Success and failure work on a fine line from each other, but when you’ve fallen short a few times too many you start to look up at the top and take notice of what needs to be done.
For Nebraska, that happened in 2014. They were coming off of a third consecutive Regional Final loss while Big Ten conference comrade Penn State had just won their second straight NCAA Championship – and sixth in eight years. That’s what caused Nebraska head coach John Cook to take a look at the program and think of a list of improvements needed to match up with the pinnacle team in the sport: Penn State.
“You know, to be honest with you what started the list was I saw what Penn State did and the run they had, and pretty much every decision we made was how are we going to beat Penn State,” Cook said. “That’s who set the bar in the Big Ten Conference, and that’s how we look at things. So that list reflected the things that we would have to do to be able to beat Penn State.”
Sure enough, Nebraska downed Penn State twice this year, including in the National Semifinals. It also gives them seven consecutive victories over the Nittany Lions.
Sometimes the desire to take out the top dog combined with shortcomings is what sparks something special. For a head coach like Cook with a strong work ethic and at a program giant like Nebraska, those aspects all came together to begin this three year run by the Huskers featuring a trio of Final Fours, two Big Ten Titles and a pair of National Championships.
“One thing we decided was serve, block, and defense had to be a priority,” Cook added. “If you look at the stats of Penn State over the years, they were the best defensive team. So if you look at the last two years we won the Big Ten, we’ve been the number one defensive team in the conference.”
Having all-everything libero Justine Wong-Orantes helped in that regard in 2015 and 2016, but this year it was all about a defensive and gritty mentality for the Huskers on the defensive end. At this point, it seems as if success on that end has become a mindset ingrained in Nebraska’s volleyball culture that extends beyond just the defensive side of things.
“I didn’t know I was going to lose a whole coaching staff and all that, but I think building a culture, we already had a good culture, but how would we take it to another level,” Cook said. “I built this performance team that I’ve surrounded our team with, myself and our players. You saw the hug at the end, and they all came down there. But we have a performance team that helps us be the best we can be in every aspect of our program. You hear a lot of coaches say the details, the small things matter. Every little thing matters in our program.”
Cook added: “The great thing about Nebraska, you have the support to do that, and they give you the support to get those people on board, and they deserve a lot of credit for what we’ve accomplished the last three years.”
It’s the beauty of sports. You’re faced with adversity and you have to figure things out. There’s no perfect answer or one way of doing it, but Nebraska found their success by shooting for a team with one of the best runs in volleyball history. So far, they’ve done more than surpass their aspirations by winning seven straight over Penn State and winning the National Championship this season for the second time in three seasons.