The responsibility — and burden — that UW volleyball coach Keegan Cook felt to get the Husky volleyball team back to the Final Four was getting bigger.
Three times in his five seasons as the team’s head coach, the Huskies’ season ended in the Elite Eight. That next step had proven to be elusive.
But not this season. After three straight five-set victories in the NCAA tournament, the last two coming on big comebacks, the Huskies are in the Final Four for the first time since 2013, when Cook was in his first of two seasons as an assistant coach to Jim McLaughlin.
“I certainly felt like I hadn’t met the responsibility of the position,” he said. “You can’t look at the legacy of this program — the athletes and the coaches who have been a part of it — and not be driven to contribute. Once you’ve lost in a couple of Elite Eights, it really dawns on you what you are trying to do.”
The No. 6 seed overall Huskies aren’t just satisfied getting to the Final Four, and they will resume their conquest for a national title Thursday against No. 2 seed Kentucky in Omaha. The 4 p.m. game (PDT) will be broadcast on ESPN.
Just getting there nearly brought Cook to tears after Monday’s win over Pittsburgh earned UW a spot in the Final Four and the coach tried to explain what the moment meant.
These past two days have been great for the UW program and its coach, unless he’s asked questions about himself. For him, it’s always about the program and his players. That helps explain why doesn’t have a Twitter account or any social-media presence.
But the story of his journey to this spot is worth telling.
Cook, 36, grew up in Pleasanton, California, and fell in love with the sport while attending his older sister Meg’s volleyball tournaments.
“I got to do the little-brother thing, and I think a lot of little brothers with older sisters in the volleyball world have had that experience,” Cook said. “She got me into the game. It took all the other sports away.”
He played several sports growing up, but it became all volleyball starting in middle school. He played volleyball at Foothill High School, and a couple of his teammates went on to play Division I volleyball, “but I certainly did not.”
At 6 feet, Cook’s options were limited in a sport that is dominated by tall people, and he played libero. But he stayed with the game when he started college at St. Mary’s, playing intramural volleyball and on weekends he helped sister Meg with the club she was coaching.
Rob Browning became the volleyball coach at St. Mary’s when Cook was a sophomore, and Cook said, “I told him I would love to help out anyway I can.”
“He handed me a statistical laptop, and said, ‘Here you go. Help us,'” Cook said. “I went all in on being part of that program (as a student manager). It was a small staff and I am thankful for how much I was allowed to do.”
Cook was a math major and was a student of the analytics of the sport before it was popular. When he graduated, he was offered a job as paid, full-time assistant.
Cook’s plan had always been to be a high school math teacher and volleyball coach. Now it would be a new journey, which was fine with Cook, whose love for volleyball had grown while his love of theoretical math had waned.
Cook spent the next six seasons at St. Mary’s, rising to the top assistant. When Washington was hiring an assistant coach after the 2012 season, Cook applied for the job — the first time he had formally applied for a job.
Cook got the job, joining Jim McLaughlin, who had led the Huskies to the national title in 2005 and to three Final Fours, but none since 2006.
The team got back to the Final Four in Cook’s first season in 2013. McLaughlin stepped down after the 2014 season and endorsed Cook. So did several of the players. At 29, he was named head coach at one of the country’s top programs.
“It was a whirlwind as you can imagine (when McLaughlin decided to leave),” Cook said. “I remember a real sense of responsibility to a really good senior class, and I wanted them to have a really great end of their career and felt (like becoming head coach) was something I had to do more than an ambitious goal for myself.”
Cook, who led the team to Pac-12 titles in his first two seasons as head coach, said there wasn’t enough time to tell everything he learned from McLaughlin in their two years together, “but it’s a long list.”
“Certainly, I am not here right now if not for the opportunity Jim McLaughlin gave me to join this program,” Cook said.
Cook keeps a lower profile than McLaughlin, and his math mentality comes across in his coaching, and not just in his use of statistical data.
“It certainly gives me a clear vision and control of my emotions,” he said. “I think that’s the greatest gift it has given me. It allows me to see things clearly when things are storming out there.”
Last year, the team’s top seniors were players who had committed to UW while McLaughlin was still the coach. This is the first season where every player has been recruited and coached by Cook, and now he is two wins from coaching the team to a national title.
“I would be lying if I said I had these really big goals and dreams when I was a young person,” Cook said, “I was really into where I was in the moment. But I really do believe if you are in the present and give your very best at where your feet are now, that opportunities will find you. … If you can be good where you are, you can create some very special moments.”
Speaking of special moments, Cook last year married Sarah Ammerman, who watched the early rounds of the tournament from Seattle while tending to their new puppy.
“It’s been the best year of my life in terms of finding her and starting our lives together,” he said.
It might also be an unforgettable professional year for him.
“We want to win the national title, that’s why they came here,” Cook said of the players.
For Cook, it’s always about them.