Though he hasn’t even had the chance to fully work off the jet lag that followed the flight home from China, Coach John Cook was back in the gym this week for Nebraska volleyball’s annual Dream Team Camp.
He joined Ben McLaughlin for Tuesday’s edition of Sports Nightly to discuss the camp, the Asia trip and more.
“This is our Dream Team camp,” Cook said, with sound of the camp in the background of the interview. “You’re watching the top court here, there are kids from all over the country. These are some of the best talented volleyball players in the country. First of all, we’re honored and thankful that they want to come to our camp. I train it with our coaches. For all the other coaches out there or parents who don’t think the head coaches coach, I coach every second of this camp plus some and I love it. These kids do a great job and work really hard. Obviously we’re doing it to try to expose them to Nebraska volleyball and this is how we train and this is what we do. Hopefully these are future Huskers out here.”
Cook had assistant coach Kayla Banwarth address the campers and share her journey from walk-on at Nebraska to Olympic bronze medal-winner, and he also had former championship-winning setter Kelly Hunter working the camp as well. Cook shared that Hunter will be with the program as a graduate assistant this season.
“This has been a hell of a week for Nebraska volleyball … Sarah Pavan became a world champion beach player, the first time ever for Canada. Jordan [Larson], Kelsey [Robinson] and Mikaela [Foecke] won the Nations League and a million dollars. Right now, Kadie [Rolfzen] and Justine [Wong-Orantes] are on our Pan American team and they just both had huge nights last night. Justine had 16 digs or something and Kadie led the team in kills and blocks and did a really great job. It’s been a really nice few days for Nebraska volleyball and it validates what we’re doing here, how hard we work, what we’re instilling in these people and how we’re preparing them to have a career after Nebraska if that’s what they choose to do.”
Part of that preparation is the Asia trip, which the program takes every four years.
“I love going to Asia for our players because it’s so different and the volleyball’s so good,” Cook said. “We’re playing professional teams and they’re training and they’re getting ready for competition so you’re getting their best and it’s such a different culture than what we’re used to. Of the five trips starting in 2000 … this was by far the best. I think we had great schedule, great competition, we played well and for the most part the trip went smooth. It’s become a lot easier in China just because transportation’s better now, the hotels are better, they’re more organized. But it’s still a 13-hour time difference and playing against teams that are really good.”
Cook said he established the standard himself during the first half of the trip, pushing the players to continue to compete regardless of the situation, then he let them figure it out on their own later on.
“We won some, we lost some,” Cook said. “Historically, we beat a couple teams we’ve never beat before so we’re finding ways to get better and catch the level. At the end I kind of let them go and figure it out and we played some great volleyball at the end. We lost a heartbreaker five-gamer. And the other thing is I played everybody; everybody played evenly which I think is great for team morale. We had six freshmen go on this trip so they got thrown in the fire and I thought they responded really well. That’s really what we were watching as coaches is how do they respond to the challenges and being on the trip, on and off the court.”
Cook said his freshman class — including six players — handled the trip “really, really well.”
“They got ranked the second recruiting class and it’s not like we’ve got these freakish-type players, but what I’ve noticed with this group is they’re very resilient, they’re very even-keeled, nothing really bothers them, they compete really well and I thought they battled really, really well on this trip for freshmen,” Cook said. “They had their moments, but as a group overall, really pleased. We do a big debrief at the end, it’s really cool. At the end I said probably one of the highlights for me on this trip was seeing how our freshman class handled it.”
Cook said before the trip that he had been preparing sophomore setter Nicklin Hames and junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins to take over as the leaders of the team, though he had not yet named them captains. He wanted to see how they fared in that role during the trip.
“That’s why I said at the end I let them go and let them figure it out,” Cook said. “That’s the opportunity for a Nicklin and Lauren to start showing leadership, and those guys did a great job. We prepped all spring for them to have the leadership opportunity on this trip. That’s the beautiful thing about this, every four years you get that experience and there’s so much you can take from that from leadership, playing and team bonding. You’ve got to remember we have no seniors, so that was also historic. We’ve never had a team with no seniors. I think they had a great opportunity, they responded really well and I think they really cemented with their team that ‘we’re going to be the leaders of this team.’”
In addition to establishing leadership, the trip also allowed Cook to better evaluate his team with all of the newcomers in the picture and the returners stepping into larger roles.
“We played everybody, so everybody had an equal chance,” Cook said. “Everybody that went in had goals on what they wanted to do and what role they wanted to try to establish, so they got their chance to prove what they could or couldn’t do. From that point, it’s great. If you look at it, we had 10 days of training, we played nine matches, and then we played another day in the gym just training with a team. Nine matches is almost a third of our season; 10 days of training is basically what we get before school starts, about 10 days of training. So think about that, we got a whole preseason to play and a third of a season to play, so there’s a lot of experience that comes from that.”
If there’s one thing Cook learned about his team during the 17 days in Asia, it’s that he doesn’t have to worry too much about motivation with this group.
“I think the older players are very motivated; they tasted it and came up short,” Cook said. “So there’s a deep motivation there. We made the decision about five years ago we wanted to recruit really competitive players here because we just think those are the players that thrive best at Nebraska. There’s a lot of pressure playing volleyball here because there’s huge expectations. You’ve got to have people that embrace that and want that. I think this is a very competitive group and they love to compete and they want to play the best and they’re going to compete really hard. So that’s the M.O. that I’ve figured out so far. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of things we’ve got to work through, but that’s kind of the M.O. of this group right now.
“Also, it’s a very tight-knit group. I’m going to brag about this — I went on a trip and took 15 young women on a trip to Japan and China, way out of their comfort zones, and I didn’t hear one complaint in 17 days, not one complaint. That’s a first.”
To listen to the whole interview, click here
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.