The summer is blowing by and we are just three weeks away from the Tuesday of the first week of the 2018 Women’s NCAA Division I season (with matches starting later in that week). To countdown the final five weeks, we are previewing each of the top five teams in our Way-Too-Early 2018 VolleyMob Top 25 Power Rankings. To kick things off we talked with Heather Olmstead about #5 BYU two weeks ago then to Kelly Sheffield about #4 Wisconsin last week. Today, we catch up with Nebraska head coach John Cook (the podcast version is also available here).
- #5 BYU (with Heather Olmstead) here
- #4 Wisconsin (with Kelly Sheffield) here:
- #3 Nebraska (with John Cook) below:
Q: You win the National Championship last year for the second time in three seasons but now you go into a season losing a ton from that team. What’s been the biggest challenges for you in the offseason?
A: We have a big freshman class – so getting them acclimated. We’re going to have some positions that are open, so developing people to be ready to step into those positions or creating competition over the summer for them to compete and see who wants to be on the court. There’s opportunity and acclimating everybody to Nebraska volleyball, that’s pretty much a challenge every year that we have, it just depends how big the group is.
Q: Is replacing Kelly Hunter’s leadership something that an individual takes on or the whole team?
A: I’ve asked a lot from Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, who are our two seniors, and we actually have no juniors and everybody else are sophomores or freshmen. Whether they want it or not, they have a pretty big load leadership wise that they’re going to have to carry and establish. I think they’ve really embraced the opportunity and have done a great job from what I hear. They’ve had some great mentoring in their first three years here at Nebraska, so I think they’re pretty fired up.
Q: In terms of the setter spot, was that early stint last year where Kelly was hurt – even though it was a setter who isn’t with the program anymore – helpful experience for you guys in playing without her?
A: I don’t know if it was important but I think it reinforced to our team that we’re going to have a young setter so we’ve got to play really good volleyball and play really well as a team. If anything I think it established the mindset of how we would have to be successful – what we would have to do – knowing we had a first year setter and we’re going to have a first year setter this year as well.
Q: Mikaela Foecke has had such a strong collegiate career already. Heading into her senior season what has she been working on in the offseason to raise that to even the next level?
A: The biggest thing for her, besides the leadership part, is continuing to work with our strength coach and nutritionist to get in great shape and develop her body in that way. When you’re already at a high level the improvements are in little increments. I tell them if you’re winning Olympic medals in the 100 yard dash to do it next year you might have to be a hundredth of a second faster.
So she’s got to find little ways to improve her body and becoming and developing as a passer. Last year was her first year passing and she will probably have a bigger passing load this year. She’s got to continue getting comfortable with that because she was not a passer growing up, she was a middle blocker who we converted.
Q: Jazz Sweet and Lauren Stivrins were really impressive as freshman en route to your team’s long journey. What’s been the development like for them heading into year two?
A: With Lauren, she was kind of a late bloomer in her development, so getting stronger, faster, jumping higher – she’s already jumped higher than she ever has here – is one part of it. The second part is she will be our veteran middle and she’s only played here one year. She’s got to be the leader of those middles and we’re slowly planting seeds for six months from now to be a leader in this program.
Q: And what about Jazz Sweet? Could she be primed for a breakout season in 2018?
A: I hope so, that’s what we talked about. She’s pretty motivated. She wants to be a six rotation player so she’s working really hard on that. We think she can kill balls out of the back row; not many teams have a lefty over there that can run with a true international system where you’ve got somebody coming down the middle to hit out of the back row but also the right side.
She’s working really hard. You’ve got to keep in mind she didn’t play at a big, elite club. She played at a small club out of Topeka. She hasn’t had all that much experience. But our goal is to have her be a six rotation player and hopefully it’s this year.
Q: You made a huge splash in the offseason by bringing on Texas transfer Lexi Sun. What kind of impact is she going to bring?
A: Lexi obviously has a year of experience playing in a great program and she’s had to deal with big expectations growing up. I’m not in the gym with them yet, I just know she fits in great here. She’s a fun kid working camps, she’s just a really up beat personality and I think the team all gets along well. So it seems like she’s fitting in great but we will have to work that out once we get into two-a-days and kind of sort through that.
Q: Per usual, some highly touted freshman step onto the scene in Lincoln now. Who are some of those newcomers to keep an eye on?
A: I told all of those freshman that they’ve got a chance to play as freshman. If they want to play here they might as well start right now – so that was the message sent to them back in June when they got here. We’ve got a lot of open positions due to graduation. All of them are talented enough to play and find a role for them somewhere, so it just depends how they’re going to handle it once school starts and once we start competing in the gym with some of these older players who are National Champions. But you never know how they respond until we actually get in there and do it.
We’re counting on them to have a big contribution because they are literally a third of our team. You throw in Lexi and almost half of our team is new, so we’ve got some work to do to get up to speed and get everybody going on the same page. But we challenged them over the summer to get a head start on that with our older players mentoring our younger players, so we will see when we start on August 8.
Q: At what point do you usually get a good sense of a freshman that’s going to be able to contribute right away?
A: Not until the bullets fly. Everybody’s great in the summer and hanging out and working camps. Once the bullets fly, we start keeping score and putting them in tough situations that’s when you find out who can handle it and who can handle the day-to-day grind as well. It’s a whole different adjustment for these guys coming out of high school – training hard everyday and school at the pace we go at.
I don’t know when that date happens but I do like this freshman class – and I wouldn’t tell them that if I didn’t believe it. So we want them with a mindset that they can help this team this year.
Q: What about some other players who could be ready for a breakout campaign in 2018? When do you get a sense that a player the next season is going to be a lot different than in previous seasons?
A: I get that sense from almost everyone on our team because of the spring – we play beach so you see some really impressive changes because it’s way out of most of their comfort zone. I see how hard they work and how much they improve and I think they take that mindset.
[Outside hitter] Sami Slaughter had a really good spring, [outside hitter] Anezka Szabo is really improved. Jazz, Anezka and Sam all come from small towns and club programs, so they’re not on the center stage. They tend to develop a little bit later, but I’ve seen huge progress from them over the year mainly based on beach and our short spring season that we did. Of course, you can see their bodies change just being one year in Husker power.
Q: What do you foresee as being the biggest positional battles?
A: The setter spot, with Kelly’s graduation. The middle blocker spot – there’s going to be a freshman or first year player there. Our outside hitter position/left side – I think you have to have three left side hitters ready to play and playing a lot. And then I think the other big spot will be a DS type player, an Annika Albrecht type player before she became a six-rotation; somebody coming in the back row playing three rotations – Sydney Townsend was huge for us last year – and trying to develop that depending on which outsides play all the way around.
I really see those as the key positions – the DS, the middle, the setter and the third outside. So those are the focal points in two-a-days: developing those spots and creating competition there.
Q: What would you say your team’s biggest strength coming into 2018 will be?
A: I don’t know. Half our team is new, so I don’t know. That’s a really good question. We’ve got some arms, we’ve got some experience. I hope it’s serve and pass – I told them the best servers and passers are playing. That’s where we start every year and go from there.
Q: Last year you talked about over the course of the season how much fun you had coaching. Is it refreshing to get to coach a team that’s this young?
A: Definitely. I love developing talent, love developing teams and building teams. The years that are the least amount of fun are the ones where you return everybody and you’re expected to win it all; I think that grinds on people, it grinds on me. I love teaching, molding, building and developing. I think that gives me personally great energy in coaching and developing a team to see what we can do.
Q: The Big Ten should be stacked once again. How much of a grind is conference play and what makes it so difficult to master for younger teams?
A: You call it stacked, I call it brutal. Every week you’re playing great teams. The mindset we have to create for our younger players is you can’t cruise into a match. You can’t think we’ve got these guys. There’s no easy night in the Big Ten. As the Navy SEALs say, the only easy day was yesterday. So that’s what we’re going to instill in this new group that we have, because in the Big Ten if you take a night off you’re going to get beat. You’ve got to be ready to give max effort every night and expect a great match from whoever you’re playing.