LINCOLN — After finishing her playing career by helping the USA to a bronze medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last summer, Kayla Banwarth had her toes in the California sand, but her focus on the best opportunity to start the next phase of her life.
A Christmas Day phone call from her old coach opened the door to a dream gig and will bring the former Husker great back to familiar surroundings to start her coaching career.
Monday, Nebraska announced Banwarth has joined the staff as the team’s newest assistant coach, replacing Dani Busboom Kelly, who Banwarth also succeeded as the Huskers’ starting libero from 2007-10.
It will be the first full-time coaching job for Banwarth, 27, who was a volunteer assistant with the Pepperdine men’s team for the last two seasons as she trained in California for the Olympics.
“I’ve kind of known for a long time that I wanted to coach,” she told reporters on Monday at the Devaney Center. “Volleyball has been a part of my life since I was about four. It just kind of seems like the natural, next step for me, and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be able to have this kind of opportunity right away. I was fully prepared to have to work my way up the ladder in coaching. But, once this offer comes up and once this opportunity arises, it’s not something you pass up.”
Banwarth told reporters Monday she didn’t have high hopes when she expressed interest to Cook in the coaching job that opened when Busboom Kelly accepted Louisville’s head coaching position. She thought she had gotten a gentle let down in a mid-December phone call, but a few days later, Banwarth said Cook called wanting to set up a formal interview.
Nearly a week later, on Christmas, her old coach formally offered her the job.
“Best Christmas present ever,” Banwarth said.
In a press release, Cook, who is out of town, acknowledged he is betting on Banwarth’s potential rather than her experience in giving his former player a coaching spot at one of the nation’s top programs which has reached the final four in back-to-back seasons.
“Whenever I have a chance to hire a former player to coach at Nebraska volleyball, it’s something I strongly consider because they understand what this program is about,” Cook said. “Kayla’s strengths are her journey to Nebraska as a walk-on, having a great career at Nebraska and going on to beat out all the other liberos in the United States to become one of the top liberos in the world. I know Kayla has limited coaching experience at the collegiate level, but her strengths will allow her to develop quickly and take over Dani’s role in recruiting and coaching our liberos and passers.”
What Banwarth lacks in coaching experience, she will hope to make up for with the highest levels of playing experience. After finishing her Nebraska career as the program’s all-time digs leader — a mark she held until being passed by Justine Wong-Orantes last season — Banwarth joined the national team in 2011.
As the starting libero, Banwarth helped lead Team USA to its first gold medal in a major international tournament at the 2014 FIVB World Championships. She also anchored the back row for the USA in winning gold at the 2015 NORCECA Championships and the 2016 FIVB World Grand Prix held in Omaha before taking the bronze in Rio.
She believes that playing experience helped her build up a network of mentors and advisors to which she can turn as she begins her coaching career, including Pepperdine men’s head coach and former Team USA men’s coach Marv Dunphy, Georgia head coach Tom Black, a Team USA assistant while Banwarth played, and current Team USA women’s head coach Karch Kiraly.
“For sure,” she said, “Karch is on my speed dial.”
Banwarth also understood Monday her biggest immediate priority will be helping to fill the void left by her predecessor on the recruiting trail, where Busboom Kelly excelled. Banwarth is still waiting for her possessions to be shipped to Lincoln from California, but once she passes the NCAA’s recruiting test, she’ll pack a bag and begin scouting prep prospects around the country as the club volleyball schedule gets in full swing this winter.
In trying to convince some of the nation’s top players to come to Lincoln, Banwarth does have an experience few other coaches could match. She knows what it’s like to pull on a Husker jersey and wear it in the final four. That’s an enthusiasm Nebraska is betting will shine through as she learns the ins and outs of the job.
“This is such a prestigious program and one of the best volleyball programs in the country,” Banwarth said. “To be able to come back home — and this feels like home to me — is really special, and to be in a program that has become a huge part of my life is great.”