Gophers volleyball embracing same lofty expectations under new coach Keegan Cook

Keegan Cook has some big shoes to fill as the new University of Minnesota volleyball coach, and he’s as aware of it as anyone in college volleyball.

In 11 seasons with the Gophers, Hugh McCutcheon led Minnesota to two Big Ten titles, making the NCAA Tournament a regularity and three Final Four appearances. Cook accepted the job last December, coming from Washington.

He helped lead the Huskies to eight straight NCAA Tournaments, six Sweet 16s, four Pac-12 titles and one NCAA Final Four. He spoke Monday about taking over at Minnesota as the Gophers wrap up summer workouts before training camp in August. The Gophers are coming off a year where they went 22-9, 15-5 in the Big Ten and finished the season a top-10 team. 

"Most transitions when they happen, the coach coming in, people are excited, things haven’t been going well. This is the second time I’ve been part of a different kind of transition, where things have been going well and then there’s a great responsibility to maintain and exceed the performance from before," Cook said. "For some reason that’s become my niche a little bit. Something about it speaks to me, there’s a lot of meaning in Minnesota volleyball, this program means a lot not just regionally, but nationally and that responsibility connected with me."

With that came some change on the roster. Jenna Wenaas and Carter Booth entered the transfer portal. CC McGraw was out of eligibility. Cook was able to get the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Kylie Murr out of Ohio State from the transfer portal, and top players Taylor Landfair, Melanie Shaffmaster and McKenna Wucherer all decided to stay. Wucherer said there was uncertainty, at least until Cook was hired.

"I think all of us had those thoughts. I was up in the air as well. I think all of us wanted to stay here as long as we could, we love the atmosphere here, we love the family here. But the uncertainty definitely took some fear in all of us. I just knew that Minnesota felt like home to me and I wanted to wait as long as I could until we figured out who the next coach would be," Wucherer said. "Once I heard it was Keegan, I was beyond ecstatic."

One of McCutcheon’s staples was a brutal non-conference slate before the Big Ten season. That’s not changing under Cook.

Four days apart in late August, they’ll host No. 15 Baylor and No. 1 Texas at Maturi Pavilion. The Gophers will also face Florida, Oregon, Stanford and Creighton before a Big Ten slate where five teams other than Minnesota finished 2022 in the top 20.

What does it look like to Cook on paper?

"What was I thinking maybe is the first thing I think? All the options were laid out in front of me and I thought we’re going to know what it takes to win a national championship by the end of this preseason," Cook said. "That’s what it’s all about, that’s what I was hired to do and we’re not going to shy away from those expectations. It’ll be a wild ride."

His players are embracing that challenge.

"I love it, there’s nothing I dislike about it because the Big Ten is a gauntlet. You want to be ready for that, the first two games are just as important as the last two so I think having that tough preseason is going to get us ready," Murr said.

The Gophers start training camp in just a few weeks. Their 2023 opener is Aug. 17 against Northern Iowa.