Cook Delivers Title When Least Expected
Moos reveled in the fact that in 25 years of athletics administration, he’d never been part of a national championship.
Truth be told, very few expected Moos to celebrate his first this soon, but hey, if any sport would deliver a surprise, leave it to Cook and his Nebraska volleyball program.
Remember in October, when Moos joined Nebraska, and he told Cook, his staff and his players that they’re the “poster child” for what he wants every program to become at Nebraska?
Yeah, this is why.
Not just because of the confetti that fell and littered the Sprint Center floor, or because of the big NCAA national championship trophy players hoisted before cutting down the net, or because of the big Gatorade bucket full of ice and water that players dumped on Cook.
Moos also wants the source, the behind-the-scenes stuff, of this celebration of a 25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16 Nebraska triumph over Florida on Saturday night that produced the program’s fifth national championship, and second in two seasons.
“I’m so thrilled for John,” Moos said. “Good teams are a product of good, stable programs, and that’s what he has.”
So even in an “off” season, when most figured Nebraska would be rebuilding after losing three All-Americans, Cook can produce a championship product.
Some of it is his system. Much of it is his culture. All of it is players believing.
You know that team slogan, “With Each Other, For Each Other?” Nebraska players thought it, believed it and bought in. Even Cook – always optimistic, always encouraging -- was taken aback by this particular power of belief.
“I think it's the most powerful thing,” Cook said in his postgame news conference. “I told you guys this, the day they presented that, it was one of the greatest coaching moments of my life and coaching career, seeing what they came up with, what they wanted to be about. It was a reinvent of our program.”
Another slogan spawned off that – “Why Not Us?”
Uh, good question.
“It’s just embracing what they wanted to do as a group, and they lived it every day,” Cook said. “So it’s just the power of belief and commitment and really wanting to do something and maxing out their talent.
“This team maxed out everything they have. Everything.”
When Cook took the public address microphone and addressed the Nebraska fans who remained for the post game celebration, he mentioned those two slogans, and received loud cheers.
“We played great team volleyball,” Cook told the fans. “We’re very tough as a team because we have a whole team fighting for each other, and I think that’s our edge in being able to win a national championship.”
Cook also remembers when Kansas City was named the host of the 2017 Final Four, and fans telling him immediately they were buying their tickets in anticipation of Nebraska advancing and playing in an arena only 3 hours from home.
“Well, we got here,” Cook told the crowd. “And you guys were here with us. There is no place like Nebraska!”
That was evident by Husker fans again making the majority of the sellout crowd of 18,516, an NCAA record for volleyball.
“From afar, I thought it was just for football,” Moos said of Nebraska fans’ support, “but this volleyball thing is off the charts.”
Cook’s program is an easy one for which to root, especially this season, when Nebraska had to replace three All-Americans from last year’s Final Four team. The senior class featured a transfer in Briana Holman, two walk-ons in Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend, and a fifth-year player in setter Kelly Hunter.
“The word I keep coming up with is ‘unbelievable,’ ” Cook said. “They were never a ranked recruiting class. And look at what they’ve done.”
Cook wanted to redshirt Hunter so she could have a season just like this – a season apart from the other stud instate recruits that helped Nebraska to a national championship in 2015 before falling short in last year’s national semifinals.
“I didn’t know if we could do this,” Cook said, “but I knew she could really blossom as a player and a leader. She did it. Still hard to believe.”
Hunter, named co-Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament, along with teammate Mikaela Foecke, finished her career 16-1 as a starter in NCAA Tournament matches.
“Team chemistry took us farther than any other team,” Hunter said, “and it’s just because we have genuine love and care for each other and good communication out on the court.”
Hunter missed the first two matches of the season, both Nebraska losses. One of them was to Florida, in five games.
With or without Hunter, these Huskers were still trying to figure out who they were as a team.
“Throughout the season, we found our stride, we found out who we were as a group,” Hunter said. “We’ve accomplished so much this year, and a lot of people doubted us, and at points we doubted ourselves. But we proved everyone wrong, and we showed the entire country what kind of team we are and the fight and heart that we have.”
Holman, meanwhile, experienced an emotional, exhilarating day that began with her graduation and ended in a national championship. Of course, Holman was unable to attend Saturday’s commencement in Lincoln, so Cook arranged to have a feed of the ceremony played on the video board at the end of Nebraska’s practice.
Cook said teammates cried as they all gave Holman a hug.
“It feels amazing,” Holman said. “It’s a long journey to get to this point, and I’m the first in my immediate family to graduate from college.”
As for the match itself, Nebraska controlled the first two games from start to finish, although it had to bounce back from a low hitting percentage in game one.
“I think we just kind of settled in,” said Foecke, who led Nebraska with 20 kills, including one to end each of Nebraska’s three winning games. “It’s the first set of the national championship. You’re obviously going to have some jitters, and you’re going to want to pound every single ball.
“Obviously, they had a huge block, and Florida sets up a great block every single time. So the second set, I think Kelly was just putting us in great spots and we were using the block more and using more shots.”
Florida, playing in its second national title match, regrouped for game three, when the Huskers had trouble passing. But Nebraska bolted to a 6-1 lead in the fourth game, with the pro-Nebraska crowd sensing victory with each point after the lead ballooned to 20-13.
Hunter had a perfectly-placed dump set for a kill to get the Huskers to match point, before Foecke delivered the final kill.
The Huskers hit .234 in the match, held Florida to a season-low .141 hitting percentage and out-dug the Gators, 65-49.
“You saw a team play great team volleyball,” Cook said. “I saw coach (Terry) Pettit had an article called “old-school volleyball.” It was serve, block, dig, and try not to make errors on offense and get a few side-outs.
“And you saw our serve-blocking defense really frustrated Florida today. That’s what this team has been built on all year. They’ve embraced it, and they’ve had unbelievable leadership from the senior class.”
With an assist from Cook, who delivered his new athletic director his first national title when least expected.
“I’ve had so much fun this year,” Cook said. “I’ve had a blast. It’s been so much fun coaching.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.