New additions on, off court give John Cook chance to reinvent Husker volleyball program

New additions on, off court give John Cook chance to reinvent Husker volleyball program
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — The long marker board that rests on the side of Nebraska’s volleyball practice courts will soon be crammed with workout schedules and game plans. But Monday, the surface sat mostly empty, a symbol that spoke volumes about a team that is largely a blank slate as preseason workouts begin this week.

The board wasn’t totally empty, however. One of the few words written in black was NU coach John Cook’s word of the day as he addressed reporters for the team’s media day: “Reinvent.”

The coach, entering his 18th season at Nebraska, admittedly is facing one of his biggest rebuilding jobs having to replace four starters, including three who started for all four seasons of their college careers. More changes have come on the bench with Cook needing to find two new assistant coaches, three new graduate managers, even a new video coordinator, underscoring what may be the biggest single-year turnover in program history.

If change is inevitable, Cook chose Monday to embrace the circumstances that should keep the weight of high expectations off the team in the early going and allow him instead to focus on the part of coaching he enjoys the most.

“What excites me is I’m really going to have to go into teaching mode and start from square one,” he said. “Last year, we were coming in trying to figure out how we were going to repeat as national champions.

“That’s really energized me. I’m excited to be a teacher, and teach, and really kind of reinvent our program again, and reinvent our team.”

Four players with starting experience will prevent the Huskers from having to start completely from scratch. Senior setter Kelly Hunter, a second-team All-American in 2016, is entering her third season as a starter. So is junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, who is NU’s top returning attacker and figures to be the team’s go-to offensive option.

Senior middle blocker Briana Holman looks to build off her promising first season as a starter, while 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Lauren Stivrins is the favorite to be the second starting middle. Junior Kenzie Maloney is set to wear the libero jersey after being an able backup to All-American Justine Wong-Orantes for the last two years.

“I think there’s a lot of change,” Hunter said. “Just with that, the coaches have to be patient with us, and we have new coaches so we have to be patient with them. If we’re all in it together for the same goal, we’ll all be on the same page and patience won’t be an issue.”

The changes come in the form of a larger-than-usual group of newcomers. Nebraska has five freshmen on the roster and adds senior middle Allie Havers, who finished her career on the NU women’s basketball team last winter. At least one newcomer will have to play early, with the most likely spot being at opposite hitter, where true freshmen Jazz Sweet and Anezka Szabo, both 6-foot-3 left-handers, could battle for the spot.

At the other outside hitter spot, senior Annika Albrecht, a multiyear contributor as a serving and back-row specialist, will compete with junior Olivia Boender, a Waverly product who has seen action in 19 matches off the bench the last two seasons.

“We’re going to have to play really clean volleyball,” Cook said. “Be low-error, smart, make good decisions, be disciplined because we might not have the physical firepower that we’ve had in the past.”

To mitigate the lack of familiarity, a departure from the continuity that helped the Huskers reach back-to-back final fours, Brian Kmitta, the team’s strength coach, devised “a summer of shared suffering” in the form of grueling workouts that became known as “the Mother of All Summers.”

“A lot of good teams are built off of shared suffering,” Kmitta said.

Said Foecke: “We had to grind through some really bad workouts and just try to get through it. That kind of brought us together as a team and made us have team unity so much stronger and so much quicker because it was essential.”

But going back to square one means acknowledging a longer path to the desired end. While last year’s team was hot out of the gate, winning its first 13 matches, Cook recognized his team likely won’t be a preseason favorite to reach a third straight final four.

Instead, he’s identified a path to steady, measured improvement. Be good in the nonconference, be great by Big Ten play, and by the postseason be “unstoppable.”

“I really believe we can do that,” he said.

On Monday, it was clear players shared their coach’s enthusiasm. A new season means new opportunities and new leaders. A chance to write a new story where, as of now, the pages sit blank.

“I don’t mind change. I love change,” Holman said. “It’s awesome. I think it’s what helps us grow as people.”

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