By Lincoln Arneal
For an Iowa native who spent most of her adult life living in Nebraska, Kayla Banwarth now feels comfortable living in the South.
The Ole Miss coach said Oxford, Mississippi, feels like home because it reminds her of Lincoln, where the whole community rallies around the university and has a centralized social scene.
Now, she has fully embraced the Southern charm.
“ ‘Y’all’ has settled into my vocabulary quite nicely,” Banwarth said. “I’ll text it, and I’ll be like, ‘All right.’ I stopped fighting it a while ago.”
Banwarth, a former player and assistant coach at Nebraska will return to her old stomping grounds this weekend with a pair of matches in the Devaney Center. Ole Miss faces Loyola Marymount on Friday at 6 p.m. in a match with free admission before taking on the second-ranked Huskers Saturday at 7 p.m.
Nebraska coach John Cook likes to welcome former assistants back to Devaney. He enjoys seeing people who used to be part of the program return and try to knock off the Huskers.
“It’s pretty cool to see what our program has produced not only player-wise but coaching-wise, so we’re pretty proud of that,” Cook said. “Sometimes I think I’m not the best person to work for, but I push them and try to get them to get better and challenge them in other ways besides just being a coach. I think part of my responsibilities is to develop coaches.”
Banwarth started her coaching career in 2015 as a volunteer assistant with the Pepperdine men’s team. At the same time, she made the USA national team for the 2016 Olympics, where the Americans captured the bronze medal.
The following year, Cook brought her back to the Huskers as a full-time assistant. When he first hired Banwarth, she had to sell him on her coaching prospects. Cook said she had a lot of confidence, knew the program and had some coaching experience.
“We just thought let’s go for it and see what happens,” Cook said. “She was just coming off the Olympics when we hired her. I wanted to get a former player back here and she was available.”
However, he wasn’t convinced she’d ever be a head coach. During the first year with the Huskers, Cook had to prod Banwarth at times to speak up and share her thoughts. Although he might have been hard on her at times, Cook said he’s proud of what she’s accomplished at Ole Miss and called the turnaround one of the most impressive coaching jobs he has seen.
The weekend will also be a homecoming for Mississippi assistant Bre Henry, a graduate manager at Nebraska in 2017-18.
Banwarth said they talked about where to take their team to show off their old hometown, but with a home football game on Saturday, the crowds limited their options.
But Banwarth shouldn’t be in Lincoln this weekend by her own account.
After taking over an Ole Miss program that hadn’t been to the NCAA or finished with a winning conference record since 2010, Banwarth faced a significant rebuilding project.
Then, things got worse. The Rebels went 1-19 in her first year against an all-SEC schedule during the strange pandemic season. However, the former Nebraska player and assistant coach made major strides in the second season, and Banwarth thought they were ready for a bigger challenge.
“I was not anticipating us to be ready to play a team like Nebraska anytime soon and to be in a place where I feel like we can at least come up and compete with that kind of team and maybe challenge them and surprise them a little bit. It is definitely way ahead of where I thought we would be in Year 3.”
The Rebels qualified for the NCAA tournament for the fourth time, but just like the previous three postseason trips, their stay ended in the first round with a loss.
Ole Miss went undefeated in nonconference play last season but lost four of its first five conference matches. Banwarth said they weren’t ready for the competition they’d face weekly in the SEC.
This year, Banwarth went about rectifying that. Ole Miss hosted No. 9 Georgia Tech and No. 17 Illinois during the season’s opening weekend. Despite going 0-2 in the first weekend, Banwarth said the level of competition would help Ole Miss reach the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“We have to go and play the big dog,” Banwarth said. “We have to go and play teams that are going to challenge us and get us better.”
Because most of her volleyball experience happened at Nebraska, Banwarth doesn’t have much experience with rebuilding programs. She admitted she’d made a few mistakes but learned a lot through trial and error.
When she took over, Banwarth was surprised by how little of being head coach actually involved coaching. She’s spent more of her time managing people and doing behind-the-scenes work. The most important part of turning the Rebels around was building a team culture based on respect and kindness. The other values are reflected in her personality of competitiveness, discipline and hard work. They also talk about communication, being a good teammate and building a family atmosphere.
“We’re gonna take really good care of each other off the court,” Banwarth said. “On the court, at the same time, we’re gonna bust and work really hard in the gym.
Banwarth is also getting investment in the program from Ole Miss. She’s seen progress in little things like chartering a flight to Lincoln for the matches. The university has committed to her each season and the results are starting to show.
While the turnaround at Ole Miss is impressive, Banwarth said she thinks about her unlikely journey from being a walk-on setter to a libero in the Olympics to being a head coach in her early 30s. She tries not to take anything for granted in her journey and is thankful for all the people who have helped her reach this point in her career.
“It hits me like, ‘Holy cow, I’m already a coach in a Power Five conference.’ It’s pretty cool,” Banwarth said. “I don’t accomplish this without having worked for Coach Cook and playing for Coach Cook, having learned from the coaches I have worked with and having the people around me that I’ve had around like my staff right now – I love my staff.
“The people that have worked with me in the past – there are so many people that are special to me that went into me being where I’m at right now. So it hits me that I’m a head coach and then I just really feel gratitude for all those people.”