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December 13, 2017
Kansas City, Mo.
THE MODERATOR: We welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers who advanced out of the Lexington Regional, and come into the Women's Volleyball National Semifinal matches with an overall record of 30-4 under the direction of head coach John Cook. Also joining us today are student-athletes Kelly Hunter, Briana Holman, and Annika Albrecht. We'll remind everyone we'll start with opening comments from Coach Cook, followed by questions for the student-athletes. Coach, your thoughts on your match-up against Penn State?
JOHN COOK: Do you want me to do that or opening statement first?
THE MODERATOR: Either one.
JOHN COOK: Okay. First of all, we're really excited to be here. The fact it's Kansas City, it's close to Nebraska, it's sold out, it's a great testament to the Husker Nation and how well volleyball is supported in the midwest. It's just awesome for our sport.
I'm also very proud of these three players along with Sydney Townsend first seniors ever at Nebraska to go to three straight Final Fours. So we have a lot to be happy about, and we're excited to play tomorrow.
Our match-up with Penn State, if you've followed the history of us, Nebraska-Penn State, we've had a lot of epic matches. I've been having a lot of flashbacks to several years, 2008, 2011, last year and of course our match with them this year at Penn State. So it's one of the, I think, most exciting rivalries, if you want to call it that, in college volleyball. They're a lot of fun to play, and I think both teams bring out the best in each other.
So it's exciting for volleyball. Everybody has been chasing Penn State with what they've done over the last ten years. They set a really high bar. So we're excited to play them.
Q. Kelly and Briana, is there a specific thing that you guys feel you have done well throughout these last couple years against Penn State? Like a common thread that's allowed you to have such success against them?
KELLY HUNTER: I think just from a setting standpoint it's having a balanced attack, because they have a huge block, and when they're swing blocking and they're in rhythm and they know where the ball's going, they're pretty hard to get by. So I think kind of keeping the balanced attack and having middle right side everything going kind of keeps them on their toe, and hopefully gets one-on-one against our offense.
BRIANA HOLMAN: Kind of what she said, just our offense, we're really balanced and we have a lot of weapons on front row and back row, and it's hard to defend teams like that, and I think they have a hard time defending us sometimes because usually some of the teams that they play they might have one or two good players, like she said, when they know that they're really good. But they really have to wait and read on us because we have so many offensive weapons.
Q. Kelly, coach referred to Penn State as, in his words, a rivalry, if you want to call it that. What do you call it? And knowing your family history and the tradition that you know of Nebraska, how would you describe it?
KELLY HUNTER: Yeah, I think Coach nailed it the last ten years they've been that team to beat. It might not be exactly a Nebraska-Penn State rivalry, but everyone wants to beat them. So they're just kind of that team you get really hyped up to play. Especially this year, only one loss all season, everyone's hyped to play them.
I just think ever since I've been here and I've been old enough to understand Nebraska volleyball, that's been a great match to watch. I know my time here, we've had some great matches against them, and I think tomorrow will be another great match-up.
Q. Annika, if you go back to September 22nd when you guys played Penn State on the road, what worked so well for you guys to have so much success that night?
ANNIKA ALBRECHT: I think they kind of nailed it earlier, but something our team does really well is we stick to what we train. We always talk about serve and pass, and I think we did a really good job ball controlling them and starting them off out of system with our serve. That really helped our block and everything kind of fell from there. So I think just sticking to what we trained and sticking to our game plan really helped us. I didn't think they knew what to do.
Q. Kelly, what does it say about this team to have four All-Americans?
KELLY HUNTER: Yeah, I think that's just kind of what we've been talking about. Everyone is so great because there are teams whose outsides get 40, 50 swings a night or even more than that, and I think we just have all these great players who love working together. No matter what, if someone's having a bad day, someone's always behind them hyping them up. We do that every single day at practice and in games.
So we never let anyone kind of struggle or slack off or do anything. So everyone's playing their greatest volleyball every single day. I guess that shows with the awards that we've got. But we always say an individual award is a team award. So none of us could have gotten any awards if it weren't for the team, pushing us every single day. We just have a great group of 14, 15 girls who work their butts off every single day.
Q. Did any of the three of you read Coach Cook's book when it came out last summer?
BRIANA HOLMAN: I haven't gotten to it yet, but he just gave us copies like a month ago. So we've been a little busy.
Q. Did you autograph them?
JOHN COOK: It was Thanksgiving.
KELLY HUNTER: Yeah, a month ago.
BRIANA HOLMAN: He did. He autographed it.
Q. Kelly, when the team went to Florida the first weekend and you had to just watch, except for wishing that you were in there, what did you observe and think about the team at that time from maybe the coach in you, the setter in you, while you are watching it unfold and thinking about when you got back in?
KELLY HUNTER: Yeah, there were a lot of close rallies and a lot of close games. I mean, we went five with Florida, and we were close to winning it. So I think the biggest thing that I learned and we all learned is that this is a team that can do great things. We were right on the edge right there, and the first game of the season it's always nerves and stuff like that, especially playing such great teams.
But I think that just showed us that if we worked hard every single day that we could be a great team and make things happen this year. I think with our motto of point by point, and day by day, we've just gotten better every single day.
Coach always says we should go from good, to great, to unstoppable, and I think we're definitely headed in that direction.
Q. Annika, we've talked before about the work that you put in to transitioning to being a six rotation player, but now that we're at the end of the season, can you pinpoint the most important piece of work or type of work that you put into grow into this type of player?
ANNIKA ALBRECHT: I think just having an open mindset into new things that we've been learning this year with the new coaching staff. Specifically what Tyler (Hildebrand) has been helping me with. I've been playing volleyball for a long time, but then realizing that there is still more that I can learn, even though I'm a senior or whatever. But, yeah, just keeping my options open and trusting what I can see when I'm up there.
Q. Annika, I'm going to take you back farther to your freshman year, and ask you to look forward to today and what's happened this year and with this team. How did that vision match-up with reality of where you're sitting today?
ANNIKA ALBRECHT: I don't know. One thing coach always tells us is to dream big. I think we say it all the time and sometimes it's a joke, but I think that's real. I think with our class that came in, and Kelly before us and the girls ever since, I think we've all come in and we really do dream big. We dream of these big spotlight moments and the Final Four, and we dream of playing in The National Championship Game every year.
So we work hard for this, and we train in a championship environment. So I think we made it reality the last few years. Freshman year we did good things too, but, yeah, to work hard and actually make this a reality has been really awesome because I think we've all dreamt this.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for Coach Cook.
Q. John, again about Anni, how have you seen her grow the most this season?
JOHN COOK: I think she nailed her answer. The fact that she came into this year, she knew the opportunity she had, she embraced it, she worked really hard starting in January because we had this conversation in January. She had a growth mindset.
I think she also nailed it when she talked about Tyler. Tyler brought some new things to how we train and how we play the game, and she was able to take some of that and really help develop her. So I probably developed her, and she's tired of listening to me, and now she had this whole new way of looking at the game and playing the game. She's really benefited from that and embraced that.
I was looking back at her stats. She did not start off this season very strong. But she stayed with it, and I think that's a great testament to her. Again, she plays with a lot of confidence, and she's able to go on to the next point. When you're that size and sometimes she's going to get trap set and there's nothing she can do, and she just goes on to the next play, tries to make it up with a serve or a block or something like that, so she has a great mindset. It's a growth mindset, and it's a going to the next play mindset, and that's what allows her to be successful.
Q. Going back to the first Penn State match this year, was it more important that that was your one chance to play Penn State and to beat Penn State? Or was it more important for your team to where you were at that point in the season that you play that well and beat a quality opponent and gain confidence that you can do that.
JOHN COOK: Going into that Penn State, we had lost to Northern Iowa the week before. So I'm like, the wheels have come off. I hope we can even survive the Big Ten and get to the NCAA tournament.
But, like many years and sometimes after a loss, you learn a lot. And I think our team really learned a lot from that weekend, and we were able to go into Penn State and play great. So that was a great bounce back by our team. And I think the fact that when we did that, it just reaffirmed everything we've been telling them. We have a chance to be a good team, and we can do this. We thought we could go in there and compete really well with Penn State, and of course, when we won, it just helped boost our confidence.
You've been around us long enough to know at some point during the season you have to have some significant wins to validate everything you've been working on. Obviously for this team that was a huge significant win, maybe as big as you can get in the Big Ten Conference to validate everything we've been training and working on. This is working for us.
Q. You've said they've been the team that teams have been chasing, and the national titles proved that. But your record versus Penn State of recent time would lead to believe that you've done pretty well chasing them. What do you attribute that to?
JOHN COOK: Well, we mentioned rivalries, you know, we have a lot of rivalries because a lot of teams are after us all the time too. But I just know this. I remember when I was coaching at Wisconsin in the Big Ten, Penn State was the team to beat. So everything you did was, okay, every decision you make, how are you going to beat Penn State. Then I come to Nebraska, you know, and we're dominating the last decade early, and we're winning and beating Penn State. Then all of a sudden, Penn State goes on a four-year National Championship run.
And goes back to the same thing, every decision we make in recruiting, how we train, what systems we're going to run, can we beat Penn State? So they've been the measuring stick for us on how we build our program and how we look at it is can we beat Penn State?
Now that we're in the conference with them, it's the same thing. Because look at who has won the Big Ten Conference. It's only a couple schools and Penn State's won the most. So that's how we approach things.
Q. Both today and earlier this week you've used the word fun to describe matches against Penn State. What makes this series especially fun for you and for your team?
JOHN COOK: Amazing athletes, both really great traditional power house teams, both teams play really high level volleyball. It's just like when you block Mikaela Foecke, people get a little more excited. When you block Simone Lee, people get a little more excited, because they're such competitors and great players. So there's big moments, big plays, highlight type plays. And of course, those guys are going to have highlight type kills that makes it more exciting. Every time we play them, there is an intensity.
I told somebody today or earlier, I can't remember when, but when Penn State comes Devaney, you know before the match even starts the electricity in there is up a notch. I know every time we go to Penn State, it's a whiteout, a blackout, it's something going on, they just try to get a huge crowd there.
So I just think it's great respect for two great programs that have had a long history of great matches.
I think you look at the NFL, same thing. When the Steelers play Cincinnati, it's just going to be a war. I want to talk about the Chargers and I don't even know what city they're in now, but you know what I'm talking about.
Q. Chargers will be here on Sunday?
JOHN COOK: Oh, are they? What are they, the California bolts?
Q. I think LA.
JOHN COOK: I grew up in San Diego, that's why I'm kidding about that.
Q. Can you kind of go back in your recruitment of Jazz Sweet what attracted you to her, and how has she developed to the point of the match against Kentucky?
JOHN COOK: Yeah, so we identified her, probably her sophomore year. We knew we needed an opposite or right side player that could come in and start as a freshman. So there were about three recruits that we were after. Of course, Jazz being from Topeka close to Lincoln, we thought, okay, we've got a really good shot at her. So we just felt like our conversations in our office were -- and Danny Bussman, my assistant coach then, was like we have to get Jazz Sweet. She played on a club team that wasn't all that strong. They didn't play in the open division. So it was hard to tell how good she could be.
But we felt like she had a chance to be a special player. Of course, if you're around Jazz, she never says a word until she gets comfortable, and then she doesn't shut up. So, on the first couple visits and stuff to get her up there, she didn't seem interested, wouldn't call us back, so we were worried. Then she came on a visit, and I could tell she really liked it and this is what she wanted.
It was hard for her to turn down Kansas and Kansas State right there. But I think playing into Devaney and seeing that crowd was something that she wanted. We were really happy to have her as a Husker. I started telling her a year ago when she committed, I said you need to start mentally preparing to play and start as a freshman, and I think she's really embraced that. The other thing I told her was freshmen always play the best in the NCAA tournament.
I said, look at Franny, freshman year MVP, Mikaela, freshman year MVP, and I said Jazz, freshman year, MVP, let's do it. Of course, they don't believe me. These (seniors) don't listen to a word I say.
Q. I wondered how that played in with that big point in the Kentucky match and how she's gotten to be where she can do that sort of thing in such a clutch moment?
JOHN COOK: We put her in a drill. Pretty much every day -- not every day we go all out, but every day we have a full-on practice. She goes in a drill that she has to win. It's a tough drill. We call it the trash can drill. She's done it the most. But she goes in it and she doesn't get out until she wins it. It develops that mentality to make those big plays when it matters most.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports