Week one is in the books, and now the No. 2 Cornhuskers are looking ahead to week two which will see a homecoming of sorts for a former Husker — the first of a few this season.
Nebraska will host the Husker Invitational on Thursday, Friday and Saturday with Loyola Marymount and Ole Miss, led by former Husker Kayla Banwarth, making the trip to Lincoln to compete in the tournament.
“This is the first week of former players coming back to try to try to make my life miserable, so I’m excited about that,” Cook said. “LMU is coming in Thursday night and I think those two are playing Friday night. So we’re getting away from the two-matches-in-one-day-type deals. This is what the future is going to be, it’s going to be matches like this over three days.
“We were forced to do it this way because we couldn’t find a fourth team or somebody we had bailed out, so that’s the reason we’re going Thursday, Friday, Saturday. It’s going to be good teams, good matches and it should be fun.”
Former assistant coach Tyler Hildebrand will bring his Long Beach State team to Lincoln next week, the Huskers will travel to Lexington to face former assistant Craig Skinner’s Kentucky team the following week and Nebraska will play at Illinois — led by former assistant Chris Tamas — during the conference season down the road. Dani Busboom Kelly, another former player and coach at Nebraska, is also coaching a Louisville program ranked one spot behind Nebraska in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll.
“Chris Tamas and Kayla played Sunday, so there was another former coach,” Cook said. “Sometimes it’s pretty cool to see what our program has produced not only player-wise but coaching-wise, so we’re pretty proud of that. Sometimes I’m not the best person to work for but I push them and try to get them to get better and challenge them in other ways besides just being a coach. I think that’s part of my responsibility is to develop coaches.”
Banwarth is the latest player-turned-coach Cook has developed, and he said she has a great story.
“She basically came here as a walk-on, was a setter, converted to libero, goes to the Olympics, was considered the best libero in the Olympics and the best passer in the world, and so it’s a great story.”
However, despite all her accomplishments as a player, Cook said he didn’t think she’d ever become a head coach based on her playing career and early days on his staff.
“When I hired her she was just coming off the Olympics,” Cook said. “I wanted to get a former player back here and she was available, but I never thought she would end up being a head coach. She’s obviously done a good job and her and Dani probably have two of the greatest turnarounds in college volleyball at their schools. Kayla went from not winning a match to going to the NCAA tournament.”
Cook said he’d occasionally have to ask Banwarth if she was going to speak up and do a bit of coaching on that particular day because she was so quiet early on while she figured things out. Four years after Cook first hired her, Banwarth led the Rebels to a 20-win improvement (1-19 to 21-9) with an NCAA Tournament berth.
“First of all, she had to develop a culture where they support volleyball and the players take it seriously and work hard, Cook said. “I know her first year there was a lot of frustration for her coming from here and going to there, so that was the biggest thing she had to do, and then start recruiting. I think she’s got a pretty young team with a lot of new players from either last year or this year. She’s done it really quickly. It’s a lot easier in this day and age to do it fast now than it was five years ago because of the recruiting rules and the portal.”
Cook said Banwarth reached out to him about bringing her team up to Lincoln for a match, and the schedules worked out to make it happen this year at the Husker Invitational. The trip will allow her to play in front of and meet up with a lot of friends in the area, and it gives the Rebels another chance to test themselves against one of the best teams in the country.
Ole Miss opened the season with a pair of four-set losses to ranked teams in No. 9 Georgia Tech and No. 17 Illinois. The tournament will also serve as a homecoming for freshman outside hitter and Superior native Shayla Meyer, the younger sister of former Husker volleyball player and current track athlete Kalynn Meyer. Meyer did not play during the Rebels’ opening weekend.
Before the Huskers and Rebels face each other, however, they’ll each open invitational play against Loyola Marymount (1-2). The Lions went 17-11 last season and both their opening-week losses were to ranked teams (No. 22 Utah and No. 23 Kansas).
Cook’s focus for the week: “Just win, baby.”
Despite the 3-0 weekend at the Ameritas Players Challenge, Cook said he had a long list of areas in need of improvement that he went over with the team on Monday.
“Footwork, positioning, where we start in our serve-receive patterns, blocking technique… You want me to keep going?” Cook said, and he did. “Defensive positioning, be in the right spots, they got a big lecture about serving yesterday.”
However, the service line is Cook’s top focus after the Huskers recorded 25 errors to just nine aces in their first three matches.
“Serving is the one time it’s you and the ball,” Cook said. “You don’t need a setter, you don’t need anything else; it’s you and the ball. So you have to have the mindset to go back and create a point for your team.”
Nebraska will play against Loyola Marymount on Thursday. First serve at the Devaney Center is set for 6 p.m. on Nebraska Public Media.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.