LINCOLN — The head start that the beach volleyball season gives his team going into the fall becomes especially important this season, Nebraska coach John Cook knows.
With four seniors departed from last year’s final four team, plus two new assistant coaches, the Huskers can’t afford to just dip a toe on their trip to the beach next week. Instead, the team will charge into the surf for its fifth season of beach volleyball play.
“It’s important every year,” Cook said, “because it’s the time we can set the foundation for the season — what we want to be, what we want to become, and what’s our plan to get there.”
The coach said on Tuesday he felt “behind a little bit with our staff” at this point of the year after last year’s assistants, Dani Busboom Kelly and Chris Tamas, both left for head coaching jobs at Louisville and Illinois, respectively. Which means the time the team will spend together at beach tournaments in Hawaii and Arizona next week is important for team bonding, not just between players, but with new assistants Kayla Banwarth and Tyler Hildebrand.
“Now, we’re starting from scratch again,” Cook said. “The more we can throw Tyler in there and Kayla in there to coach and work through this, the better and faster that we’ll get up to speed with our staff and our team, building the trust that we work on all the time.”
The staff just became whole this week when Hildebrand arrived to become the newest assistant and also serve as the beach team’s head coach, a role Tamas had served and Cook had to fill before he completed the staff. Hildebrand also still will spend time finishing the season with Long Beach State’s No. 2-rated men’s team before its season ends later this spring.
Hildebrand coached the U.S. men’s beach volleyball team of Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He arrived straight from Eppley Airfield to coach his first practice at Nebraska on Tuesday.
The Huskers will have two seniors who completed their indoor eligibility in December to help ease the transition on the beach. Both Justine Wong-Orantes and Andie Malloy will use their season of beach eligibility, playing on one of NU’s top units. The pair picked up a 21-10, 21-8 win in the Huskers’ exhibition sweep of Missouri Baptist on Wednesday at the David and Carol Alloy Strength Complex in the Hawks Championship Center.
Cook said getting to train and play with Wong-Orantes in the sand, where she excelled as one of California’s top teen beach players before coming to NU, will be a positive for the rest of the Huskers’ beach roster, which features seven freshmen and sophomores.
“The stuff I see her do out here, it’s just amazing,” Cook said. “One of the ways we learn is watching players do it at a really high level. So our players can really learn watching her and playing against her.”
Nebraska’s other pairs on Wednesday were Brooke Smith and Tiani Reeves, Sydney Townsend and Hunter Atherton, Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke, Kelly Hunter and Lauren Stivrins, and Annika Albrecht and Olivia Boender.
Middle blocker Briana Holman, who will be a senior this fall, will not play beach volleyball this spring.
Maloney, who is expected to be the Huskers’ starting libero in this fall’s indoor season, said she quickly learned how playing in sand helped for playing indoors. With two players covering the entire court, a player has to learn to read their opponent’s shots faster. And sludging around in the sand can make it seem like you’re moving double-time on the solid indoor playing court.
“I know coming into my spring (indoor) season last year I felt a lot quicker just reaction time-wise because it’s obviously harder to move in the sand,” Maloney said. “That is a lot easier, just your first-step reaction.”
Nebraska won’t get a chance to ease into the beach season, opening with No. 1 Southern California on March 16 in Hawaii. The Huskers will face the Women of Troy again the next day as part of the Outrigger Hawaii Invitational which also includes matches with No. 2 Florida State, No. 5 Hawaii and No. 13 Arizona.
NU then heads to Arizona to face No. 9 Arizona State and No. 8 Grand Canyon on March 23 before concluding the season on March 24 against Benedictine University at Mesa.
The annual trip to the beach — and away from what usually is a punishing Nebraska winter — is intended to have a restorative impact as the team can jell without distractions of classes and daily life in Lincoln. For a team in transition, the spring break comes at an ideal time.
“The more time together, I think that always helps, and it adds to what we’re trying to build in the fall,” Maloney said. “Team chemistry is one of the most important things a team can have in order to win.”