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Hunter Looking to Fill the Void Left by Hildebrand’s Departure this Spring

April 04, 2022

Staff changes have become early an annual thing for John Cook as success breeds opportunity, and Cook’s coaching tree continues to grow with each great season the Huskers have.

This year’s departure was Tyler Hildebrand, who Cook went to great lengths to lure back to Lincoln following the 2019 season when Kayla Banwarth left to accept the head coaching job at Ole Miss. Cook named him associate head coach, the first time he’s given out that title during his tenure at Nebraska, but now he’s off to lead his own program at Long Beach State, his alma mater.

This time, Cook let him go without trying to make any kind of counter offer to keep him.

“I think this was a great opportunity for him and I think it was the only school he would look at,” Cook said. “And then his wife has a booming interior decorating business that was exploding, especially with COVID, but all of her clients were in California. So it just made a ton of sense. Long Beach did a great job of getting him there. So I think it’s great for him and he’s going to get a chance to really rebuild that program. He’s already upgraded it big-time. He’s gotten every transfer he wanted and he’s got a couple of recruits he wanted. He’s got Callie [Schwarzenbach] coming in. So he’s already done a great job and they’ve got a great facility there. It’s Long Beach, there’s a lot of tradition there.”

Schwarzenbach committed to Long Beach State as a transfer for her extra season of eligibility. Currently, however, she’s finishing up the semester at Nebraska, and while she’s in Lincoln she’s continuing to train with the Huskers. Doing so allows her to continue to polish her skills while also providing Nebraska with another body at a position lacking depth this spring in the middle blocker.

Nebraska fans won’t have to wait long to see Hildebrand and Schwarzenbach back in Lincoln, though. Long Beach State will be part of Nebraska’s 2022 nonconference schedule.

“He said he would be interested in coming back for a tournament and then, of course, he was way behind in his scheduling so he really had no scheduling,” Cook said. “It’s really hard to find a team that will come in for one match on a weekend, and at the time we had somebody — I think Pitt was coming, and then they bailed. So we were searching. I said, ‘Hey, Tyler, I don’t know what your schedule is like but we’ve got this one open date on a Saturday.’”

Nebraska will play Creighton in Omaha on a Wednesday in September and then host Long Beach State on Saturday the same week.

“And the advantage for him is he can play, what, 20 schools within an hour or two?” Cook continued. “So they can pick up midweek matches, he can play anybody midweek and then come here. He doesn’t need a tournament where, for us, we’ve got to bring teams in or we’ve got to go somewhere where there are teams because there’s Creighton or UNO and that’s it, and Kansas won’t play us. So for us to find a single team to come in is hard but we’ll pay him and he wants money. So he would love to come back.”

Hildebrand won’t be the only familiar face visiting Lincoln this fall. The advantage of an extensive coaching tree is Cook has plenty of relationships to rely on to build out his schedule. Banwarth’s Ole Miss Rebels will make an appearance at the Devaney Center this coming season as well. Nebraska played Louisville — led by former Husker Dani Busboy Kelly — last season, and the Chris Hamas-led Fighting Illini are on Nebraska’s schedule every year as a conference opponent. The nonconference features more than just former Cook proteges as well as Nicklin Hames’ younger sister will swing through the Devaney Center with Pepperdine during the first week of the season.

“It would create a lot of interest for our fans with him coming back and then Kayla’s coming back,” Cook said. “We played Dani, of course we play Illinois, and Nicklin’s sister coming back. So there will be some good stories to write, and I think that’s what people like. I think that creates interest.”

Speaking of interest, there likely would have been plenty had Cook wanted to go national to replace Hildebrand. However, he already had a qualified candidate sitting right in front of him in volunteer assistant Kelly Hunter. Cook has said he prefers to have former players go experience college volleyball elsewhere before he hires them as coaches, but for Hunter he made an exception.

“I thought a lot about it,” Cook said. “Kelly has been here since 2013. She’s been around this program. She did go experience the pro league, she experienced going to play in Turkey. The fact that she’s been here, it just — I really, really wanted to hire a female and I wanted somebody that can help the setters. She’s been here, she’s done a great job as a volunteer and she filled in when Tyler was going to the Olympics and stuff. So to me it was just I think she’s a natural born coach. I think she’s really good with leadership and helping our players with stuff outside of volleyball.”

Cook said that experience as an interim assistant coach back in the spring of 2020 helped prepare her for this opportunity. She got to experience life on the recruiting trail (at least briefly before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the club season) in addition to the many other parts of being an assistant coach.

“It wasn’t like she would just show up for practice,” Cook said. “She was here all day, every day. She was like a full-time coach, so she got great experience. And for a while, she was on payroll when Tyler was gone.”

Hildebrand is the next in a long line of Cook assistants who have gone on to coach their own programs, and now Hunter has stepped into his shoes. The turnover has led to some changing responsibilities for the staff as Cook promoted Jaylen Reyes to lead assistant and assigned him some of the duties that Hildebrand once handled.

“I’ve got to make sure Kelly, Jaylen and I are on the same page in how we’re teaching because Jaylen now, his responsibilities have changed,” Cook said. “He’s training middles and working a lot with our block and is still with our liberos, and Kelly’s of course working with the setters and helping with the outside hitters. So we’re trying to work through that and that’s why we’re spending a lot of time every day watching video and meeting, going over stats. I had Brian [Magbitang], our video guy, work on several different things. We put together montages of different skills and stuff that we are evaluating to see how we can get a little bit better.”

Cook, Reyes and Hunter are taking advantage of the program’s first normal spring since 2019 to settle in and find their groove together, preparing for Hildebrand’s return in the fall.

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