The following is from Brandon Vogel, co-author of Dream Like a Champion: Wins, Losses, and Leadership the Nebraska Volleyball Way with John Cook (Nebraska, 2017). Vogel is the managing editor of Hail Varsity magazine and has covered University of Nebraska athletics since 2011. His sportswriting has been featured by FoxSports.com, the Guardian, and CBSSports.com.
Nebraska is headed back to the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament for the thirty-sixth consecutive season. It’s the Cornhuskers’ eighteenth straight appearance under coach John Cook. The surprise isn’t that the Huskers are playing December again as one of the top seeds in the tournament, but rather how Nebraska got there in 2017.
Last fall as Coach Cook and I worked on Dream Like a Champion, Nebraska was in the middle of perhaps the most stressful sort of season. Nebraska returned almost every major piece from its 2015 national championship team. It had four of the best players in the country, impact transfers, and opened the season as the top-ranked team in the nation. The expectation for the Huskers to repeat as national champions was there when we began work on the book in August and remained until Nebraska fell a game short of doing it in late December, losing in the NCAA semifinal to Texas. We were just a few weeks away from deadline day.
The 2017 team presented an entirely different challenge. Three All-Americans had graduated, and there were seven true or redshirt freshmen on the roster. Coach Cook’s two assistant coaches left for their own head coaching positions. Nebraska’s status as a volleyball power still kept it pretty high in the preseason rankings, but there were a lot of questions to answer.
As Dream Like a Champion moved to edits in the winter and early spring, I started to notice something with Coach Cook. He was energized by the uncertainty. The 2017 season was going to be a big challenge compared to the previous year, but he viewed it as an opportunity to get to the heart of why he got into coaching – to teach. The Huskers were going to have to reinvent from the ground up.
Nebraska opened Big Ten play this season with a road trip to Penn State, the toughest game on the schedule. The Nittany Lions were the second-ranked team in the country, preseason conference favorites, and Nebraska swept Penn State on its home court for the first time since 2003. It was the Nittany Lions’ only loss in the regular season, and two months later would help the Huskers win a share of the Big Ten title. Some have said this season might be Coach Cook’s best coaching job yet in a career that has already earned him hall-of-fame status. He’ll be inducted in December.
I felt like I had a privileged view of Nebraska’s remarkable run to a conference title this season. I didn’t know exactly where the Huskers’ season motto—“with each other, for each other”—came from, but I knew why you heard it in almost every interview and saw it on every tweet from the Husker volleyball account. While I didn’t see it coming, I at least had a good idea how Annika Albrecht, a defensive specialist for most of her career, emerged as an All-Big Ten hitter in her senior year, and I knew the traits Coach Cook had probably seen in her years earlier when she was being recruited.
I knew these things because Coach Cook had shared them all during the writing of Dream Like a Champion. The 2017 Nebraska volleyball season has been full of remarkable plays and players. While I’m certainly biased, I think the Huskers most recent run to a championship has only given the playbook Coach Cook provided more weight.
How does Nebraska do it? It’s all right here.