In 2015, John Cook needed a new assistant coach. He hired Chris Tamas, a former U.S. Men’s National Team performer who had served as an assistant coach for the women’s teams at Minnesota and Cal Poly.
This last offseason, Cook had another opening after Tamas left to take the head job at Illinois, and he took a slightly different path this time by hiring Tyler Hildebrand whose coaching experience came exclusively in the men’s game.
“I wanted somebody that knows what’s going on,” Cook said. “He’s coaching Olympians, national team in men’s volleyball, so I was confident he’d be a really good transition.”
Through 22 games, the transition has been pretty smooth (outside of some speed bumps along the way as Cook and Hildebrand learned to coach in a game together). The Huskers are sitting at No. 7 in the AVCA Coaches Poll and tied for the Big Ten lead at 7-1.
“I like his perspective from the men’s game,” Cook said. “It’s a little different mindset how we go about doing things. The men’s game is so much on preparation, stats, because it’s so hard to score in the men’s game because they side-out at a little higher level. That’s why they take so many risks serving because if they pass the ball well their side-out percentages are really high. They have to be really well prepared. I think he has a really great mindset that he’s brought to our team on preparing our block and defense.”
Despite Hildebrand’s lack of experience coaching the women’s team, the players have bought into his coaching style.
“Day one, we talk about in our notebook is you have to trust your training,” Cook said. “That’s the whole mindset is that they all buy into it. We’ve spent a lot of time with this group on building that trust and getting them to understand this is why we do it and what we need to do and they bought in.”
Cook said the key to the team’s total buy-in has been senior middle blocker Briana Holman, who has worked with a handful of different coaches in her five seasons between LSU and Nebraska.
“If you want a barometer on the whole thing, talk to Briana,” Cook said. “She’s had four different middle blocker coaches in college. The guy left at LSU, then she came here and had [Dan] Meske and then she had Chris, and now she has Tyler. So if anybody’s doubting or questioning anything, it’s Briana. So she’s the one that determines the barometer on our level of trust and I think if you ask her, she really likes how he trains. They’ve watched a lot of video together and she had a hell of a match [on Sunday].”
Holman had six kills without an error on 11 swings with 10 blocks in Nebraska’s sweep at Michigan last Sunday.
>> Based on total aces, Nebraska has been a mid-tier team during Big Ten play, ranking eighth at 1.12 aces per set. However, Nebraska has been incredibly efficient from the service line lately, serving up 20 aces to just 17 errors over its last three matches (11 sets).
“That’s huge,” Cook said. “Our goal is always to be zero. I don’t know if we’ve ever been zero for a season; in fact, never. So the fact that we’re even that close and we’re talking about that is a really great job by our servers. We've been pounding that since January that this team has to be a great serving team because we’re just not as physical without Kadie and Amber [Rolfzen] and Justine [Wong-Orantes] back there digging, so serving has to give us chances.”
For Nebraska, getting teams out of system is far more important than getting points from the service line, and the Huskers have been very good in that area. Nebraska doesn’t have a single player in the top 15 in the conference in terms of individual aces (Mikaela Foecke leads with 22 for the season), but the Huskers have five different players with 10 or more aces this year.
“That’s another thing we say, is our six best servers play,” Cook said. “So if you want to play, be a great server. It’s simple.”
>> In 2016, the NCAA approved the use of a challenge replay system, allowing coaches to challenge up to three calls during a match. John Cook has made good use of the rule over the last two seasons and last weekend was just another instance of that.
On Sunday’s sweep at Michigan, Cook used his first challenge just a few points into the first set. Why did he feel confident burning one so soon?
“I asked the players; they know,” Cook said. “They know. I just look at them, challenge or not? I couldn’t tell; I was behind her so I couldn’t tell. They turned right away to me and said ‘Hey Coach, challenge it.’ So they know.”
However, Cook said he’d much rather not have to use his challenges nearly as often as he has.
“Five-for-five this weekend. Just sometimes…” Cook said, trailing off. “That’s five points on the road against two great teams we would lose. This is why I think we need to go to four linespeople. The game’s gotten too fast and they’re too close to the line.”
For the time being, however, Cook is going to push for at least an extension of the number of challenges available depending on a coach’s success.
“I’m going to lobby for if you win the challenge, you keep it,” Cook said. “I’m going to total up our percentage of win percentage on challenges; I mean, we’ve got to be like 80 percent on win percentage. So why do we lose a challenge if we win it?”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.