Nebraska Volleyball 'Learning How to Fly' with Strong Leadership and Culture
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Volleyball ‘Learning How to Fly’ with Strong Leadership and Culture

August 10, 2018

Nebraska has had a busy offseason coming off winning the national championship in December.

The Huskers lost five seniors including four starters. Sophomore-to-be setter Hunter Atherton transferred out of the program. Coach John Cook brought in two new players who didn’t stick, then added highly-touted Texas transfer Lexi Sun who did. Sophomore middle blocker Chesney McClellan left the program despite being one of just three players at her position on the team. The four-player recruiting class became five when Nebraska announced the addition of a freshman defensive specialist from Israel to the group along with two other transfers, one from the Czech Republic and another who began her career at Nebraska.

When the dust settled in late July, Cook was left with a roster featuring four returning starters, three reserves and eight newcomers, the last of which finally arrived on campus on Aug. 3.  

“Once LeBron got his thing settled then we could get our thing settled, so I feel pretty good now,” Cook said. “We knew all these things were in the works. It’s just going through the process with the NCAA and the Big Ten, there are a lot of layers that you have to go through. I’m glad everybody’s here and we can get going. We knew we were going to have a big, new group. That’s just part of the deal.”

Cook also had to find a new assistant coach for the second straight offseason after Tyler Hildebrand left to accept a position with USA Volleyball. Cook hired Jaylen Reyes away from the BYU men’s team in March to fill that void.

“This year is even more inexperience on my staff, but I’ve got three returning graduate assistants, so that’s really helpful,” Cook said. "[Director of operations] Lindsay [Peterson] is going to continue to be really involved with our team, watching practice and helping give feedback with [director of sports psychology] Brett Haskell. So I feel like I’ve got a great support group around us, but our staff is going to have to work on being great every day just like our team is going to have to work on being great every day. It’s not an automatic, roll it out there. A couple of years ago when I had Dani [Busboom Kelly] and Chris [Tamas], it was autopilot. The last two years, it has not been autopilot.

"We’re learning how to fly. But it energizes me; I love teaching and mentoring so it’s a great opportunity.”

Knowing the team was going to be facing a lot of roster turnover, offseason leadership was something Cook felt he had to emphasize. Among the departing seniors was setter Kelly Hunter, who developed into one of the best leaders in college volleyball by the end of her career, and Annika Albrecht, a hard-working hitter who developed from a role player into a star. Both were team captains last season.

“Even last year, I was worried about leadership this year,” Cook said. “But there’s an evolution that happens with players here. It’s not something that we’re doing, because I think leadership is something that is really, really difficult to teach. I think that this program shapes leaders and develops leaders. It’s not something that I’m doing or our staff is doing. It’s about this program and how big it is in this state and what it means. They take those responsibilities, accept them and run with them.”

The players that emerged as those leaders were the two returning seniors, outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and libero Kenzie Maloney.

“I’ve been really encouraged by several things,” Cook said. “First of all, the leadership of Mikaela and Kenzie; I think four years ago when I looked at them, I thought these guys will never be leaders in this program, and they have just made this transformation this year. I saw this happen with Kelly Hunter; it’s evolution of what this program does to players and how it brings out the leadership in them. Those guys have done a really great job since January of building this new team and bringing all these kids together.”

Cook didn’t mess around with naming captains. He handed that responsibility to Foecke and Maloney at the beginning of the spring, much earlier than he normally does.

“Their maturity, how they’ve taken this group — we presented the challenges for them in the spring of what this was going to be about, how many freshmen were coming in, how many new players,” Cook said. “I just think how they’ve attacked all this, they’ve had meetings all summer and how they’ve been pulling all these kids together and building around all these relationships I’ve talked about … I just see the body of work that went into what this culture’s going to be on this team and what they’re about is really powerful. That started with Mikaela and Kenzie.”

The leadership of that duo in addition to the culture past teams have developed have resulted in a strong offseason despite all the roster turnover.

“I’m not allowed to publicize weight gains, weight losses, strength, muscle, all that like football,” Cook said. “I wish we could. But this was probably one of the greatest summers we’ve ever had in Husker Power with the results and improvements that our players have had. I know everybody says we always work hard, but the numbers don’t lie. I think Brian [Kmitta] is really, really pleased with that.”

Sun said she noticed that culture as soon as she arrived in Lincoln.

“Right when I stepped on campus, you could tell there’s a different culture here,” Sun said. “Nebraska is a great place and especially Nebraska volleyball. They have traditions and a culture they set for years and it’s just been awesome to get to know a little more about that and be in it.”

Maintaining that atmosphere that past leaders had established was the primary focus for Foecke and Maloney.

“I think one of the biggest things for us this year was just making sure everyone felt welcome and fit in and they knew they could rely on us and come to us if they had any problems,” Foecke said.

The result of the seniors’ leadership and the rest of the team’s buy-in? The Huskers feel like they’re ahead of schedule. 

“We had so much fun last year and we’re hoping to continue that,” sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said. “This year our team is even closer than last year’s, if you can believe that. It’s just really fun. We have a great group of girls and we’re excited for Jaylen our new coach and obviously Kayla [Banwarth] has worked wonders with our defensive people. It’s going to be a good year … Everyone is busting their butts in there and they’re working so hard and we’re a lot better than we were last year at this time, I feel like.”

Cook isn’t placing any sort of championship expectations on this team, but if what Stivrins said is true, the Huskers could be in store for another special season. It all starts on Aug. 18 with the Red-White Scrimmage.

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