Nebraska tops preseason poll for first since 2016.
By Lincoln Arneal
Maggie Mendelson and Bekka Allick have yet to play an official game for the Nebraska volleyball team.
But in NU coach John Cook’s mind they aren’t first-year players.
“Those guys get after it. They’re not freshmen,” Cook said on Monday after the first week of fall practices. “There’s not one day they’ve been here and I thought they were freshmen.”
The Huskers will need one of the two new middle blockers to step up and play a significant role as a starter. NU has just three middle blockers on its roster after five veterans either graduated, transferred or stepped away from the sport. Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord, a fifth-year senior, is expected to hold down the other middle blocker spot.
Both of NU’s newbies have advantages working for them to get up to speed quickly.
Allick enrolled early at Nebraska in January and went through a beach season in addition to spring practices. Mendelson, who moved up her high school graduation a year, hasn’t spent much time working out with the Huskers but was part of the United States U19 national team that won gold at the Pan Am games in July.
Even though Mendelson is behind in time working in NU’s gym, Cook said the elite competition on the U19 team helped her quickly make up for lost time.
“Maggie’s played more than anybody in the last (few months) indoor because of the USA deal,” he said. “She was gone for three weeks playing so she closed that gap (between her and Allick).”
Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez said the middles showed strength and calm during their first week of practice.
“Usually they can be a little frantic, but I think they’ve held their composure really well this past week,” Rodriguez said.
While Mendelson is proving herself on the practice court, she also has to build relationships with her teammates. At Big Ten media days earlier this month, senior Madi Kubik said she was still getting to know the freshman and basic information about her.
Kubik said she knows more about Allick and how she asserts herself during games.
“She’s pretty quirky and fiery,” Kubik said. “It’s gonna be fun to see how her personality manifests on the court.”
Allick said they’ve been hit with a lot of new information during the first week of practice, but she’s trying to keep it simple and embrace the challenge of proving herself. She is thankful that she has an experienced teammate like Hord, who is a three-time All-American.
“Fulfilling the middle role right now is a necessity, and I can feel that pressure as a freshman,” she said. “I really want to prove myself here as a Nebraska Husker volleyball player alone, and now that’s on top of it. I definitely have a challenge in front of me and I’m excited.”
HUSKERS FIRST — The preseason AVCA poll was released Monday afternoon and the Huskers will begin with a target on their back claiming the top spot.
This is the first time NU has started a preseason poll No. 1 since 2016. All-time, the Huskers have appeared atop the AVCA poll for 101 weeks, which is the most of any program.
Nebraska received 24 first-place votes, three fewer than second-rated Texas, but the Huskers earned 10 more overall points. Wisconsin came in third with 12 first-place votes. Louisville, led by former Husker Dani Busboom Kelly, received the final first-place vote and was fourth. Minnesota rounded out the top five in the first poll.
The Badgers defeated Nebraska in the national title game, while UT lost to the Huskers in the regional final in Austin. However, both teams look quite different from a year ago. The Longhorns remade last year’s roster adding six transfers and five freshmen while losing five transfers and one player to graduation and also retirement. Wisconsin lost multiple All-Americans, but received two big transfers in outside hitter Sarah Franklin (Michigan State) and Caroline Crawford (Kansas).
The Huskers are slated to play eight ranked teams. Besides the Badgers and Gophers, NU will face No. 7 Ohio State, No. 11 Kentucky, No. 13 Purdue, No. 14 Stanford, No. 17 Illinois, No. 18 Creighton and No. 20 Penn State.
NO TOP UNIT — After the first week of practices, Cook said he doesn’t know who will be in the starting lineup until NU’s first match. In addition to middle blocker, the Huskers have question marks at setter and outside hitter to settle.
Sophomore Kennedi Orr will get the first crack at setting, but All-American Nicklin Hames is still available. In addition, the Huskers are still trying to figure out the right combination at outside hitter behind Kubik. Sophomores Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause split time there this spring, while Krause also played the right side last year with Whitney Lauenstein.
Cook said he focuses more on attitude and ability to compete and improve each day rather than the top line at each position.
“I wish we had a starting lineup right now, but I couldn’t tell you who it is because one day, I think we know it and the next day it changes. So we kind of let them compete right now.”
USC and crosstown rival UCLA are leaving the Pac-12 Conference and are set to join the Big Ten Conference Aug. 2, 2024. The announcement was made Thursday night.
The move was unanimously approved by the Big Ten Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors. The addition of the two schools will bring the membership of the Big Ten to 16 universities.
The Big Ten is now poised to be a coast-to-coast conference, with the largest TV markets as well, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
In a joint statement from Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie Green and Athletic Director Trev Alberts, NU welcomed UCLA and USC to the Big Ten and will look forward to competing with them in the future.
The statement said:
“This is an exciting and historic day for the Big Ten Conference and the University of Nebraska. The addition of UCLA and USC to the Big Ten is a bold, ambitious step during a time of historic change in the collegiate athletics landscape.”
“UNL has a large alumni base in California that will have a great opportunity to regularly watch our teams compete in historical athletic venues in Southern California. Nebraska has had a history of success recruiting athletes from California, and this will only enhance Nebraska’s profile in a fertile recruiting ground.”
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in a press release that Big Ten membership equates to better television time slots for road games. Block also said they will have the same number of home games at the Rose Bowl and other UCLA venues.
Big Ten Tournament Champs Head to Old Haunt for NCAAs
By Steve Beideck
The chant of “Go Big Red” that emanated from Memorial Stadium may have come as a surprise to random passers-by the morning of May 14.
But there was good reason, and the stadium just happened to be filled with attendees and honorees at the 2022 Nebraska Spring Commencement.
So Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie Green urged them on: “Go Big Red!” and say it loud enough to be heard all the way to Secchia Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.
That’s where the Huskers were playing Michigan, 727 miles away, for the Big Ten softball tournament championship.
The sizable crowd at Memorial Stadium happily obliged, and the Huskers did indeed go on to beat Michigan, 3-1, and earn their first Big Ten tournament championship and first softball conference title since winning the Big 12 crown in 2004.
It was a huge victory for the program that has battled through some rough times. The 2017 season began with 10 consecutive losses and ended with a 24-29 record. Identical 31-23 records were posted the following two years, but neither felt like much of a success.
The 2018 campaign ended with losses in nine of the final 10 games, and in 2019 the Huskers once again lost their first Big Ten tournament game. The 2020 season was called off because of the global pandemic after a 9-14 start, and 2021 produced a middling 22-22 record in a season of conference-only opponents.
Securing their first NCAA tournament berth since 2016 roughly 28 hours before the brackets were revealed on ESPN2 allowed this young team to take a breath, appreciate the moment and maybe realize it’s begun to put a perennial power back in the softball spotlight.
Being one of the four teams selected for the Stillwater, Oklahoma, regional, hosted by No. 7 national seed Oklahoma State, is providing a trip down memory lane for coaches and others within the program.
Recollections of so many Big Eight and Big 12 conference showdowns – prior to the Big Ten era that began with the 2012 season – brought on a few cases of deja vu.
The nostalgia hit home as soon as the team bus arrived at the hotel in Stillwater. Coach Rhonda Revelle said radio play-by-play man, Nate Rohr, was the first to bring it up.
“Nate and I talked about that when we got to town,” Revelle said. “Nate said, ‘This feels oddly familiar.’ He was right. When we get to the field and practice on it, it will feel even more familiar.”
Nebraska is 48-47 all-time against OSU, but the two teams haven’t played since 2014.
When the Huskers’ destination was announced, a delay in the video feed made it appear the Huskers weren’t pleased with where they were heading. Revelle said that wasn’t the case.
“We weren’t mad at all,” Revelle said. “Number one, we’re getting on a bus. We didn’t have to get on a plane, and that was great news. Second, we’re still in the Central time zone, so that was another plus.”
To get a shot at Oklahoma State in the winner’s bracket (the Cowgirls open against Fordham), the 40-14 Huskers first must defeat North Texas in their May 20 first-round matchup.
Riding a five-game winning streak after posting an 18-game win streak that included a 13-0 start to the conference portion of the schedule, then losing four of their next five, has taught the Huskers how to handle ups and downs.
“The win streak helped us learn how to embrace the excitement around our program but also be able to shut it out when the focus needs to be on getting better,” Revelle said. “We love that people are noticing Nebraska softball, but we need to keep them excited.”
Once all the regional fields were announced, a quick review of the brackets shows the selection committee placed Nebraska as the fifth-best team in the Big Ten. Northwestern was given the No. 9 national seed and is hosting a regional that features Oakland, McNeese and Notre Dame.
Michigan was nearly awarded a home regional but instead goes to No. 16 Central Florida and will play South Dakota State in the first round. Illinois and Ohio State also were placed as No. 2 seeds against national seeds lower than Oklahoma State. The Fighting Illini are paired with No. 15 Missouri and the Buckeyes travel to No. 11 Tennessee.
A second-place finish in the regular season standings and the tournament championship didn’t appear to be enough for the committee even though Nebraska was 3-0 against Michigan and 2-2 against Ohio State. The Huskers won the last two games against the Buckeyes, including a 2-1 victory in the tournament semifinals.
Nebraska also had four players on the all-tournament team – pitchers Olivia Farrell and Courtney Wallace, second baseman Cam Ybarra and first baseman Mya Felder. Ybarra was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Revelle said where Nebraska landed in the brackets has never been a discussion point in any meetings. The Huskers focus on what they can control – themselves.
“If you look at he all-tournament team, three of the pitchers on there we had victories over,” Revelle said. “We were facing good pitching. You get to this time of year you don’t expect high-scoring games. In these tournaments they all have hitting and pitching and can do some things.”
When he shouts “Go Big Red” the next time, the players likely will hear the chancellor because Ronnie Green will be in Stillwater. They heard him on May 15 when the team gathered for the selection show, and Green represented the championship trophy – the only one Nebraska has won in any sport this season – at Bowlin Stadium.
He also acknowledged the three seniors who missed the commencement exercises – Ybarra, Wallace and Anni Raley – because they were taking care of business in East Lansing.
Just as they have in the classroom, every player is continually learning on the field.
“They’ve learned not only how to exist in a close game, but how to come out on top,” Revelle said. “They’ve been learning as they’ve gone along; they’ve been learning to win and learning different ways to win.”
The women have been carrying the flag for Husker athletics this year.
Most recently the softball team brought home its first Big Ten tournament title. Rhonda Revelle’s squad went extra innings to defeat Michigan 3-1 and secure an NCAA slot.
Earlier, the volleyball team made the final four, and Amy Williams’ basketball squad ended with a 24-9 season and made the NCAA tournament. By contrast, football, men’s basketball and baseball all, shall we say, left something to be desired.
Athletic Director Trev Alberts fielded a question on a call-in show about the women’s successes and the men’s struggles.
“It’s a great question,” Alberts said. “If we knew what the answer was, we would have cracked that a long time ago.”
All kidding aside, winning at the top levels of college sports is hard. And it’s cyclical. Lots of things have to come together. And when you are winning it almost seems easy to those on the outside. And in one way, it is easier: Winning tends to attract top players. For example, the volleyball team produced Lexi Rodriguez, who was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The basketball team’s Alexis Markowski was Big Ten Freshman of the Year. And in softball, catcher Ava Bredwell was Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
It appears this upward cycle for the NU women could be a long one. Coach John Cook’s loaded volleyball squad has defied down cycles for years, of course, and is poised to make a run at a national title yet again with the final four in Omaha this upcoming season. Williams’ basketball team returns its starting five and gets transfer Maddie Krull, who starred at Millard South High School and at the University of South Dakota for two years. With Krull’s help, USD made the Sweet 16 last season. Our Shawn Ekwall caught up with Krull and you can read more about her story in this edition.
Also in this edition, Lincoln Arneal explores the importance of the volleyball team playing its spring matches outside the Devaney Center and in different locations across the state. Arneal’s look at the team’s unique connection to its fans is our featured story this month. Lastly, Steve Beideck recaps Revelle’s softball team’s run to the Big Ten tournament title.
The success of women’s sports creates awareness and buzz for young women. Recently a friend of mine along with his wife and 9-year-old daughter, Grace, were vacationing in Honolulu. They were walking along the beach when Grace said, “Dad, there’s Nicklin.” The family was unaware Husker setter Nicklin Hames and the Husker sand volleyball team were in Hawaii, but Grace recognized Hames immediately and even got her photo taken with her. The family was impressed that Hames would take the time to visit with their daughter and make their vacation even more special.
Elsewhere in this edition, we have a classic story on how a former Nebraskan, somewhat quietly, made it to the NBA – not as a player, but as administrator. Writer Mike Kelly caught up with Garth Glissman, the Waverly, Nebraska, native who at one time lettered as a Husker quarterback. As Glissman’s professional career flourished, he went from being a partner at the Kutak Rock law firm to being recruited by the NBA to be a vice president. Kelly’s story takes you through all the interesting twists and turns of Glissman’s life that has the 40-year-old with a big-time job in the world of professional sports.
Hopefully you, the readers, are noticing the changes we are making with headline and subhead fonts. We are working to make the magazine look better and easier to read. I have even changed the picture that runs with my column after one subscriber chided me for not wearing red and looking too serious. As always, this is your magazine. If you ever have any story ideas, comments or suggestions, please reach out. I enjoy the feedback.
Garth Glissman’s Road to the Big Time Was Paved by Hard Work and Vision
By Michael Kelly
Hmm, here’s an unusual way you could become an executive in the NBA:
Coach Class D-2 high school basketball in Nebraska for eight years, and then open an email from the pro league that says it has never seen a resume quite like yours. Wait. You didn’t send in your resume. This must be a joke.
Out of curiosity, you reply.
After a number of phone discussions over the next few months, you fly to New York for an interview. Then you stun your friends and colleagues by accepting a job with, yes, the National … Basketball … Association.
That’s the very condensed version of how Garth Glissman – a Nebraska native who sold peanuts, pizza and pop in the stands at Husker football games during his high school years and then was an invited walk-on at NU for basketball and football – went to work in 2016 for the NBA. Today at 40 he is the vice president of basketball operations.
“Garth is a very gifted and skilled professional,” said Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations. “He truly embodies the essence of teamwork and commitment.”
How did the NBA find him? It was as simple as the league’s human relations office being intrigued by his resume on LinkedIn as a practicing attorney who also coached high school basketball.
Yes, the short version of how Garth Glissman went to work for the NBA leaves out parts of his life path. Among them:
• In college, he said publicly that someday he’d like to be governor of Nebraska. • At graduation, he was conferred a degree “with highest distinction” (summa cum laude). • He became a Rhodes Scholar finalist. • He won a top award at the University of Nebraska College of Law and then worked at the state’s largest law firm, where he rose to partner. • He married a lawyer, Katie Kotlik, and they have a daughter, Grace, who turns 4 in July. Garth’s job is based in New York, but they keep a home in Omaha.
From his last year in law school through the first several years of his legal career, Glissman loved moonlighting as a non-paid high school basketball coach. Though he was a longtime pro basketball fan, he never dreamed of becoming part of the NBA.
It’s quite a story. Better start back at the beginning.
Garth Glissman was born in 1982, son of Blayne and Susan, and grew up on a small farm 15 minutes north of Memorial Stadium. His supportive parents, he said, instilled a love of learning but he was “fanatical” about sports. (After a divorce, his school teacher-administrator mother remarried and is now Susan Volker.)
Garth attended K-12 in the Waverly School District and in boyhood read about the Huskers in the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald. With his own money, he subscribed to Huskers Illustrated. In those days, he said, only a few regular-season Husker games were televised, so he also listened intently on his radio.
“I tell young people today that they don’t know how good they have it,” Glissman said. “They have an entire world of information on their smartphones.” At age 10, he became interested in politics because of the 1992 presidential campaign. That’s the year Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush and third-party candidate H. Ross Perot.
Garth’s fifth-grade teacher, he said, was the “dynamic” Sue Munn. As an incentive, if any of her pupils achieved reading a certain number of pages in books, they could ask her to invite someone to the classroom.
Though he had taken a liking to politics, Garth asked not for a politician but for a particular star high school athlete – Scott Frost, now the Husker coach. He arrived at Hamlow Elementary wearing his Wood River High football jersey and stayed the entire school day. Even as he went to Stanford his first two years of college, Garth wrote him letters.
In eighth grade, Garth got a job selling concessions at Memorial Stadium. He thinks back to the ’90s as a “romantic era” in Nebraska football, including the historic run of three national titles in four years.
At Waverly High, he was a “good-not-great student.” A late bloomer physically, he grew to 6-foot-5 and led the Viking teams in football and basketball. After a promising junior year of basketball, averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds, he played on the select Godfather’s AAU summer team. But at practice before his senior season, he suffered a double-dislocation of an ankle while trying to dunk over a teammate.
“I couldn’t quite grasp the rim,” Glissman recalled, “and we fell down simultaneously. He landed on me at the same time I hit the floor. The doctors were worried they might have to amputate my foot.”
College recruiters backed off, and after graduating Garth spent the 2000-01 year at the New Hampton prep school in New Hampshire. He went there to play basketball but it turned out to be a transformative year academically.
“It was a combination of maturity and having my eyes opened to a different part of the country and a different way of thinking,” Glissman said. “By the time I showed up back at the university a year later, I was a serious student. I applied the same rigor to academics as I did to athletics, and I was just as competitive.”
He had drawn interest from Ivy League schools but wanted to return home for a simple reason: “I loved Nebraska.”
Accepting an invitation to walk on from NU basketball coach Barry Collier, Glissman practiced with the team but didn’t play in games. On days when the Huskers traveled, he stayed in Lincoln and began winter weight training with the football team. Noting his strong throwing arm one day, coach Frank Solich invited him to walk on as a quarterback in the spring of 2002.
Glissman drew attention from sportswriters by playing well in scrimmages, and he started for the White team in the 2003 Red-White spring game, completing nine of 17 passes for 78 yards. But he didn’t rise to the top of the depth chart.
One weekend, though, he served as host for a recruit and his parents on an official visit – Zac Taylor. A quarterback, Taylor became the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year as a Husker and in February this year coached the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.
Glissman lettered as a Husker in 2004, Bill Callahan’s first year as head coach, and ran onto the field to cheers on Senior Day. But that was it. He never completed a pass in an actual game.
No, Garth Glissman didn’t make Husker history. Academically, though, he received the Glenn Gray Memorial Award as the top undergraduate majoring in … history.
If Glissman didn’t dazzle on the court or the field, he surely starred in the classroom – in four years of college courses, all A’s. (He is still disappointed about two A-minuses.) But before entering law school, he decided to take a gap year.
In 2005-06, Glissman taught American history at a different Eastern academy, Salisbury School in Connecticut, an all-boys boarding school. He was the varsity quarterback coach and co-head coach of the JV team, as well as the JV head basketball coach.
“In hindsight,” he said, “seeds were sown that year that led to where I am now. I fell in love with basketball again.”
He could have attended almost any law school but returned to Nebraska, living with his parents to save money. “I wanted to live and work in Nebraska. I had the goal of someday entering public service. If my heart was in Nebraska, I thought that’s where I should go to law school.”
His main hobby in those years, no surprise, was sports. Chris Schmidt, who hosted a Lincoln radio show called “Hail Varsity,” invited him on regularly to chat about sports. That led to their broadcasting high school games, with Glissman as color commentator.
And that led to his receiving an offer in 2008, while still in law school, to become the boys basketball head coach (as a volunteer) at College View Academy, a small high school in Lincoln.
Meanwhile, Glissman received another big academic honor in ’08 – the Ted Sorensen Fellowship, named for President John F. Kennedy’s adviser and speechwriter, who was from Lincoln. It is given to a third-year law student who “as voted on by the law school faculty, best represents academic excellence and commitment to public service.” (Glissman had two meetings with Sorensen, who died in 2010.)
After law school graduation in 2009, Glissman accepted an offer from Omaha’s biggest law firm, Kutak Rock, which has hundreds of attorneys in 14 states and Washington, D.C. His practice focused on complex commercial disputes, sometimes representing Fortune 500 companies, as well as on governmental issues.
Bart McLeay, then head of the litigation department and still an attorney with the firm, said Glissman is highly ethical and made an early impact. “He is one of the kindest people I have ever met, and was one of the most well-liked and respected lawyers in the firm in all my decades here. He has a gentle personality but at the same time, he’s ‘in a case to win a case.'”
McLeay and Glissman represented a corporate client in a six-week California jury trial that required weekly travel from Omaha. “Garth was a very capable second-chair lawyer,” McLeay said. “The client loved him, and we prevailed.”
Along the way, Glissman met Katie, a former volleyball setter at Gross Catholic High School and Morningside College and a member of the Abrahams Kaslow & Cassman law firm. They were introduced at a bar meeting – so to speak. Actually, at a bar in Omaha’s Old Market.
Glissman had coached at College View for four years and then four more at Parkview Christian School, leading the latter to its first state tournament appearance in the school’s 36-year history.
In fall of 2015, the NBA contacted him after seeing his resume on LinkedIn, the online professional networking website. Meanwhile, Glissman became a partner at Kutak Rock, a big step in a lawyer’s career. He coached Parkview in 2015-16, quietly continuing talks with the pro league.
After a big win one night, he went home for a two-hour nap before catching an early flight to New York to meet NBA folks. That spring, May of 2016, he resigned at Kutak Rock, leaving a rising career at 34.
“I was stunned,” McLeay said. “He had worked hard and become a partner, and we were all celebrating that. His Nebraska humility came through a lot. It was surprising to me that he was moving to New York, but New York City could use more people like Garth.”
Glissman said it was especially hard to leave all his players. “I loved them like my family.” Among them were juniors Henry Tanksley, who later played for Peru State, and Nosa Iyagbaye, who went on to Wayne State.
He also appreciated mentors and colleagues at the law firm and throughout his life. “I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of people who have helped me pursue my own intellectual and creative interests.”
His job in the league office focuses on the Board of Governors, general managers, coaches and the Players Association. It also includes overseeing playing rules and officiating, which includes referees’ “points of emphasis” as well as the tweaking of rules. The game evolves, he said, as do rules interpretations.
As he immersed himself in his new job, Garth and Katie found an apartment in Manhattan, where she worked remotely for her Omaha firm. After the pandemic struck widely in March 2020, NBA staffers worked from wherever was convenient. Katie and daughter Grace have lived in Omaha full time since then, and Garth has commuted between New York and Omaha.
He is increasingly involved with college basketball and the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee. He leads the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which provides players with confidential feedback as to where they would likely be selected in the annual draft. That helps athletes decide whether to declare for the draft or to stay in college.
“Because of my roots,” Glissman said, “I understand what college athletics means, particularly in certain parts of the country.”
His name was listed in news reports last year as a potential candidate for the athletic director job at Nebraska. Glissman declined to comment on that but said he fully supports the vision of AD Trev Alberts.
His NBA job is apolitical, but he hasn’t forgotten about his political dream in Nebraska. “There’s a time and place in life to assert oneself in politics,” he said, adding that for himself, now is not the time.
He is a registered Republican, and before taking the NBA job he served for three years in Omaha as legal counsel for the Douglas County Republican Party. He says he “kicked the tires” about an early run for Congress. “I hope sometime in life to provide public service in some capacity.”
He still loves football, he said, but its players line up on either offense or defense. In basketball they play both ends of the court.
“In my opinion,” he said, “NBA players are the best athletes in the world. I say that because it’s a game that requires a unique combination of size, explosiveness, agility and skills.”
Garth Glissman didn’t achieve his own athletic dreams but loves his job in a league with some of the greatest athletes. Coaching small-school basketball in Nebraska is hardly a normal stepping stone to the NBA, but there he stands.
Spruell, his boss, said the NBA appreciates Glissman’s passion for his work and for basketball, calling him “a well-rounded and grounded family man and professional who is doing great work at the league office.”
In college, Garth walked on twice. Now he has clearly stepped up – and made the NBA office’s starting lineup.
Mike Kelly retired in 2018 after 48 years at the Omaha World-Herald, including 1981-91 as sports editor and sports columnist.
The Husker Volleyball Traveling Road Show Is a Must See
By Lincoln Arneal
For Lara Swerczek, not getting tickets wasn’t an option.
When Nebraska volleyball announced it would be playing its spring match in Grand Island in early March, she was given an ultimatum by her teenage son, Bennett, to make sure they were there.
Swerczek, who lives in Cedar Rapids, Nebraska, tries to attend a few matches a year at the Devaney Center, but those are usually weekend-long outings. Now with the Huskers just an hour away, she wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity. So she scheduled a day to work from home, where the internet was more reliable, and set an alarm on her phone so she could log on promptly at 10 a.m. on March 10.
She and her son were among the lucky ones. They got tickets for the spring exhibition match. Tickets for the 6,000-seat Heartland Events Center sold out in less than 10 minutes.
“Our state rallies behind the Huskers, good or bad,” Swerczek said. “To see volleyball come, especially as successful as they’ve been … it’s just really exciting to let them see the rest of the state. They’re gonna get the same support that they would when they are at Devaney.”
The match was the third time in the past 11 years that the Huskers have played a spring match in Grand Island. It has become the most frequent stop in the nine spring matches NU has played outside Lincoln.
Each host city for Nebraska’s most successful high-profile sport has treated the occasion like a mixture of a sporting extravaganza, hometown celebration and traveling red carpet. Tickets sell out in quick fashion and autograph signings after the matches become celebrity encounters.
“Anytime you can get an event of the caliber of Nebraska volleyball, there’s a deep sense of pride that they would choose to come to our community and play this game,” said Brad Mellema, executive director of Grand Island Tourism. “It’s neat to see a big-stage event like that. They feel like it was a big breath of fresh air to have a normal, full house event like this in our community.”
Nebraska’s spring exhibition matches weren’t always the big production they are today. In Terry Pettit’s early days as coach, he took his teams to tour the state. Those exhibitions were more about connecting to the high school programs and building volleyball culture than attracting crowds.
That all changed in 2010 when the NCAA adopted a rule to allow teams only to travel by bus during non-championship segments. Previously, the Huskers would fly to Florida and Hawaii for training and exhibitions.
With the team’s travel limited, NU began to add matches elsewhere in the state, starting with Grand Island in 2011, which attracted a crowd of 5,522. While teams can schedule up to four spring matches, the Huskers have only scheduled one indoor match since 2015, traveling to cities around the state, including Ogallala, McCook, Kearney and Grand Island.
“For me, we just try to get one match, a big crowd, make it special and not have all these play days,” Nebraska coach John Cook said before this year’s exhibition in Grand Island.
These matches aren’t just about volleyball. Nebraska also takes time to connect with the communities. For example, when NU played in Wayne in 2014, it served as a fundraiser to help the community recover from a recent tornado. In 2019, residents of McCook used the match to raise funds to help Nebraskans impacted by the floods that spring.
For the players, it’s a chance to connect with more parts of the state than they would get to otherwise. Senior Madi Kubik said she had never been to Grand Island before last month and she was blown away by the support they received during the entire weekend.
“People are like, ‘Hey, we love you, we know you,’ for everyone and that’s really special and something you don’t get anywhere else in the country,” the All-American outside hitter said. “We are so thankful for our fans and how loyal they are.”
On the court, Nebraska started the match against Kansas sluggish as they had to rally to win the first set before dropping the second. The Huskers improved as the match progressed when its elite defense took over and Kubik and sophomore Whitney Lauenstein provided the offensive firepower.
Many fans hope they saw a preview of a team that ends its season at another in-state venue as CHI Health Center Arena in Omaha hosts the final four this year. But the events on the court were just as important as everything else that happened at the Heartland Events Center. As Cook said, the event was “a celebration of volleyball in the state.”
In addition, the Huskers often recognize local high school coaches for their success and contributions to the volleyball culture in the state. Cook also meets with donors and other VIPs to provide an inside look at the program and field questions.
Afterward, the Huskers signed autographs for almost two hours as the line initially stretched down two hallways, wrapped around the lobby and back out to the arena floor.
Volleyball is unique in the Nebraska Athletic Department. Currently it is the only sport to play a “home” competition outside Lincoln and Omaha.
Others, such as baseball, offer summer camps around the state, but none play a game during the year. Cook said he hasn’t talked to Athletic Director Trev Alberts about how other programs could duplicate its spring matches, but only a few can do it because of scheduling and facilities issues.
“I don’t know why more teams don’t do it, but I’ll just tell you it sold out in eight minutes,” Cook said about this year’s brisk ticket sales. “So it tells you how fired up people are. … We have cities already lining up for the next couple of years requesting us to come there, so it’s really important.”
Dianne Willey, sales and marketing director at the Heartland Events Center, said her organization had 30,000 hits on its ticketing website the day the spring match tickets went on sale. While the Heartland Events Center has hosted popular events, such as the Beach Boys in 2009 and Meat Loaf in 2016, nothing came close to the popularity of the Huskers.
“They love coming here as much as we love having them,” Willey said. “They are always so well-received in central Nebraska. And if we could have had three games that night, we would have filled the arena all three times.”
When the Huskers played in McCook, fans lined up outside the ticket booth for hours in 28-degree weather to secure their share of the 1,750 tickets available. Then they camped out the night before the match to get the best seats for the general admission seating.
The downside to the sky-high demand is that often people are shut out of getting tickets. The people selling the tickets can go from being the most popular people in town to the most vilified if someone ends up on the wrong side of the sellout.
Steve Morgan, the longtime prep volleyball coach in Ogallala, said after the tickets sold out, he was confronted by a fan in Wal-Mart who didn’t get tickets, even though he had nothing to do with ticket sales.
Despite some people left out because of the smaller venues, the overall mission of the traveling spring show was a success by connecting to new fans and providing opportunities for people who otherwise couldn’t see the Huskers in person.
“A lot of people in western Nebraska especially just don’t get an opportunity to have season tickets or get out to see a game that often,” Morgan said. “I just know it’s just like yesterday to me – just the magic was a whole thing. People still talk about it and will as long as they remember it.” That same feeling happens everywhere else in the state the team visits.
Bob Elder, who owns the Sports Shoppe in McCook, said people still bring up the Huskers playing in their town often to him. He rallied the town and neighboring communities to help recruit the Huskers to come to their corner of the state. He calls it one of McCook’s biggest events, and they hope the Huskers will return at some point.
“People have told me that that was huge for McCook,” Elder said. “We want to make it right and I hope we did.”
Where NU takes the roadshow next isn’t set yet. It’s a decision that starts every January anew after the championship season concludes. People from all over the state send emails and letters to Lindsay Peterson, NU volleyball’s director of operations, making a case for their community to be the next host of the Huskers.
Cook floated the idea of hosting the spring match inside the 15,500-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena, almost double their usual crowd in the Devaney Center. However, ask someone from a town outside one of the state’s metropolitan areas and they argue to keep the statewide tour intact.
“Nebraska is a big place,” said Mellema, of the Grand Island Tourism office. “Playing that out here is bigger than the sum of its parts in terms of long-term connection to the state and to those girls that are growing up in the small towns. Some of those girls are going to grow up and have that ability to play. Making those connections and coming out here is remembered fondly.”
Before a late-season series at Illinois – and the long bus ride that preceded it – Husker baseball players gathered at Hawks Field, many with a rolling suitcase in one hand and a pillow in the other. A press conference with coach Will Bolt and three players was held prior to departure. The group dutifully answered all questions, but there was really only one that has been on everyone’s mind: What happened this season?
“I wish there were happier questions,” sophomore third baseman Max Anderson said.
The answers have been clear – poor hitting, ill-timed errors and an inability to win close games – but solutions have been elusive the past few months as Nebraska went from an NCAA Tournament team in 2021 to one wondering if it will make the Big Ten Tournament in 2022. As Huskers Illustrated went to print, Nebraska was 20-29 overall and tied for ninth in the Big Ten at 8-13 with one conference series remaining. The top eight teams qualify for the league tournament.
The Huskers pushed No. 1 Arkansas to a regional final before being knocked out of last year’s NCAA tournament. Following the loss, Bolt talked about the importance of following up on a strong season.
“I think the future is certainly bright and the seniors and the upperclassmen have built a pretty solid foundation for what’s to come,” Bolt said.
That foundation is showing cracks 12 months later. Nebraska went from first to last in the Big Ten in batting average, and after being held to three or fewer runs 10 times a year ago, Nebraska has had 20 such games this season. Nebraska is also last in the league in slugging percentage and 10th in runs per game.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games,” Bolt said. “We’ve gotten off to good starts in games but haven’t finished it.”
For some coaches, that would be a throwaway line but it’s the truth. Prior to the season-ending series against Michigan State, Nebraska had played 26 games decided by one or two runs, winning eight.
Despite the offensive woes, Bolt first referenced defense as an explanation for why his team has come up just short so many times. Nebraska is ninth in the league in fielding percentage (it topped the conference in ’21), but Bolt said it’s not so much how many errors as when they’ve occurred.
“Other teams are making throws to throw us out at the plate and we’re making errors to extend innings,” Bolt said.
His words were prophetic a few days later in a 5-4 loss May 15 against Illinois. Colby Gomes’ grand slam gave the Huskers an early 4-0 lead, but Illinois scored in each of the last four innings to rally. The winning run crossed in the bottom of the ninth on an error.
Pitching has been strong despite a rash of injuries. Twenty pitchers have been used this year including nine starters. Last year, five Huskers started games with Cade Povich (15 starts), Chance Hroch (14), and Shay Schanaman (12) providing a consistent weekend rotation. Schanaman moved into the Friday slot this season after Povich and Hroch moved on, but after that it was often anyone’s guess as the Huskers entered several Big Ten series with the dreaded “TBA” appearing where a starting pitcher’s name should in school-issued press releases.
“That’s how our team was built – from the back of the bullpen to the front. We knew we had some depth. When you lose as many guys as we’ve lost it’s difficult to think that you could be competitive and we have done that because we have had some guys step up,” Bolt said. “Having that depth has allowed us to at least be competitive.”
The term “everyday lineup” has also been a misnomer as only Anderson and senior catcher Griffin Everitt have started every game; 15 Huskers had at least eight offensive starts. Anderson, the 2021 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has put up a respectable .285 average this season, though that was a drop from last season’s .332. Freshman outfielder Garrett Anglim leads the team in hitting at .302 – the only Husker hitting above .300.
Things went wrong immediately this spring as Nebraska lost three of four to Sam Houston, then fell to 1-6 after being swept in three games at TCU. The Huskers were 4-9 before conference play started, a mark that included a series loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. In conference, Nebraska won just one series prior to the season finale against Michigan State.
“This season hasn’t gone the way anyone wanted it to, or expected it to,” Everitt said, repeating words often said with slight variation this season. Anderson, Bolt and others assured that it hasn’t been a lack of effort. So why did the season play out the way it did? Maybe that’s a question that can’t be answered.
“It’s definitely not (a lack of) talent,” Anderson said. “It’s so hard to tell in baseball.”
They Are at Different Ends of Their College Careers, but Their Goals Are the Same
By Jacob Bigelow
Nebraska fans have a lot to like in two of the latest in-state additions to Fred Hoiberg’s basketball program.
Lincoln East grad Sam Griesel announced back in April that he would join the Huskers as a graduate transfer from North Dakota State, while Ashland-Greenwood guard Cale Jacobsen, the top unsigned in-state player in the class of 2022, announced on May 7 he’d be accepting a preferred walk-on offer. The two local kids are at opposite stages of their college basketball journeys, but they have much in common.
One of Hoiberg’s buzzwords, perhaps ironically, is “adversity” – specifically, how his players respond to it. Adversity is something Griesel and Jacobsen know about, both overcoming significant medical issues. More on those later.
Griesel and Jacobsen have shared similar experiences off the court, and they also share a trainer in Thomas Viglianco of Lincoln, who has worked with Isaiah Roby and Bryce and Trey McGowens, among other top local players.
The first time Jacobsen watched Griesel play was during Griesel’s senior year at Lincoln East in a game against Omaha South. He followed Griesel and North Dakota State when the Bison were kicking the tires on his own recruitment. But it’s through their work with Viglianco that has helped them become close friends.
It’s been hard for Husker basketball fans to fall in love with Hoiberg’s teams. One reason, of course, is poor performance, but another is the rotating roster. Players are here today, gone tomorrow, and almost none are from Nebraska – disappointing considering the state’s high schools have been on a good run of talent in recent years. Griesel and Jacobsen are among that group. It will be good to see them in red.
Though he may only have one year as a Husker, it’s easy to see Griesel, the hometown kid, as an immediate fan favorite and playing a lot of minutes. Jacobsen, while perhaps not seeing the court right away, is definitely not your typical walk-on. Griesel grew into a Big Ten player at North Dakota State. The plan is for Jacobsen to grow into that level of player while at Nebraska.
Griesel’s Path Griesel said receiving the phone call from Hoiberg after entering the transfer portal was “surreal,” and “a dream come true.”
It wasn’t until a week or two after his final game in a Bison jersey in the Summit League Tournament championship game that he even imagined playing for Nebraska.
“Nebraska’s always been my dream school,” Griesel said, “I grew up watching Nebraska basketball and I looked up to the players like they were superheroes.”
As a local kid, Griesel knows the hunger in the community for basketball success, and he wants to be a catalyst to make it happen. “More than anything I want to win basketball games and bring joy to the Lincoln community,” he said.
Griesel, listed as a 6-foot-6 guard/forward on the Bison roster, was a part of a successful run at North Dakota State, making two trips to the NCAA tournament. He credits the success to the program’s culture and “buying into the process.” He believes similar buy-in will lead to success at NU and he emphasizes the importance of trusting Hoiberg and his vision.
He clicked right away with Hoiberg and he can’t wait to learn from him. “I’m a huge culture guy and coach Hoiberg knew that,” Griesel said. He added that he is excited to get to play with guys like Jacobsen who he said has similar characteristics to himself. “He plays the game the right way,” Griesel said.
The first road trip of Griesel’s final season at North Dakota State is one he’ll never forget – and it wasn’t because of anything that happened on the court.
The night before the game at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, Griesel was feeling lightheaded and sick to his stomach. He could barely stand up, could hardly stay awake and began throwing up blood. He immediately was taken to the hospital. A severe stomach ulcer resulted in a dangerous loss of blood. He underwent surgery and a blood transfusion.
The incident was an eye-opener for Griesel, but initially, he said, “all I was thinking about was basketball.”
He was looking forward to starting off the year right against the Bison’s first Division I opponent of the season. Instead, he got a “perspective shock.” “Obviously I love basketball and that’s what I do,” he said. But, he added, that since November he’s shifted more of his focus to his faith, family and friends, and said he is grateful now to have gone through what he did.
Jacobsen’s Path Jacobsen tore an ACL in December 2020 during the first weekend of his junior season. He missed that entire year as well as a summer of AAU ball with Nebraska Supreme.
He said the toughest moment of the rehab was being told by his physical therapist he would not be able to play during the first live recruiting period that July. Jacobsen said he “definitely grew up a ton” during the battle to return to the court.
The 6-4 Jacobsen was a two-sport star at Ashland-Greenwood but gave up football in the fall to focus on his return to basketball. It turned out to be a good move. He averaged 17.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 4 steals per game. He capped off his senior season by winning the Class C-1 title at Ashland-Greenwood after making the assist to the corner that led to the buzzer-beating basket in the title game.
Jacobsen accepted the preferred walk-on offer from NU after holding scholarship offers from North Dakota and Holy Cross. He continued to play with Nebraska Supreme on the Under Armour circuit last summer and had other schools showing interest.
He said there were multiple things that made Nebraska standout, most notably the people, both on the staff and on the roster. Husker assistant Nate Loenser emphasized the staff’s excitement over the incoming players and the vision for the program, as well as their desire to “continue to bring in good people.”
“Surrounding your program with good people leads to good things,” Jacobsen said.
He wants to “build something special and be a part of something bigger than myself.”
Athletes like Jacobsen develop into Big Ten players with coaching and by competing against other top athletes every day in practice. He will get that at Nebraska. He said that what the coaching staff likes most about his game is “versatility offensively” and “playmaking ability.”
“They want me to come in and make everybody else better,” he said.
Maddie Krull Is Bringing Her Versatility And Tenaciousness Back to Nebraska
By Shawn Ekwall
It was a tournament run player’s dream about for Maddie Krull and her South Dakota teammates.
It started with the Coyotes’ knocking off seventh-seeded Ole Miss 75-61 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. A 61-47 upset of second-seeded Baylor on its home floor followed, propelling USD to the Sweet 16, before falling to Michigan 52-49. The loss ended the most successful women’s basketball season in school history.
For a mid-major Summit League school to flex its muscle in the NCAA tournament is rare, to say the least.
“Gosh, it was incredible,” Krull said of the historic run. “You dream as a kid to go to college, win a conference championship, play in the NCAA tournament. But beating Baylor was a feeling I can’t even explain. We just kept going and it didn’t even feel real. It was new to everybody and we enjoyed every second of it.”
The Yotes’ 29-6 record and epic tourney run made USD coach Dawn Plitzuweit and her staff a hot commodity. Plitzuweit was named the new head coach at West Virginia in late March, taking the majority of her staff with her. That led Krull, an Omaha native and 2020 Millard South graduate, to enter the transfer portal.
Though her stats weren’t eye-popping, Krull was the model of consistency since setting foot on the Vermillion, South Dakota, campus two years ago. She started every one of the teams’ 60 games over two years. Known for her unwavering defensive tenacity, she averaged 6.8 points per game during the past season. Many suitors came calling once she entered the portal, but ultimately, after a visit to Nebraska, the choice was clear. It came down to fit, culture and proximity to home.
“Definitely culture,” Krull said. “It’s something so valuable and when I took my visit I wanted to have a connection with my teammates. I follow Nebraska and Al (Allison Weidner) and the chemistry there is not faked. It’s real on and off the court, and that was important to me.
“Also, being close to home. Family is important and being 45 minutes away from home was a no-brainer.”
A strong family bond was mentioned several times during Krull’s interview with Huskers Illustrated. Krull grew up playing YMCA and early club basketball for her dad, Keven. The father-daughter combination continued with the Krush club team and her fifth-grade year with the Grizzlies, before they both joined the Nebraska Attack organization, which started when Maddie reached eighth grade.
“My dad is such a great advocate for girls basketball,” Krull said. “It’s fun to see him continue coaching. He can’t get away from it, he loves it so much. Our early years were … interesting. I kept thinking, ‘He yells at me the most, this sucks.’
“But I can’t take it for granted. I can talk basketball with my dad all the time. And my mom (Brenda) has been my biggest supporter. Both my mom and dad have always told me two things you control are your attitude and effort. They’ve both played such a big part in helping me become a leader.”
A self-described competitor, Krull hopes to bring that edge to NU, to learn from and push teammates to continue to achieve at a high level.
“I’m competitive, no matter what,” Krull said. “My teammates know I’m going to give it my all. I’m extremely excited to play with and learn from the returning players at Nebraska.” Zach Isherwood, Krull’s coach with Nebraska Attack, talked about her high motor and competitive nature.
“Maddie goes 100% in every practice, drill, game and shooting workout. Her constant energy makes everyone around her go harder. And not many kids have the ability to lead both by example and verbally, but Maddie does.”
Isherwood said those traits, along with playing against the nation’s top players on the summer circuit, have more than prepared Krull for the leap to a Power Five conference. Caitlin Clark (Iowa), Paige Bueckers (Connecticut) and Cameron Brink (Stanford) are a small sample of the many top-end players Krull and her Nebraska Attack teammates went toe-to-toe with over the years.
Weidner, who Krull played with in Krull’s final AAU season, is someone Krull is especially excited about being reunited with.
“That summer we played together on the circuit was kind of eye-opening,” Krull said. “To play against some of the best players in the country helped us so much. The sky’s the limit with Al, and I can’t even wait.”
And although Alexis Markowski played in the Nebraska Lasers AAU program, Krull knows what a force she can be.
“Alexis is a pain to play against. Let’s just say I’m excited to be on the same side as her. I’m excited to grow with them both.”
Success has followed wherever Krull has been. In her four seasons at Millard South, as a four-year starter, the Patriots went 99-13. However, a state title eluded the Patriots each year. And although Krull has regrets about not cutting down the nets in Lincoln, the close calls provided extra fuel and motivation.
“It makes my stomach turn just thinking about it,” Krull said. “But I realize now it was just part of my journey. Part of how I grew into the player I am today.”
Patriots coach Bryce Meyers calls Krull the consummate two-way player. One that can push pace on offense and lock opponents up on the defensive end.
“She can control the tempo of the game by herself,” Meyers said. “She sets the tone defensively with a tone of energy and pressure. Her leadership on and off the floor is what makes Maddie, Maddie. She is an absolute fierce competitor and off the floor is an absolute delight to be around. Her personality is contagious and so is her work ethic.” Meyers believes the match between Krull and Nebraska will be ideal.
“Maddie will fit in perfectly at Nebraska. From the outside looking in she seems to be exactly the kind of kid they are looking for in their program. She will compete for everything, not take anything for granted and do it with a smile on her face.”
Although Krull is ecstatic to be joining the Huskers, she took time to delightfully reflect on her two years in Vermillion.
“I was challenged immediately at USD. The coaches put me in tough positions with experienced players and without that I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in. In two years, I’ve grown a remarkable amount in terms of knowledge, skill and understanding the game. I’ll cherish everything about my time here and I’m so thankful. It’s bittersweet.”
Though reopening the recruiting process for a second time wasn’t originally in Krull’s plans, she credits the help of both Meyers and Isherwood for making it a seamless experience. Isherwood said he heard from more than 40 Division I schools within the first 36 hours of Krull joining the portal. The list included multiple schools ranked in the Top 10 in 2022.
“They both helped me navigate the portal and had faith in me,” Krull said. “They’ve always had faith in me and helped me believe I could do anything I put my mind to. “My parents are both from Hastings (Nebraska). Originally my goal was to work as hard as I could to get a scholarship to play at Hastings College. When this all started I didn’t know if any of this was possible.”
Needless to say, Krull has exceeded those original aspirations. And as she turns her attention to the future, she joins a Nebraska team that returns its entire starting five. She aims to add depth and help the Huskers move deeper into the tournament in 2023.
“I’m hoping this year I can learn from Sam (Haiby) and Jaz (Shelley). That they can teach me what it’s like to play at this level week to week. And I want to help the team win and be successful.
As far as topping this past season? Anything is possible.
“I hope we have an incredible season. Because I know it’ll be tough to beat last year.”
Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook entered the 2009 season having won 281 of his first 300 games – a ridiculous .937 winning percentage.
He had already won two national titles. At age 52, he had ascended to the pinnacle of his profession. But, inside, Cook knew he didn’t feel like you are supposed to feel when you reach the summit. Instead, even as his squad went 31-3 and reached the final four, Cook felt empty. He felt lost. He felt like a failure. “I thought I had it figured out and then it all came crashing down. I woke up one morning and the world was upside down … I was like, ‘There’s no more joy in this,'” Cook said.
For his entire career, Cook had been a fit, confident coach, husband and father.
Now he couldn’t sleep. He felt tired, anxious. His moods swung wildly.
He went to doctors. To specialists. To the Mayo Clinic. The white coats ran test after test on the living legend volleyball coach.
“After they ran all the tests they couldn’t find anything wrong,” Cook said. “It basically came down to stress.
“It’s one of those things where you hit bottom and you’ve got to make changes.”
What Cook now understands is that hinging happiness on winning or perfection can make you sick.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and a host of other changes have helped Cook, now 66, learn this and much else about his mental health. Now he’s willing to talk about what he’s learned – to his teams, to volleyball fans who revere him, to anyone who may be helped by hearing his story.
“At first I was very skeptical,” he said about therapy and the other changes. “But it worked.”
After Cook hit his self-described “bottom” in 2009, he began to work with nationally known cognitive behavioral therapy expert Debra Hope, a University of Nebraska–Lincoln psychology professor and now a University of Nebraska administrator.
They met weekly until Cook started to emerge from the depths.
“A lot of it is breathing, being aware of the signals your body’s sending and coming up with strategies on how to deal with it as opposed to letting those sensations get to you,” Cook said. “It’s a very natural, holistic way to work on the mind and the body.”
Seeking help also meant being vulnerable with people Cook had long admired. He sought counsel from his mentor, Husker football legend and then-Big Red Athletic Director Tom Osborne.
“I asked coach Osborne how he dealt with the stress of the job and he said, ‘John, I didn’t, I had a heart attack at 49,'” Cook said.
On Osborne’s recommendation, Cook started to meditate. He read a book the football legend recommended on stress, diet and the heart.
He started to pay attention to things he had rarely considered before – nutrition, sleep, recovery, breathing. “The little things matter,” Cook said. “You can’t just run yourself into the ground.”
He has to pay close attention to the little things, Cook now knows, because the stress of Nebraska volleyball isn’t ever going to go away.
Last year, for example, Nebraska was just short of the national title, falling to Wisconsin in the championship match. For almost any other program and any other coach in the country, that season would have been an unprecedented success.
For Nebraska: “We’re expected to win,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of pressure. … People just assume we’re going to be in the final four every year.
“Well, it’s hard to get to the final four. We feel that. That’s where I’ve had to take my ego out of it and realize it’s about Nebraska volleyball, the team, maxing out and those student-athletes having a great experience.” Now Cook has a game plan for the daily management of stress – a plan that doesn’t feel all that different than devising a strategy for a tough on-court opponent. He does yoga. Cook found a good yoga teacher who taught him breathing and mindfulness.
The book “Where You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn deeply resonated with Cook when he first read it. Now he uses it as a guidepost, referring back to it when he needs to.
He has improved his diet. He even gave up coffee. “My nervous system was fried from the caffeine.” This self-described “animal of routine” said he finds himself automatically meditating now in order to “calm my mind down.”
He sticks to a consistent exercise pattern. He tries to get consistent sleep.
“Those things all become more important in your life than whether you win or not,” he said.
Anxiety issues don’t only affect coaches. Cook now recognizes that his players obsess over winning, losing, roster spots, classes, tests, dating and everything else 18- to 22-year-olds juggle.
To help, he enlisted Ron Hruska from the Postural Restoration Institute in Lincoln to work with NU’s in-house performance team. Hruska guides athletes with posture, nutrition, sleep and stress management. Two psychiatrists and a retired Navy SEAL commander have helped the coaching staff understand this new generation of players – why their attention spans seem shorter, and what makes them tick.
A calm app on their iPhones now helps Nebraska volleyball players with meditation.
There were no phone apps when Cook went through his struggles. His meltdown coincided with the much publicized panic attack football coach Urban Meyer suffered in 2009.
“He was burned out.”
Cook understands how it happens. The endless hours, the intense pressure, the do-or-die attitude to be elite are part of an unforgiving syndrome.
“That’s why you’ve got to meditate – you’ve got to let your mind-body calm down, otherwise you’re on 90 miles an hour, 14-15 hours a day. That’s what happens in coaching.”
That grinder’s mentality builds winners. But, taken to the extreme, it turns counterproductive. “Coaching is like a drug,” said Cook, noting success breeds a hunger for more that can’t ever be fulfilled. “Eventually you reach a point where it’s hard to do any more.”
Like Osborne before him, Cook has learned to lean into the process without being so results-oriented. That isn’t easy, Cook said. But as he gets older, he finds himself not worrying as much about wins, losses, expectations or pleasing people.
That shift in thinking is why Cook thinks he’s enjoyed coaching his last few teams as much as he has. He now realizes: Finding that bliss is a choice. “Some of my best teams didn’t win conference or national championships but those teams maxed out, so you have to feel good about that,” he said. “You have to savor the good experiences.”
Along the way, Cook has learned to lessen his own load by trusting and delegating more, rather than trying to control everything. Bottom line, he thinks, coaches today must be masters of adaptation. “I had to make some major changes to survive in coaching,” he said. “I see, every day, coaches that don’t make those changes and don’t survive.”
Former NU volleyball coach Terry Pettit handpicked Cook as his successor and remains close to him. He agreed that in modern coaching – and in many aspects of modern life – you must adapt if you want to stay at or near the peak. “I don’t think John’s ever standing still,” Pettit said. “He’s a lifelong learner.” Power Five coaches aren’t the only Type A personalities and high achievers susceptible to burnout. Everyone from physicians to CEOs to student-athletes to fast food delivery drivers to telemarketers can struggle with performative stress. When the bar gets set too high, it often becomes a vicious all-or-nothing proposition. “The more I talked with people I found out most were not dealing with it very well,” Cook said. “This is a problem.” Cook and Paul Meyers, then-NU associate athletic director for development, organized a workshop on male burnout and stress for the school’s top donors. Experts from various fields presented.
Today Cook considers it one of his greatest moments in coaching.
The biggest takeaway, he said, is that in the midst of a crisis “you’ve got to take charge of it,” adding, “The key is do you stay with it or do you revert back. You’ve got to stay with the plan.” He shared much of what he’s learned in his book “Dream Like a Champion.”
Pettit admires Cook for sharing the work he’s done and the progress he’s made.
“Whatever John takes on, he makes a project of it,” Pettit said. “He researches it and then identifies the behaviors he thinks are applicable to him or to the program and then he goes with it.”
This work will always remain a work in progress for Cook, who has kept NU dominant since joining the Big Ten, adding two more national titles and selling out every home match.
The need to get away from the job’s external and internal noise led him to take up flying as a hobby.
He’s also gotten into horseback riding.
“You don’t think about volleyball perfectionism, are we going to win, who’s getting in trouble when you’re flying a plane or riding a horse,” Cook said.
Cook, who exudes a Zen master demeanor that can be mistaken for aloofness, is more at peace with himself than ever since finding joy in the journey of discovery. The more he removes distractions and attachments, this Big Lebowski of the Great Plains is fine with just being. The Volleyball Dude abides. The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.