How Keegan Cook took over and stabilized a shaken Gophers volleyball team

Photo by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Hugh McCutcheon’s departure left the Gophers volleyball program reeling, but Keegan Cook went to work, refocusing players and reeling in recruits.

By Jeff Day Star Tribune

August 21, 2023

How Keegan Cook took over and stabilized a shaken Gophers volleyball team

By Jeff Day Star Tribune

Photo by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Hugh McCutcheon’s departure left the Gophers volleyball program reeling, but Keegan Cook went to work, refocusing players and reeling in recruits.

August 21, 2023

Keegan Cook had no time.

In the first seven days after being hired to replace Hugh McCutcheon as Gophers volleyball coach, Cook flew from his home in Seattle to Minneapolis, raced to Omaha for the NCAA Final Four and then returned to campus.

He looked out from a makeshift stage for a news conference at Maturi Pavilion and prepared to introduce himself. He rested his hands in his pockets and felt a surprising wave of calm.

He had no coaching staff, no experience in the Big Ten, no relationship with his team. The transfer portal was open and his players were being targeted.

When this was over, he would travel across the country to try and save his roster and start the monumental task of shaping the team in his image.

"You'll have to bear with me," Cook said with a pause. "It has taken a lot to get me here."

Renée Jones Schneider, Star Tribune
Keegan Cook's introduction as Gophers volleyball coach, after the bombshell of Hugh McCutcheon's resignation, set the clock ticking toward a season in which more eyes will be on him than ever before.

His reputation preceded him. The wunderkind, who took over Washington's program when he was 29, won 78% of his matches and four Pac-12 titles over eight years.

He was a husband and father to a 1-year-old, bringing his family 1,600 miles from home to face a monumental challenge: try and stabilize one of college volleyball's most successful programs after the shuddering news of McCutcheon's resignation.

There would be no starting over. The aspirations for Cook's first season would remain at the highest level: a Big Ten title, an NCAA championship.

The first match was in eight months.

The Gophers volleyball players leaned back in cushy recliners. UGGs, fluffy socks and slides were kicked up on chair backs. Hooded sweatshirts were pulled up as they poked at bowls of cereal. They were here for morning film session and had the slow-dawning attentiveness that accompanies the first college class of the day.

Cook, three months into his tenure, was seated at the front of the small auditorium inside the Pavilion with his laptop connected to a projector.

He was getting his footing. He had hired a youthful, focused coaching staff of Kristen Kelsay, Eric Barber and Kylin Muñoz. They had suffered dramatic losses as Carter Booth and Jenna Wenaas left in the transfer portal, but had kept the rest of the roster intact.

"Learning doesn't always feel good," Cook said as he clicked open a PowerPoint presentation. "Sometimes it feels good, when you do something you haven't done before and you get a moment of celebration, but largely a lot of the lessons you learn in volleyball and in life don't feel so great."

The lessons were in the tiniest details.

A scrimmage against North Dakota State provided the coaching staff with ample evidence. They had broken the film into clips and frame-by-frame images. The straight-line follow through of a serve attempt. The first step of a middle blocker in transition. Example after example of the delicate line between success and failure.

Aaron Lavinksy, Star Tribune
From the beginning, even without a full team to evaluate, Cook's focus was on identifying and fixing split-second weaknesses to improve the Gophers on a point-by-point basis.

Cook pointed out everything from players out of position with no clear purpose to poor communication and execution. Mostly he illustrated examples when bad habits led to a clean kill from Mckenna Wucherer or Taylor Landfair.

The outcome of the point was not the point. Play sloppy and trouble will, undoubtedly, find you.

"If we can see it, then we better assume that the better teams in the country will see it and make us pay," Cook said.

After the session he stood on the court. Banners listing Final Four appearances and Big Ten titles hung in the distance. Cook said he sees each point in a match like one of those 50/50 win-probability needles. His focus is on tilting the odds, at every moment, ever so slightly in the Gophers' favor.

"There's a lot to learn from this game!" Cook hollered as the Gophers took the court for spring practice.

Two freshmen had joined the team after graduating early from high school, but three transfers were still months away from arriving. That meant they couldn't field two full rosters for scrimmaging, so the coaches got involved.

Barber, a former UC San Diego player, grabbed a back-row position for 6-on-6 drills. When Landfair pummeled him with a kill, he ran off the court. Returning with a new pair of shoes, he laced up and squatted deep, glancing across the net, he said, "I got you now, 'T!'"

The team broke up with laughter.

Everything was in motion. Poor communication would not be tolerated. Sophomore Julia Hanson haltingly called out her position on a loose ball. "Julia, I can hear you!" Cook yelled. "I had to work for it, but I can hear you."

They played a 3-on-3 rally game pinched around the net with no spacing. It would be doghouse rules, as Cook explained it: "If you don't communicate or have effort, you're pulled off."

The game was frustrating, invigorating and nonstop. Teams rotated every few seconds; a group featuring Cook and Barber went on a decent run. Kelsay chatted up everyone when they came off, gesturing to how others were moving, to what was working, what wasn't.

The staff was pushing to build relationships off the court. Phone calls, walks, lunches, dinners, an emphasis on conversations about life. Roots started to take hold. A team trip to Hawaii had built bonds. Players had taken vacations together. Visited each other's family homes. Become roommates.

On the court, the progress was in the work.

Cook wanted the team to realize that solid play in key areas was just as important as trying to be great.

"You can mess up good by trying to be perfect," he said. "Just be good."

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune
With so many new faces, establishing communication and a sense of camaraderie was as vital to Cook and his assistant coaches as it was daunting. Extensive practices and bonding events helped the Gophers find their footing as a team.

He was bringing a statistical bent to their pursuit — using the concept of compound interest to explain how you could overwhelm an opponent, or excitedly showing off a wall of charts highlighting attack percentages. He found their strength in the data, then he showed them the proof and put them to work.

Amid the analysis, his empathy stood out. He was awake to the emotional heft of his team's aspirations.

After the final spring practice in late April, the players stood together. Cook looked at them and said, "I challenge you to find another team in the country who has shown more growth in four months than this group. You will not find them."

While they were working to understand their current roster, the coaches were grinding away at the future. Under McCutcheon, Minnesota had built one of the best recruiting bases in the nation — consistently nabbing All-America players from at home and around the country.

Cook and his staff's first chance to show their abilities was June 15 when recruiting opened for the Class of 2025.

They did not disappoint. In six weeks, the Gophers secured verbal commitments from four top players. In August, they made another splash by bringing in Zeynep Palabiyik of Turkey, considered one of the best European prospects at libero. Her commitment was more immediate: She arrived in Minnesota this month and will play this season.

A thread ran through how the players, their families and coaches felt about the process. They said the tactics the Gophers took were thoughtful, patient and effective.

NCAA rules meant Cook couldn't talk about recruits until they signed, but a text message about players announcing their commitment to the U elicited this response: "After 5 months … 52 flights … 18 states … 2 countries, it's a special day to find our Gophers."

He added a postscript, "All is well here in the things that matter most." Attached was a photo of his son, Oliver, smiling and sitting atop a toy truck.

With two weeks until the season opener, Cook was fittingly under the gun.

He had finalized his roster with the signing of Palabiyik — she just had to fly halfway across the world and acclimate to a new country. The transfers had taken part in captain practices, but the coaches still hadn't worked with the full team.

They would soon go into overdrive. Two practices per day. Team dinners. Player meetings to break down what was going right or wrong. The pressure would rise as the season approached, the fight for roster spots intensifying.

It would also bring welcome routine for the new head coach. For a moment, no more airports, no more racing, just volleyball and home. Up at 5 a.m., in bed at 10 p.m.

Aaron Lavinksy, Star Tribune
Eight months of relentless work for Cook will culminate in the Gophers' season opener against Texas Christian on Aug. 25 at Maturi Pavilion, where reminders of his predecessors' legacy hang from the rafters.

The day before fall camp started, Cook sat in the Pavilion and watched his players. There were team photos to take, social media posts to build. The lights were down, music hummed, smoke machines whirred.

He talked about his ability to manage emotions, of his mother's career as an ICU nurse, of the fear he felt those first years as the head coach at Washington, and how he learned to let go of all that and recognize its uselessness.

He was where he was meant to be.

But after all of the work to take over the program, did it feel like he had created something new? Or was this still a continuation of what he inherited eight months ago?

Cook paused, narrowing his gaze. "I don't know if I can answer that yet," he said. Then he stood up, walked onto the court and joined his team.