LINCOLN — As the Nebraska beach volleyball team was finishing up its monthlong season in Hawaii and California last week, coach John Cook remained in the land of always winter.
Hiring a new assistant. Preparing for an upcoming coaches clinic. Designing the Huskers’ spring indoor workouts. Recruiting. There was too much work to do at his Devaney Center desk.
“I felt like I could get more done here by not going,” Cook said.
There is plenty that needs Cook’s focus during another spring of transition for the defending NCAA champions. The end of the beach season marked the farewell of assistant Tyler Hildebrand, who departed to lead USA volleyball’s beach programs. Hildebrand coached the Huskers on the beach this month while NU Director of Operations Lindsay Peterson also accompanied the team on its trip west.
Cook said that the program continues to gain more from beach play than its record suggests. NU won four of 18 duals, with most matches coming against schools that have dedicated beach teams that practice on the sand year-round. At one point, Nebraska lost eight straight matches, all against teams ranked in the top 12.
“The more we do it, the more I’m convinced it’s really great for development,” Cook said. “It really helps our players develop as volleyball players, not just as a middle blocker, a setter or libero.”
Development — especially of NU’s underclassmen — remains the coach’s top priority during spring indoor practices, which started this week and run through April 20. These workouts will put extra scrutiny by coaches on the five freshmen who saw early playing time during the Huskers’ run to a fifth national title last fall.
Opposite hitters Jazz Sweet and Anezka Szabo are both training to play six rotations. Outside hitter Sami Slaughter, middle blocker Chesney McClellan and serving specialist Hayley Densberger are also angling for bigger roles this fall, when the Huskers must replace four senior starters.
“We just have to get this freshman class up a notch. That’s the biggest challenge,” Cook said. “There’s a lot riding on it for those guys.”
For the first time that Cook can recall, the Huskers won’t have a spring exhibition match, largely due to not having a setter available. Redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton is seeking a transfer, and though All-American Kelly Hunter can participate in practice this spring, she has completed her eligibility and isn’t allowed to play in any exhibitions.
The Huskers are awaiting the summer arrival of incoming freshman Nicklin Hames, the nation’s top-rated setter recruit according to PrepVolleyball.com. The team also will likely add a setter via transfer at the end of this semester. Cook said two transfer setter candidates have visited Lincoln already.
Nebraska also could be in the market for a transfer outside hitter, and has hosted at least one high-profile visitor. A source in the program confirmed that Lexi Sun, who is leaving Texas after her freshman season, visited Lincoln earlier this month.
Sun, the nation’s top overall recruit last year, was an All-Big 12 pick during her first season, averaging 3.3 kills per set while hitting .277 for the Longhorns.
Assistant to join Nebraska in May
New assistant Jaylen Reyes, who is replacing Hildebrand, will wait until the end of the NCAA men’s season to join NU. Reyes is an assistant for the second- ranked BYU men’s team.
Cook said Reyes’ name surfaced when he called contacts early in his coaching search. A four-year starting libero for powerhouse program BYU, Reyes was hired as an assistant by the Cougars immediately after his playing days ended, a move that wasn’t lost on Cook.
“Let’s put it this way: How many players in the last 18 years would I even consider hiring the day they finished playing? There might be one or two that I could think of,” Cook said.
“He’s coached men. He’s coached guys his own age, guys he played with. So he’s got some unique experiences other guys don’t have.”
Reyes’ father, Tino, was the women’s volleyball coach for Hawaii at Hilo from 2010-15 and spent 17 years as associate head coach for the Hawaii men’s team.
During his interview in Lincoln, Jaylen Reyes “blew everybody away” with his energy. The highest compliment, Cook said, may have come from Peterson, who returned with her mind made up after talking with Reyes over breakfast.
“She walked in here,” Cook said, “and said, ‘I’ll play for him right now.’ ”
Until Reyes arrives, NU has contracted with new graduate assistant Andrew Sato to serve as a coach for spring workouts.
Sato also has deep family connections to the game. His father, Gary, was an assistant on three U.S. men’s Olympic volleyball teams, including coaching with Cook on the 1992 bronze medal team at the Barcelona Games.
NU to hold coaches clinic
After a couple of years’ hiatus, Nebraska will host a coaches clinic Friday and Saturday at the Devaney Center.
This year’s clinicians will include Doane University coach Gwen Egbert — who also coached several years at Papillion-La Vista and Papillion-La Vista South — as well as former Husker Renee Saunders — coach of Omaha Skutt, which has won the past three Class B state championships.
There will also be a session with NU sports psychologist Brett Haskell and a workshop with Hudl representatives focused on teaching using video.
Interest in attending clinics has declined recently, Cook said, causing him to cancel or forgo hosting it in recent years. A decade ago, NU would draw 250 coaches for a workshop. This year, he’s aiming for 100.
“I just feel like there’s so many older coaches in the state that have retired,” he said, “so we wanted to give an opportunity to some newer and younger coaches.”