The last time Tyler Hildebrand was a Husker, Kelly Hunter was a senior captain; Lauren Stivrins, Jazz Sweet and Hayley Densberger were freshmen; Lexi Sun was a Longhorn and the rest of the Huskers were all in high school.
After just two years away from the program, Hildebrand has returned to a very different team, but it doesn’t feel all that different for him.
First of all, Hunter is still around—just in a different role. Instead of coaching Hunter (working with the setters was one of his responsibilities in 2017), he’s working alongside her as Hunter is serving as a volunteer assistant coach this year.
“It’s weird,” Hildebrand told Hail Varsity. “It was like a seamless transition for Kelly. She’s such a great leader she was kind of like a coach anyway when she was playing. We started working together the last three or four weeks and she’s such a stud. I don’t know if she wants to coach long-term, but she can be an elite, elite coach. She has a total knack for coaching, it’s natural for her, she studies the game really well, she really has a good way of presenting information. She can be excellent.
“So for me, a lot of our conversations feel just like when I coached her, even if we’re talking about block and D or something else, it seems like we’re learning together. To me, that’s a lot of coaching is you’re trying to teach but you’re also trying to learn together a little bit and study stuff together and ask questions and have kind of like an ongoing conversation about what you’re doing. So it kind of feels the same as when I was coaching her.”
Stivrins, Sweet and Densberger are all seniors now, and Hildebrand is happy to be back in Lincoln as they close out their Husker careers. As the middle blocker coach, he was especially close with Stivrins.
“Coming back and being able to coach Lauren again I thought was really cool,” Hildebrand said. “Lauren and I spent a lot of time together … I told her ahead of some of the team when I left, in March or April, just because I felt like I owed it to her. The other middle was Bri [Holman], and she already graduated. So I just felt like I didn’t want to shock her when I told the team, so I had a meeting with her before and told her. She was happy for me and for the job and everything, but sad. Then I was like ‘I’m going to recruit you to come play on the national team for beach.’ I just remember telling her, ‘Look, Lauren: you’re one of the few athletes in all of volleyball that could go national team indoor or national team beach. There are not very many who can do that.’
“Now I get to come back and she’s such a polished player at this point, so it’s kind of cool to, full-circle, be around when she’s kind of at the peak of her college career. That’s really fun for me.”
Hildebrand didn’t work as closely with the other two, although he did watch a lot of film with the opposite hitters including Sweet.
“Maybe her best year was her freshman year, but she’s had three solid years starting all season,” Hildebrand said. “Some ups and downs the last two years, but I think she’s ready to rock this year.”
Hildebrand also called Densberger, the walk-on defensive specialist from Malcolm, Nebraska, a “quiet kind of leader” and said it will be “cool to be able to coach those girls for another year.”
Because of the nature of volleyball recruiting prior to the rule changes last year, Hildebrand was able to build up a relationship with a lot of the current Huskers even before they officially joined the program as well. Now he’ll get a chance to coach a lot of the players he helped recruit to Lincoln back in 2017.
“What’s crazy is with the rules the way they were where they could take unofficial visits, all these girls would come to a couple games a year,” HIldebrand said. “Like Madi Kubik was living in Iowa and she came to like three or four of our games, and that was all legal and they could come to a game and could hang out. So you really got to know them and then you’re able to communicate with them and a bunch of stuff, then you’d see them in camp and get to coach them in camp. So it’s crazy how I feel like even though I didn’t coach Riley [Zuhn] and Madi and even Lexi [Sun]—I knew Lexi and her family from California. Before I left was when we were recruiting Lexi when she got in the transfer portal, so I was still on staff and helped recruit Lexi. I know her dad really well. It doesn’t really feel like it’s that new.”
Hildebrand also hasn’t been a stranger the last couple of years. He worked with John Cook as a consultant and made a couple of trips back to Lincoln to catch up with everyone.
“When I’d come consult I’d see the girls and say hi; I couldn’t coach them, but I could say hi and hang out with them a little bit and all that,” Hildebrand said.
There are only a few players on the roster that he hadn’t already built a relationship with, which is part of why Cook gave Hildebrand the go-ahead to close out the Olympic cycle with the USA beach program (at least until the pandemic derailed his plans).
Hildebrand also got a chance to work with the team on the court briefly when preseason practice began and prior to the BIG Ten cancelling the fall season, and he got a familiar feeling from the team.
“If the Final Four was the second week of August, we would have won because were so far ahead of everybody from what the girls were able to do this summer,” Hildebrand said. “We were just way ahead of everybody and the girls were just rocking and rolling, it was just a crazy high level. It was just fun to coach. I think the most fun year [was 2017], and obviously we won, but it was probably my favorite year coaching and it just felt exactly like that … The team felt a lot like that ’17 team — they really like each other, they’re a really tight-knit group and they all felt like the are on a mission.”
Despite the excitement, the Huskers are currently in limbo. The coaches and the conference are working towards creating a plan for a spring volleyball season, but nothing has been determined just yet. However, with Cook steering the ship, Hildebrand is confident the Huskers will be ready for whatever happens.
“Coach is all over it,” Hildebrand said. “Anything comes up, it’s like ‘boom,’ he creates a plan and we do that plan until that plan has to change. That’s kind of the deal. We just keep putting these mini-plans together. The big plan now is to win in Omaha in April or May or whenever it is, so we’re trying to work back from that. We’re almost 100% sure that that’s going to change multiple times, so we’re just ready when that change comes and we rock and roll.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.