By Lincoln Arneal
Earlier this year, the Nebraska volleyball team walked into the gym and was greeted by Jordan Larson.
What was this volleyball great doing in their gym? Meet your new assistant coach, NU head coach John Cook told them.
The Huskers responded with excitement, some with disbelief, and others moved to tears at the thought of getting to work with the former Nebraska All-American, national champion and three-time Olympic medalist.
Junior opposite Merritt Beason said she’s seen how much the setters have benefited from having All-American setter Kelly Hunter in the gym as an assistant coach, and having another former Husker will help them have someone they can relate to.
“I think it was just very much like the reaction that you would expect – jaws on the floor, just so excited,” Beason said. “It’s a great opportunity to be coached by her, and it’s really special because she was in our shoes. I think it’s going to be really fun in the fall.”
Cook has talked to Larson about coaching at Nebraska for several years, but it wasn’t until the new NCAA rule to allow for a third coach and Larson’s career timing that made the move possible. Even though Larson will continue to play with the United States National Team this fall and hopes to participate in the Olympics next year, Cook was willing to be flexible to get her on the sidelines.
According to the Lincoln Journal Star, Larson will officially start full-time on Sept. 27, after the Olympic qualifying tournament ends. Her contract ends Dec. 31, 2023, but can be extended. She will receive a salary of $50,000.
Even though her schedule is unpredictable for the next few months, Cook thinks Larson can still be a valuable asset. She can coach from a distance through VolleyMetrics, which allows her to share clips and break down film.
Larson has already been utilized in recruiting by participating in several calls to prospects. Cook said they were stunned by talking to one of the greatest players in the world.
While her play on the court is impressive, Cook said Larson could teach the Huskers about her mindset and how to approach the mental side of the game.
“It’d be like if a football team had Tom Brady out there or Michael Jordan is hanging out with our basketball team and helping those guys,” he said. “She has a different presence and a different feel and a different look in how she sees things. She’s a great communicator. She’s going to be a great coach.”
Larson already developed relationships with some players while training with them last fall in preparation for a return to professional volleyball in Italy.
Junior libero Lexi Rodriguez said having Larson in the gym was educational, even for a short time.
“She had such an impact even just getting to watch her play,” Rodriguez said. “She didn’t always have to say anything but just getting to watch how she plays and watching how she presents herself. I think everyone from last year’s team learned a lot from her.”
Cook said he’s excited to have Larson return to help build the next generation of volleyball players. He sensed she was ready to settle down after a tumultuous year in 2022. After traveling the world for years, he noticed she felt comfortable and happy in Lincoln and knew it was time to move into coaching. To Cook, that is the best part of his job.
“The greatest reward of coaching for me – I love to win and love to do all that – but the greatest reward is when I see our players can go into coaching or come back here and coach,” he said. “That is the validation for everything that I tried to do in coaching. That validates for me that we’re doing the right things. They want to come back and be a part of this and put up with me.”
SETTER NOT SETTLED — Cook said he’s nowhere close to deciding on a starting setter.
Freshman Bergen Reilly appeared in four matches on the Brazil trip, while junior Kennedi Orr played in three. Cook said every match and practice was graded during the spring, and the numbers say the two are dead even.
“We communicated to them that no decisions have been made,” he said. “They’re gonna have to keep battling it out. So both of them did really, really well. I couldn’t tell you, if we were starting tomorrow, who would be starting.”
Rodriguez said she’d seen a lot of growth from Orr during the last two years dealing with injuries and overcoming adversity while helping Reilly adjust to the college game.
“I think she’s done a great job of just welcoming Bergen,” Rodriguez said about Orr. “It’s really good to see just that, no matter if she’s the one playing or not, she’s always going to be the loudest cheerer and the one who’s encouraging everyone.”
On Wednesday’s edition of the radio show “Sports Nightly,” Lauren Cook West said she’s been impressed with how Reilly has played this spring. The former Nebraska All-American setter said Reilly is smooth and does a great job getting her hitters in one-on-one situations against the defense.
While Reilly might not be as fiery as former NU setter Nicklin Hames, she still plays passionately and remains calm during matches while playing aggressively. The 6-foot-1 freshman is also a weapon in the front row and is not afraid to go on the attack.
“She has a really high volleyball IQ,” Cook West said. “She knows where to set the ball and when to set the ball.”
MENDELSON HOOPS IT UP — Sophomore middle blocker Maggie Mendelson will continue lifting weights with the volleyball team but will begin training with the Husker basketball team next month.
The women’s basketball team is preparing for its quadrennial foreign trip later this summer, but Mendelson will not travel with them.
This is the first off-season workout program she will go through. Last year, she played with the U19 junior national team in June before coming to Nebraska to practice with the basketball team.
BEASON GLAD TO BE PART OF RECORD — When Merritt Beason elected to transfer from Florida, she knew how big volleyball was in the state of Nebraska, but the last few months have far exceeded her expectations.
She’s played a few hours from her hometown in Alabama during the beach season, spent a week in Hawaii during spring break, played in a sold-out spring match in Central City, went on a trip to Brazil and learned she’d be coached by one of the best to play the game.
She said all those opportunities drew her to Nebraska, and she’s enjoying every moment and excited to be in the middle of it all. She’s most excited to play in front of more than 90,000 people in Memorial Stadium.
“It just kind of blows my mind because you grow up wanting to be a part of that, and so it’s very special,” she said. “Actually being able to be someone who’s going to play in that match that will probably hold the record until we get to tell our daughters that we hold that record. So I think it’s super cool being on the flip side of it now and not being the little girl that was like, ‘I want to be that one day.’ It’s very surreal, for sure.”