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John Cook and his son Taylor were en route to the Nebraska Sandhills to enjoy "America's best overnight golf destination" at The Prairie Club near Valentine when I asked Nebraska's head volleyball coach a simple question: Where does Jordan Larson's selection to the 2012 Olympic Team rank on his all-time chart of volleyball thrills? With characteristic confidence, Cook immediately put Larson's selection among his "all-time top seven list" and by the time we were done talking, he moved that honor up the chart and gave it "top five" status ... fast company for a man who's experienced what Cook has.
"People have no idea what you have to go through to make that team and how difficult it really is," Cook said of Larson, the two-time AVCA All-American (2006, 2008) who is expected to be a major force on the world's No. 1-ranked women's volleyball team. Larson called Cook shortly after she found out she made the team because she didn't want him to hear the news from anyone else. "She wanted to thank me and everyone in Nebraska that helped her accomplish this goal," Cook said. "I told her she's lived one dream (winning a national championship in '06) and now she has a chance to live another. She can go make history and help her country win an Olympic gold medal (in London)."
Such a magnanimous thought triggers an emotional flashback. "The reason Jordan making that team is one of the top five highlights of my coaching career is because she's so humble and so thankful," Cook said. "I remember when I first saw her play in high school (at Logan View near her hometown of Hooper). I had to wait 45 minutes to talk to her because she had to thank everybody there for coming to her match. That's just the kind of kid she is. I give a lot of credit to her mom and her dad and her stepdad and how they raised her. They did a great job, and even though her mom has passed away, Jordan's had a great support group around her."
This weekend, the N-Sider will cover the ground Larson traveled to get where she is today, but we'll finish this blog with the other four spots in John Cook's top five all-time volleyball highlight list. We present those highlights in no particular order, mainly because Cook would need his customary process for critical analysis before he'd even think of ranking them 1-through-5. Larson's red-white-and-blue climb to a spot on the 2012 American Olympic volleyball team joins these "other" four John Cook experiences:
Jennifer Saleaumua's graduation from the University of Nebraska in 2006. "I told Jen when she signed a letter of intent to come here that I would never miss her graduation," Cook said of the two-time AVCA All-American from National City, Calif. After exhausting her eligibility, Saleaumua's graduation came on the same day that Nebraska played Stanford for the 2006 national championship at the Qwest Center in Omaha. "I was sicker than a dog, but I made it to graduation in Lincoln that afternoon and drove back to Omaha for the championship game that night," Cook recalled. "I promised Jen I'd be there, and her graduation really was one of my all-time top five thrills."
Nebraska's 2006 national championship win over Stanford. The Huskers went 33-1 that season with the only loss a five-set match at Colorado. They beat American and Northern Iowa in the first two rounds, San Diego and Minnesota in Gainesville, Fla., regional, UCLA in the semis and Stanford in the final. Larson had an awesome presence on that team and was voted the Most Outstanding Player in the regional. She had 21 kills and 17 digs in the regional finals against Minnesota. Nebraska's lineup was packed with such stars as Sarah Pavan, Dani Mancuso Helu and Dani Busboom. Rachel Holloway was the setter. Amanda Gates and Kori Cooper alternated at middle blocker.
Nebraska's 2000 national championship team and unbeaten season in Cook's first year as the Huskers' head coach. Nebraska beat Princeton and South Carolina in the first two rounds, Ohio State and Arizona in the regional, Hawaii in the semifinals and Wisconsin in the finals. It was an emotional title match for Cook because he recruited most of the Badger team and served as Wisconsin's head coach before moving to Nebraska a year earlier to assist Terry Pettit in his final season at the helm. Stars on that team included Greichely Cepero, Laura Pilakowsky, Angie Oxley and Amber Holmquist. The Huskers swept 25 matches in that 34-0 championship season.
Nebraska's 2008 NCAA semifinal loss to Penn State before an NCAA record crowd of 17,430 in Omaha's Qwest Center. Cook will never forget that team, which battled back to beat Washington in the regional final in Seattle and then took defending national champion Penn State, which hadn't been pushed past a third set all season, to the wire. The Huskers lost the first two sets, battled back to tie the match and led 10-8 in the final set before a poised Nittany Lion team recovered. Think about Cook's all-time top five highlights. They include a phone call, a graduation ceremony and a loss. In my book, he's one championship coach who looks at the world through much more than just a championship lens.
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