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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Sports

UH volleyball ‘fired up for next year’ after accolade-filled season


UH volleyball freshman setter Annie Cooke during a regular season game against Rice on Jan. 24 at Athletics Alumni Center. | Courtesy of UH athletics

UH volleyball freshman setter Annie Cooke during a regular season game against Rice on Jan. 24 at Athletics Alumni Center. | Courtesy of UH athletics

The Houston volleyball team has been inching up the ladder of success for the past two seasons. In 2019, the program made its first postseason appearance in almost 20 years.

This season, the Cougars brought home its first-ever conference title since joining the American Athletic Conference, and they have no plans of slowing down any time soon.

“Winning the west was a huge goal for us and a huge accomplishment,” head coach David Rehr said. “Winning championships is our goal for the future.”

Before the win streaks, the titles and the records, there was practice, practice and more practice.

The COVID-19 pandemic put fall competition on pause, but the UH volleyball team didn’t give up on preparing so easily.

The team utilized the unique time to train and get better. After spending so much time on the court, it was no longer a foreign feeling by the time the Cougars faced Rice in the first game of the season, even for the freshmen and transfers.

“They felt like they were ready to put the product out there,” Rehr said.

It was evident that UH was eager to get back to it. The Cougars quickly moved up in rank with an 8-0 start in conference, which surpassed last season’s seven-game winning streak to start conference play, putting the UH volleyball team’s name on the map.

This year, the name was AAC West Division Champions.

After finishing third last season, the biggest change Rehr has seen in the program during his time at UH has been the personnel.

The Cougars have a lot more to offer than just the starting six. Along with a stacked team, UH is a young team, meaning there will be returners in each position, including each player who made it onto the All-Conference team.

Rehr doesn’t get too excited about his own accolades, but he’s not afraid to celebrate those that his athletes accomplished, which has left him unbelievably proud as he put it.

“That’s one thing I can kind of get excited about because that’s the hard work they put in,” Rehr said.

One of those players is freshman setter Annie Cooke.

Cooke’s course

Her historic campaign landed her both the American Volleyball Coaches Association and AAC Freshman of the Year and the AAC Setter of the Year, marking the first time a UH player took home a specialty award since 2005, and the first to snag the freshman prize since 1997.

“Before the season started, we all wrote goals down, and my goal was to get conference setter of the year,” Cooke said. “But it doesn’t just show my hard work, it also shows how much this program is growing.”

The Woodlands native led the AAC with 11.08 assists per set against other AAC teams, crossed the 60-assists line against SMU and tallied five double-doubles.

“We knew Annie was going to be good, we just didn’t know how good,” Rehr said.

While at times Cooke made it look easy to enter a competitive Division I program and lead it to victory, the transition from high school to college was a complete 180-degree turn, Cooke said When she felt the nerves, however, she was always able to ground herself.

“The biggest lesson that I learned is to control what you can control because a lot of times this year, I would get wrapped up in the results,” Cooke said. “I can control the effort I give. I can control the passion, my celebration. I can control how calm I am on the court.”

It’s simple to see the growth of a team from season to season, but Cooke saw the evolution of the program during the year.

One place specifically that grew was the connection on offense. Cooke’s connection with sophomore outside hitter Abbie Jackson was vital to the team’s success this year.

Jackson’s journey

Jackson, a unanimous selection to the All-Conference first team, led the AAC with 4.68 kills per set, a career and conference-high 32 kills over SMU and recorded five 20-kills performances.

“It was really cool to see that all my hard work was paying off,” Jackson said. “It really just showed me that I can do what I put my mind to and accomplish all the goals that I want to.”

She feels her freshman year wasn’t ideal, as she was in and out with injuries, but one major area of growth since then has been her leadership.

“I think as a freshman I didn’t really know where my place was yet, and I think just this year, I came in knowing that I’m going to have to be that leader,” Jackson said.

As a leader and second-year veteran, Jackson could immediately see how special this team was.

“The first time we came in and trained together, you could just tell the whole dynamic had shifted a little bit. We were just hungry for more than we had gotten last year,” Jackson said.

Wanting more seems to be a common theme for the team. Although they’ve made history in back-to-back seasons, the Cougars aren’t satisfied with how the season ended during the AAC tournament.

“I think we’re going to be fired up for next year,” Jackson said. “I think we have so much more potential.”

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