By Randy York
Saturday’s last volleyball Senior Night inside NU’s historic Coliseum was No. 13 for John Cook as a head coach and No. 1 for him with a daughter’s right arm interlocking with his left elbow as he and wife Wendy escorted senior setter Lauren to the same court that has been like a second home to her since she was 9-years-old.
This is one Scott Bruhn photograph that will be permanently logged into the Cook family archive – one shining moment with three smiling Cooks … two proud parents walking onto the Coliseum’s hallowed hardwood like all the other moms and dads so 4,000 Nebraska volleyball fans can show their appreciation and express their gratitude for the opportunity to watch them.
Oh how the years go by, and the Cooks are no exception to how tremendously full, swift and poignant life can get as the years multiply. Saturday night painted such a beautiful script, if you didn’t know better and had they been wearing different clothes, Nebraska’s head coach could have been escorting his daughter down the aisle for a wedding. That’s how happy everyone looked, especially Lauren, a hospitality, restaurant and tourism management major who can envision being a wedding planner someday.
She has, after all, already received a job offer as an event planner after leaving a recent volleyball practice early to make a final exam presentation at a Lincoln country club. The club’s general manager was so impressed with her presentation that he offered Lauren a job any time it might work after she quits chasing a volleyball dream that includes a vision to become a member of USA’s national team.
With a dad/head coach who has one of best winning percentages in the history of college volleyball and a mom who was a two-time All-American setter at San Diego State, Lauren Cook grew up with a volleyball in her hand and a dream in her heart, but none of that swirled in the head of another potential All-American Saturday night at the Coliseum.
Mom, Dad and Daughter Locked Arm-in-Arm
Even the Cooks got lost for a few precious moments in Saturday night’s time machine. John had to forget about scouting reports and lineup decisions as Lauren stepped into the same postgame limelight with four fellow seniors. As they walked to the court, Lauren’s right arm was cradled in her dad’s outstretched left elbow and every finger on her left hand was firmly interlocking with her mother’s right hand. Warm is the word that best describes the coach’s wife and the daughter’s mother.
Following a four-set match win over Northwestern, John Cook shrugged his shoulders and choked back his thoughts while trying to describe what it’s like to manage a team at the same time he’s trying to supervise every emotional bone in his body. He talks about the “unbelievable experience” of 4,000 people staying in their seats to honor five seniors and how “you’re never going to see this anywhere” else.
Therefore, as both a coach and a father, he decides just to soak in the moment and to do his own fair share of cheering, especially when four words keep crawling inside his brain and reminding him that “This is my daughter!”
While describing his thoughts, Cook holds his hands apart and pretends to be taking a picture with his fingers, but it’s all metaphorical. The picture he’s taking is a snapshot in his mind or, as he put it, “kind of a wild moment for me just looking up there and realizing these fans are supporting our daughter and all of the rest of our seniors.”
Earlier in the week, Cook made a point about how Senior Night is a very proud moment for any parent, and he is no exception. He and Wendy respected Lauren’s decision to enroll at UCLA, where she became the Bruins’ starting setter and the NCAA Freshman of the Year. Lauren earned that honor partly because she came back to beat her dad’s team in front of 13,000 Devaney Center fans who were struck watching the tournament MVP wearing True Blue and Gold instead of the Scarlet and Cream she grew up with.
A Careful, Cautious Coach-Player Relationship
Since her return to Lincoln, Lauren has nourished her Husker roots, energized the team she captains and leads, and has faithfully given back to the community. Dad/coach and daughter/player have been very careful, even cautious about their relationship.
At last Monday’s press conference, for instance, Coach Cook elaborated on ways in which Lauren has been humbled after leaving a team that went on to win the 2011 national championship. We should point out, however, that Lauren led Nebraska to the 2010 Big 12 Championship as a sophomore and the school’s first Big Ten Championship as a junior. And don’t forget her performances this fall while leading Nebraska to a pair of wins over No. 1-rated teams, UCLA and Penn State. “How many people can say that?” Cook said Saturday night.
“I’m not sure she would trade any of the experiences she’s had here at Nebraska,” John Cook said. “She’s an amazing kid. She’s done a great job and worked very hard. It’s not easy having your dad be the coach. I think she’s done a great job of managing that.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Cook added. “You come to college. You go though these experiences. You learn, grow and get humbled. You compete, get a degree and prepare for the world. That’s what it’s about for all these kids. At the end of the day, that’s what they’re going to remember – the journey they’ve been on and all the things that go with it, good and bad.”
Saturday night was not a peak in terms of team performance, but it could not have been better in terms of endearment or emotion. Volleyball’s version of “Can You Feel It” is “Can You Dig It” and a laser-focused, hard-driving, top-winning head coach could both feel it and dig it Saturday night.
Emotional Coach Has Trouble Holding It All In
When Lauren gave her dad a tiny volleyball during pre-game introductions, “I got very emotional right there,” John Cook said. “I was doing everything I could to hold it in. You’d have to read what she wrote, but I was very caught off guard.”
When Cook happened to look down and see the writing on the ball, “I was getting ready to bawl,” he said, adding that he made sure “the guy down at the end of the scorer’s table” would keep that precious little ball before returning it to Nebraska’s head coach at the end of the game.
“That was a very, very … she does stuff like that all the time,” John Cook said of Lauren while clearing his throat.
This particular personal message, though, whatever it is, will be a lifelong treasure.
John Cook sees a promising future for that tiny little volleyball. He, in fact, intends to commemorate it in the most personal way possible. “When I read what was on that ball,” Cook said, “I knew I had to keep it and put it in my office.”
Where it will stare at him every day that he holds the honor of being Nebraska’s head volleyball coach, not to mention the father of a player he loves dearly.
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