A typical spring for the Nebraska volleyball program includes workouts, beach matches, practices, a spring match, class and finals plus recruiting for the coaches.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March shut down all the volleyball activities and shifted all academic work online, creating a unique and challenging couple of months for the coaches and student-athletes.
Kelly Hunter was supposed to spend the spring coaching beach and recruiting as an interim assistant coach. That ended after just a couple of weeks. Even so, Hunter proved to be a valuable member of John Cook’s staff and gained experience of a different kind.
With all communication going digital, coaches everywhere had to get creative to stay connected with their players. Zoom meetings replaced in-person contact and communication, and Cook said the Huskers were meeting on Zoom three times per week.
As Cook told Hail Varsity, there’s only so much one can do on Zoom and he didn’t want their time together to become tedious. So Cook relied on Hunter—who is only a few years out of college herself—to come up with ideas to keep things fresh.
“She’s great because Kelly can give us a sense of where they’re at and how they’re feeling because she’s pretty close to that,” Cook said. “She’s also living in her place here—she hasn’t gone home, her boyfriend’s in Minnesota. So she’s kind of doing the same thing, just hanging out every day trying not to go crazy. She can give really good, valuable input and feedback of how our team might be feeling and what they need, and good ideas versus bad ideas. We’ve had a lot of ideas but some of them got thrown out and some of them we’ve used.”
The Zoom calls came to an end as the players prepared for finals last week. Now, Cook has encouraged his players to return home and given them the month of May off, outside of a specific workout they are supposed to complete that Cook sends with them every offseason. The plan is for players to return to campus in June, although that is very much up in the air.
Hunter was doing more than just burning herself out on Netflix and coming up with Zoom ideas, though. Beyond odd jobs here and there, Cook handed off a big responsibility to her. He put her in charge of the incoming freshmen.
Nebraska signed four recruits in the 2020 class—middle blocker Kalynn Meyer, defensive specialist Keonilei Akana, middle blocker/opposite hitter Abby Johnson and setter Anni Evans—and it’s been Hunter’s responsibility to make sure they know everything they need to know to make the transition to college.
“There are a lot of little formalities and stuff they have to do online and a bunch of stuff like that,” Hunter said. “But it’s kind of just keeping them on track with all this stuff because there are a bunch of random different deadlines, and just keeping in contact with them. We have this awesome freshman survival guide, it’s like a 10-page document or something that lists out everything that they need to do, what they should expect and stuff like that. A lot of their questions can be answered there, but whenever they have questions I tell them just text me and we can figure it out.”
The uncertainty surrounding, well, everything made the job even more difficult than it would have normally been, but Hunter embraced the role as best as she could.
“It’s kind of just checking in with them, keeping and building that relationship and obviously there’s stuff to do on my end like filling out housing forms, who’s going to be rooming with who and stuff like that,” Hunter said. “Basically just making sure that they’ll be ready to go whenever that time will come because I feel like everything just keeps getting pushed back and back and back, so they have tons of questions about, well, like, ‘Can we come for pre-session?’ But I don’t know if pre-session will be an option. ‘When will we be there?’ No one has these answers so it’s kind of like little updates here and there.”
Cook said Hunter has done a great job.
“She’s had to navigate through how to do that with all the rules and all the hoops they have to jump through,” Cook said. “It’s been good for her to have to interact and learn and make sure to ask questions. I put the fear of god in her that you can’t mess this up because it may keep somebody from coming here. It’s been really good for her and I want her to be kind of the leader of that 2020 class because it’s going to be an awkward transition no matter what when they get here and you’ve got to have somebody that’s really looking out for them and making sure they get off to a great start. That’s the role that she’s going to play and she’ll do great with it.”
Once Tyler Hildebrand arrives to assume his responsibilities as associate head coach, Hunter will slide into a volunteer coaching role. Her time as an interim assistant didn’t quite go according to plan, but it was still a valuable experience for an up-and-coming coach and she’s played a key role for Nebraska all throughout the spring.
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.