John Cook hasn’t been able to sleep the past few nights, knowing the official start of practice for the 2019 Nebraska volleyball season begins on Saturday.
Cook, the veteran Nebraska coach who’s led the Huskers to four straight Final Four appearances, including two national titles in that time, generally regards his lack of sleep as a positive.
“That’s the way it should be,” Cook said at Friday’s preseason news conference at the Devaney Sports Center. “This is a really big deal. It’s fun. It’s exciting. I like this group.”
He laughed off a follow-up question about whether this is yet another Final Four-caliber team, saying it’s too early to make such predictions.
Not that he would under any circumstances.
Cook’s excitement level, though, is especially notable given his team has no seniors – the first time that’s happened in the Cook era, at least – and the fact he’s ushering in six true freshmen.
The abundance of youth meant Cook had to find a way to develop team captains, a process he began in January, when he appointed sophomore setter Nicklin Hames and junior middle Lauren Stivrins as captains-in-waiting, for lack of a better term.
“When he told me, I was just kind of shocked and kind of nervous at first,” Hames said, “because I was so young and hadn’t been in the program for so long.”
Hames embraced the challenge, and Cook worked with the pair. They did a book study. He helped them develop a leadership mind set. He talked about expectations, and how they weren’t only representing their team and university, they were also playing for a state and upholding traditions and history.
“There’s a big responsibility with that,” Cook said.
Then, he gave Hames and Stivrins their first leadership test on the Huskers’ summertime exhibition tour in Japan and China.
“They handled it really well,” Cook said. “At the end of the Asia trip, it was pretty obvious they were going to be our captains.”
That’s not all Cook learned on the program’s fifth trip overseas.
“They went to Asia and didn’t bat an eye,” he said. “We were rotating lineups, and we didn’t miss a beat.
“I never heard one complaint the whole trip. This is our fifth time we went, and all the other times I threatened to send people home.”
Cook discovered he has a team dripping with big-time competitors, players who hate to lose. Such a group makes coaching fun, and helps explain his excitement for 2019, despite the lack of seniors.
“They’re a very close-knit group, and they work really hard,” he said. “We’ve got a shot.”
These Huskers also are motivated.
Not a day goes by, Stivrins says, that they don’t think about the narrow loss to Stanford in last season’s NCAA Tournament national championship. The mere thought pushes them through workouts, and now, through practices.
“I’ve never been on a team that works as hard as these girls,” Stivrins said. “I know we’ve said that in the past, but this year is different. Everyone is just so driven, so motivated. We want to play well for the person next to us.”
Three points stood between Nebraska and Stanford, and a national title. Three plays that still grate on Cook’s nerves.
“And two of them were cardinal errors that we preach in our gym should never happen,” Cook said. “That haunts me. It’s motivated me to do a better job coaching, so if we’re in that position again, we’re going to make those plays and not let those things happen.”
Even though the plethora of newcomers didn’t experience that same heartache, the trip to Asia allowed them to bond with returning players in a manner that’s greater than most could understand.
“I think that was a really great opportunity for all of us to get to know each other,” Stivrins said. “We were so far away from friends and family, so we really had to turn to each other. We got to know each other on a deeper level than I thought was possible.”
As for appointing captains, Cook chose Hames in part because she’s a setter, somebody that drives the car, and by default is in a leadership role. In fact, Cook scours players with quality leadership skills when he recruits setters, knowing the importance of the position as it relates to leadership.
Never mind that Hames is only a sophomore.
“She’s one of the hardest-working people in this program,” Stivrins said. “She’s just so mature, and she holds herself and carries herself very well. I think a lot of people can look up to her. Even though she is so young, she acts wise behind her years.”
Cook anointed Stivrins because she’s a player who’s “been through the grind,” somebody who improves all the time, is a competitor and has the respect of her teammates.
“I’ve been here for quite some time and I’ve gotten to see some great volleyball players and people come through this program,” Stivrins said, “so to be recognized as one of those (leaders) is really amazing. I’m super excited to see what this team can do this year.”