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When John Cook lost a ping pong match in high school, Nebraska’s head volleyball coach threw his paddle so hard across the table trying to hit his brother that it knifed cleanly into the wall and stuck there. “I was in 10th grade, and my dad was about ready to kill me,” Cook recalled.

“My sister will tell you I wasn’t a joy to be around either when we were growing up,” admitted Erik Sullivan, who coaches Nebraska’s middle blockers. “My wife is as competitive as I am, but I’m mature enough to know that our marriage is more important than beating her in some board game.”

Lizzy Stemke, who coaches Nebraska’s setters, relishes competition of all kinds. “Our family is full of athletes, and we all married other athletes who kept competing after college,” she said. “For us, summer vacation is like a mini-Olympics.  When we go to my brother’s beach house in North Carolina, we play shuffleboard, tennis, volleyball, badminton, pool, ping pong . . . you name it – we play it.”

And play it full bore – just like the fourth-ranked Nebraska volleyball team that makes its 15th straight NCAA Regional appearance this weekend in Seattle. The Huskers, seeking to qualify for their 11th National Semifinal Dec. 18-20 in Omaha, have an ultracompetitive coaching staff.

Stemke started three years as Wisconsin’s setter. She was a two-time AVCA All-American and a U.S. National Team Member. As the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year, she led the Badgers to an NCAA runner-up finish behind national champion Nebraska (in 2000). After playing two years with the national team, she played two years professionally, earning MVP of the Puerto Rican League and then competing in the Pro A League in France.

From All-American and Olympian to Nebraska Assistant Coach

Sullivan’s playing resume also glitters. Once named “The Best Defensive Player in the World” at the 1998 World Championships in Japan, he played eight years with the U.S. National Team. He started at libero for Team USA at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and was co-captain of Team USA at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Before shining on the world stage, he led UCLA to a pair of national volleyball championships and twice was named second-team AVCA All-American.

Before becoming a coach, Cook, a University of San Diego graduate, played beach volleyball on the West Coast in the 1970s. Apparently, he was good, but not as good as his wife, Wendy, who was a two-time All-America setter at San Diego State. Their daughter, Lauren, 17, is also a setter who made a tough decision last month to sign a national letter of intent with UCLA. “We wanted it to be her choice,” Cook said. “She decided to go and play where we did – in southern California. She has our full support.”

Fathers and mothers, no matter how competitive they are, know when it’s right to push, and when it makes sense to back off. Such wisdom is the result of understanding the stresses of coaching and competing at the highest levels. Cook helped coach the U.S. men’s volleyball team to a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. In his nine years as head coach at Nebraska, he has a .939 winning percentage, and his Huskers have won two national championships and eight Big 12 titles.

“I’m ultracompetitive, but the longer I coach, the more I see how you can get a player too uptight,” Cook said. “I’ve tried to mellow and be more compassionate, more loving and more supportive. There are times I have a hard time with that, but we all try to be what a player really needs on a daily basis. We’re talking about being balanced as well as being aggressive.”

The most aggressive player on the Husker team has benefitted from a more balanced approach. Jordan Larson, the 2008 Big 12 Player of the Year, grew up like Cook did – wanting to beat everybody in anything. “My dad wanted me to be a basketball player because he was the coach (at Logan View High School in Hooper, Neb.),” she recalled. “My parents were both athletic. I grew up competitive. Whenever we play a game of (electronic) Wii, I have to get there first. I can’t lose. I hate to lose. It’s a constant battle.”

Fortunately, Larson never threw a ping pong paddle into a wall. But she can understand how it can happen to someone who breathes such competitive fire, but only wants one thing – to be the best. 

Year-Round Approach Gives Huskers the Winning Edge

“Winning another Big 12 championship after losing four All-Americans, we’ve proven a lot of people wrong this year,” Larson said. “I think it goes back to a lot of things – our work ethic, our dedication and having the best coaching staff in volleyball. Those coaches have all had great experiences playing the game, and they really balance each other out teaching us how to play the game. They want to be successful, and so do we. That’s why we stay here in the summer and condition every day. We take classes. We work hard, year-round. We try never to lose our edge.”

Larson is a classic example of a recruit who came to Nebraska as a great athlete and got better every year in the program. Her abundance of awards and accomplishments never triggered complacency. They simply drove her to achieve more, and here’s the best news about that – the accelerated push came more in the classroom than it did on the court.

“Jordan didn’t view herself as a high-achieving scholar-athlete when she first got here,” Cook pointed out. “But when she saw how hard everyone else was competing in the classroom, she did, too. And now, she’s one of three Academic All-Americans on this team (along with middle blockers Amanda Gates and Kori Cooper).”

Cook, who coaches the outside hitters, has guided Nebraska’s program with a Terry Pettit and Tom Osborne-like model of consistency and excellence. The Huskers have an NCAA record-tying 87 straight home wins and 120 consecutive sellout crowds. Larson, Gates and fellow senior Rachel Schwartz finished last weekend with a 72-0 career record at home – the first class in a storied program’s history never to lose a home match. In addition, Nebraska is the only volleyball program to reach the Round of 16 every year since the NCAA introduced its current 64-team bracket in 1998.

“It’s Nebraska and represents the culture we live in,” Cook said. “No one works harder than a Nebraska farmer, and no one works harder than the young women who come here to play volleyball. Jordan, Amanda and Rachel are all Nebraskans, and all three represent the state well. They’re typical Nebraska role models, and the reason I love coaching here. They come here knowing the value of hard work, and they’re fully ready to be coached. That’s why so many become such complete student-athletes.”

‘After I Help Pull the Calf Out, I’ll Be at Practice, Coach’

One of Cook’s all-time favorite stories is Lindsay (Wischmeier) Peterson, who came to Nebraska from tiny Burchard, Neb. Now Nebraska’s director of volleyball operations, Peterson once called Cook and told him she’d be late to practice that day. “I asked her why, and she told me she had to help her dad pull a calf out of a cow,” Cook related. “That’s what I’m talking about here. Dedicated kid, comes here as a setter, starts as a defensive specialist on our national championship team (that beat Stemke’s Wisconsin team in 2000), and finishes as our first libero and a captain who makes the Big 12 Academic Team for six straight semesters.”

Cook, Sullivan, Stemke and Peterson all say that hard-working perfectionists seem to be attracted to Nebraska’s program. Just as Larson works to match Cook’s competitiveness, Gates rises to meet Sullivan’s expectations, and sophomore setter Sydney Anderson has responded in championship style to Stemke’s coaching.

“Coach Sullivan is so competitive it’s unreal,” Gates said. “When he plays with us, he doesn’t let anything drop. He’s always thinking about the next thing to make us better, even if it’s a little thing that gives us another inch on a block. To him, every little detail counts. He’s been through it, so he knows what it takes to be great. He also knows how to get through it when you’re not having your best day. I’ve enjoyed his coaching style. His passion is contagious, and he’s somebody you just want to play for.”

A highly technical coach, Sullivan knows the game and how to read what the other team’s doing. “Amanda has that competitive drive and a great head on her shoulders,” he said. “She can analyze things very well. She’s very coachable, and you only have to tell her something once. She’s thinking about the game constantly and ready to make a change on the next play.”

The catalyst of Nebraska’s aggressive offense, Anderson grew up with parents who preached never to settle for anything less than your best. “I’m always striving to be No. 1,” she said. “I know Coach Stemke was like that as a player, too, but she really expresses herself well as a coach. She opened her arms to me when I came in here and didn’t know anyone. She’d talk to me after every set and every ball. She lets me know when I do it right – not just when I do it wrong. I’m open and always trying to learn new things and adapt. That matches up well with her coaching style. She’s demanding, but effective . . . even lovable – almost a mom kind of figure. You can tell her anything. All she wants is the best for you every day.”

This Group of Brothers and Sisters Lives for Competition

Striving to be the best is the only approach Stemke knows how to take. Her dad, Billy Fitzgerald, played baseball and basketball at Tulane and is in the school’s Hall of Fame.  Older brother, Edmond, played basketball at Ole Miss, and older sister, Meg, played volleyball at Florida. Younger brother, Robert, played baseball at Tennessee, and husband, Kevin (“Rocket Shoe”) Stemke, punted two years for the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams after competing at Wisconsin.

That’s why Fitzgerald family vacations are so competitive. “But they’re a lot of fun, too,” Stemke said.

“Growing up, we all fed off of each other competitively,” she pointed out. “And that’s kind of how it is here, coaching at Nebraska. John played beach volleyball. Erik played in the Olympics, and I played overseas. We’ve all done different things, so whoever we recruit and whatever they might want to do after college, we’ve been there. I think our players appreciate how competitive we all are and yet respect us for being able to channel our most basic nature.”