John Cook at press conference prior NCAA Tournament
Head volleyball coach John Cook speaks at a press conference a day prior to facing Campbell in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. As Nebraska head coach, Cook is 21-0 in opening round matches. Photo courtesy of John Shrader.

Nebraska head volleyball coach John Cook has been to the NCAA Tournament every year since he took over the program in 2000. That doesn’t mean that he has conquered the nerves that come with the dance.

“I always get nervous,” Cook said. “I’ll get really nervous (before the match).”

Friday night, the 10th-seeded Huskers enter the tournament with a match against the Big South champions, the 21-9 Campbell Fighting Camels. The Huskers are 33-1 all time in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, while Cook is 21-0 in the first round as head coach. Cook attributes much of the first round success to the fact that the Huskers have had home court advantage in the early stages of the tournament. He also said that the environment at the Bob Devaney Center can cause visiting teams an energy boost.

“All I know is teams play out of their minds when they come here,” Cook said. “They give us fits and they play great because it’s exciting. They get to play in front of a big crowd, which they’re probably not used to. So I think in many ways it helps those teams play great.”

Friday’s match will be only the second time this season Campbell has played a Power Five conference team, and it will mark the first time they have ever played the Huskers. Junior outside hitter Madi Kubik said it’s difficult to prepare to play in an environment like the Devaney Center.

“We heard that Campbell was practicing with crowd noise, so I guess they’re trying to get prepared for what it’s going to be like to play in Devaney,” Kubik said. “I don’t know if there’s anything like it until you actually play in that environment.” 

Still, Cook said Campbell offers a unique challenge, as they play an unorthodox style of volleyball. They run a 6-2 system, a system Cook said he doesn’t know if he’s ever played against before. Cook described the 6-2 as a system where outside hitters play in the middle but hit outside and middle blockers play outside but hit in the middle. 

“They run people all over the place, so it’s kind of confusing in a way, because we don’t see that in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “We’ll have to prepare well and make sure our players don’t get caught up in all that and just play volleyball.”

Junior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles said that while Campbell doesn’t have the size of some of Nebraska’s Big Ten opponents, they’re scrappy and have the ability to keep balls alive and play for long rallies. Knuckles also said she thinks the Huskers are playing their best volleyball of the season.

“I think every day we get better and learn new things,” Knuckles said. “We’ve grown a lot throughout the season, so I think for right now we’re at our peak, but I still think we’re growing every day.”

Cook was more apprehensive about whether the team was playing at its peak, but he said they were playing “good volleyball.” Cook has used a plethora of rotations at the pin this season, an area he said could be playing “a little better.” He said he’s used these rotations throughout the season so they could have a multitude of options come tournament time.

“We’ve got five players we can play and I’ve got no problem playing them,” Cook said. “At this point of the year if you’re not getting it done, we’ll give somebody else a shot. This isn’t about ‘we’re going to trust you for a while and let you work through this,’ this is do or die at this point.”

Kubik said the group would be successful in the tournament if they played “Nebraska volleyball,” which she described as having great out of system sets, consistency on service receive, managing through tough situations and playing with joy.

“I think a lot of matches come down to us being able to play Nebraska volleyball and playing in the moment, playing with joy,” Kubik said. “I think this week we really focused on doing the things we can do and the things we can control. That’ll help us win those close matches when it comes down to it.”

With a win, the Huskers would play in the second round on Saturday against the winner of the Florida State and Kansas State match, which starts at 4:30 p.m., before the Huskers 7 p.m. bout against Campbell. Still, Kubik and Knuckles said they haven’t even looked at film for either of their potential matchups on Saturday. Only six wins away from a national championship, the team is focused on Friday night.

“This is what we play for,” Cook said. “We try to get to this point, and now get on a six-match win streak. But we have to take care of business tomorrow night.”



Coach John Cook on the Huskers history in the NCAA Tournament. (They are 5-time champions)

Coach John Cook says the Campbell system is unusual.

Junior All-Conference player Madi Kubik says Campbell has to deal with a noisy Bob Devaney Center.

Junior Kenzie Knuckles says they deal with big teams in the Big Ten. Campbell is not so big.

Nathan Hawkins is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying Sports Media and Communications. He's passionate about sports and story-telling, and he's often looking for ways to combine the two. When he's not writing or watching sports, you could find him watching an old movie or spending time outdoors with friends and family.