“We were doing video studies with our current team,” Reyes said. “It was more remote. So what we’d do is we would have our girls watch videos of themselves or other high-level volleyball players, whether they were on the women’s or men’s national team or professionally, and we’d just kind of break it down by position.

“We kind of kept it to small groups. We sent them stuff to watch and they would send us reports via word documents. It wasn’t too much as a full team because we felt like if we break it up into groups we’re more likely to get more out of people versus if we had a big team discussion it would be the same people talking over and over again.

“Since they were in school and working out—and by June they were tired of Zoom calls, to be honest—we wanted to let them do it on their own time. So we didn’t want to force them, like ‘Hey, we’re gonna have video every Tuesday (and) Thursday at this time.’ We got to a point where it was just like, ‘You know what, let’s just give them what we want them to watch.’ They’d send us a dialogue and they’d just send it back by a certain time.”

Nebraska also had a couple of new graduate assistants from the college ranks on the men’s side who needed to be worked into the fold.

Then there was the recruiting piece of it.

On June 15, Husker coaches could reach out to high school juniors—the class of 2022—for the first time. Up until that Monday, they couldn’t officially schedule conversations, but they could let coaches know they were interested. Creating a roadmap meant lots of planning, and lots of coordinating between Reyes, Cook, Hildebrand and Hunter. “You’re talking to this person at this time on the phone, you’re talking to this person with me on Zoom.” Things like that.

Scholarship offers went out, sales pitches were made; the staff worked on a class that will follow a legendary one.

“June was busy. June was very, very busy,” Reyes said. “For me, it almost seemed busier because you had to do everything by computer or phone.” Not like being in an office around the team all day, where Reyes says three hours of remote work can become one.

But he did it. And he did it no questions asked, no gripes made, no complaints lodged. Such is life when you’re on top.

Nebraska volleyball is one of the most dominant programs in the country, not just confined to the context of its own sport. The Huskers played for a national title in 2018 with a rebuilt roster after winning a national title in 2017. That marked four straight years of playing for a title, as NU won it all in 2015 as well. With the NCAA Final Four scheduled to take place in Omaha this upcoming season, Nebraska was heavily favored for a return trip.

Cook has built the program to be synonymous with the state’s fabric. Work doesn’t stop just because things get a little messy.

When we spoke, we closed on an interesting thought. Reyes took two things specifically from The Last Dance, an ESPN and Netflix-produced documentary this summer about the 1997 Chicago Bulls. Being a coach, he watched with the intent of learning.

“I can’t remember who was talking about it but someone said what makes Michael Jordan isn’t the fact he can shoot a jumpshot better than somebody, it’s the fact he has the ability to be 100% present when he needs to,” Reyes recalled. That stuck. “Of course Michael Jordan was gifted with the ability to perform all his basketball skills really well, but those two things mentally are things that not everybody has.”

The other piece that stuck out was the ending of the seventh episode, where Jordan broke down when talking about his drive, his competitiveness, and the way he pushed teammates.

“When people see this, they’re going to say ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy, he may have been a tyrant,’” Jordan said. “Well, that’s you because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted (teammates) to win and be a part of that as well. I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”

And with that Jordan got up from his chair, visibly choked up, and walked away as the episode ended.

Reyes likened that kind of a mindset, that omnipresent drive, to nirvana for a player. If you can get a player there as a coach you’ve done something right.

Just takes some work.

This is the third entry in a series during which Hail Varsity is looking at how different Husker coaches managed their time away from sports over the past few months, what quarantine looked like, and what it meant to be home with family. The first piece featured a look into baseball coach Will Bolt’s summer. The second, a chat with women’s basketball coach Amy Williams. Keep an eye out for a new entry next week. 

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