This spring was supposed to be a big step forward for Kelly Hunter in her coaching career. With new assistant Tyler Hildebrand off completing his duties with the USA beach program, John Cook elevated the former graduate assistant to be an interim assistant coach for the beach and spring recruiting period.
Hunter attacked her new responsibilities, spending a couple weeks in late February and early March on the beach courts and recruiting trail. She saw what was happening with the COVID-19 pandemic in other countries, but the magnitude of what was happening didn’t really hit home for her as she went about her business.
Then Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11 and the NBA officially suspended its season the the following day.
“It all started to become really real with the NBA, and then obviously every other sport after that was going to follow,” Hunter told Hail Varsity. “And then obviously all the spring sports got canceled, then the Big Ten announced we can’t require any actives from our teams. We kind of had a team meeting and we told all the girls if you want to stay here, the training table will still be open, stuff like that, but if you want to go home, go ahead.’ Basically every single one of them went home and that’s kind of when I was like ‘OK, this is really, really real and there’s not really much we can be doing any more.”
Just like that, her time as an active coach was over. Even so, she’s grateful for the experience she did get. Nebraska completed 10 of its 23 scheduled beach matches before the shutdown and Hunter took an active role in coaching the Huskers alongside assistant coach Jaylen Reyes.
“For me, it was basically my chance to really, really settle into my role as a coach because in the fall I was a GA and so I still had a really close relationship with the girls and I definitely didn’t feel like I was still a player or I was one of the girls any more; I feel like I definitely distanced myself. But then as a head beach coach, it was my very first intro into being a head coach.
“I’d say the biggest thing that I learned is how different every one of the athletes is and how you have to coach them differently. Some people like focusing on different things, whether it’s like a physical cue or a technical cue, but some players might need kind of like a mental cue, like ‘Hey, just take a deep breath,’ stuff like that. That helped me to realize that you have to get to know the athletes on kind of a personal level and figure out what helps them get better.”
Hunter spent the 2019 season working under Reyes in practice as a GA, but she said it was a different experience coaching alongside him during beach.
“He took me under his wing right away and if I ever had any questions I’d just pop right into his office and he’d answer them,” Hunter said. “It was super, super seamless. He assigned me a couple tasks to get me going. There are a couple things, like I work on our newsletter that we send to club coaches, stuff like that. He kind of took me under his wing, made me feel comfortable and has helped me out with anything I ever need.”
The player that most impressed Hunter during the abbreviated beach season is the only one she hadn’t seen play before: freshman defensive specialist Emma Gabel. The walk-on from Lincoln Pius X missed her first season with a torn ACL suffered last spring. She played in a couple of exhibition matches alongside walk-on middle blocker Fallon Stutheit before earning her way into the rotation, playing in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots alongside Riley Zuhn.
“She took everything like a champ and she was just so excited to get back playing,” Gabel said. “I think the sand was really good for her coming off a major knee injury because you can dive around in that stuff, you can jump, you can do whatever and it’s pretty low-impact. It was cool to see her confidence build throughout the season. Obviously when we switch to beach it’s a lot of adjustments for a lot of different reasons, but I was really proud of the way she wanted to get better every day and wanted to step up and just take some risks. She got really comfortable with it all, so it was kind of cool to see that transformation because it was like zero to 100. It was just awesome.”
The Huskers’ last 13 matches were canceled, which is unfortunate. However, missing out on their annual trip to Hawaii, scheduled for mid-to-late March, might be a bigger blow than losing the matches themselves.
“We were really looking forward to that,” Hunter said. “Coach loves going there every year and Jaylen’s obviously from Hawaii. We hadn’t really played outside a ton; we’d had a couple practices outside. It’s always fun. I remember as a player the first day in Hawaii is always brutal because you’re out in the sun, the wind, you’re playing at least three matches he first day so that’s kind of where you see what people are made of.”
For Nebraska, the beach season itself is more of a development tool than something the Huskers take too seriously. With that being the case, losing those matches isn’t too much of a blow. However, Nebraska also had to cancel its spring match scheduled to take place in Grand Island and the practices leading up to it.
“We’re missing out on our whole entire indoor season, and that’s kind of something the girls have to look forward to all spring because beach is fun or whatever but it’s not really what we’re good at,” Hunter said. “You’re craving that familiarity of the indoor and doing something you know you can do well. My biggest thing would be for the seniors, they’re missing out on their last spring match. That’s where my heart goes out to is the seniors, but I know all of the girls miss volleyball so much and they miss seeing their teammates every day.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that would probably get to me is just being out of routine and not seeing my teammates and coaches every single day because as much as you can complain about your teammates and what you have to do every day and early workouts, once you don’t have them you realize it’s something that you really miss and you really need in your life.”
Hunter’s crash-course in hands-on coaching only lasted a few weeks, but it provided her with some valuable experience including an introduction to the recruiting world, which we’ll have more on soon.