In this edition of NCB’s “Where Are They Now?” series featuring greats from the University of Nebraska, Derek interviews former All-American outside hitter Tara Mueller.
Before starring at Nebraska, Tara Mueller was one of the most sought after high school volleyball players coming out of Desert Mountain High School in Arizona back in 2006. After leading Desert Mountain to consecutive Class 5A-II titles in 2005 and 2006 she drew interest from schools across the nation including UCLA, Long Beach State, Arizona, Arizona State and Loyola Marymount.
Mueller would then make an immediate impact in 2007 as she was one of three freshmen who played a significant role in helping the Huskers post a 30-2 record along with a NCAA regional final appearance.
Tara would finish her career as a two-time NCAA Regional runner-up and both a one-time NCAA National semifinalist and NCAA Regional semifinalist. Of her individual accomplishments, Mueller would be named a 2008 Second-Team All-American by the AVCA and Volleyball Magazine, the 2008 Seattle Regional Most Outstanding Player, 2008 First-Team All-Big 12, the College Volleyball Update National Player of the Week for the week of 12/15/08 and a member of the U.S. Junior National Team in 2006-2007.
Q: What made you decide to go to Nebraska as opposed to staying closer to home and attending one of the Pac-10 schools that were recruiting you?
A: It was my unofficial visit and I just remembered walking into the coliseum on gameday. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. I grew up going to Arizona State volleyball games. They play in a big basketball arena and they play in front of maybe a couple hundred fans scattered and that’s what I was used to.
When I came on my visit to Nebraska I remembered walking into the gym and it was PACKED. The atmosphere, the vibe and everything, I was like, “Oh my god, how can you not want to be a part of this?” It was amazing.
Then also, just the staff sold me.
Just being shown around and seeing the other facilities and staff – the weight room, the nutritionist, the strength coaches, the academic side of everything – it was just meeting all those people and seeing there was so much there to help you be successful. Lee Maes was there and obviously Coach Cook. I knew they had everything there to make me the best that I could be so I knew that Nebraska was the right place for me.
I have to add, the success of Nebraska, I wanted to win a national championship. This was the place I needed to be to make that happen.
Q: What was your first impression of Lincoln, Nebraska?
I remember going up with my parents for a visit. We flew into Omaha, rented a car and we were driving to Lincoln and I just remember thinking, “Oh my god, we are in the middle of nowhere! There’s a lot of field around here.” I didn’t know what to expect but once you get into Lincoln and you’re around campus and downtown it’s a lot better. It’s just like a mini-city. It’s kind of cool in that sense. It’s crazy because a lot Lincoln revolves around the University so it’s cool to be a part of that. It’s really a cool experience because the whole state revolves around that.
It’s also a lot of pressure, but at the same time that’s what makes Nebraska such a great place to play at and such a special place to be a part of.
(RE: the cold weather in Lincoln) –
Let me tell you, I did not realize how much I would miss the sun coming to Nebraska, or how spoiled I had been growing up in Arizona.
Q: John Cook is not only one of the best coaches in the nation, but one of the most demanding. Explain what a John Cook coached practice is like and how you felt when you first stepped on the practice floor for Nebraska?
A: Talk about intensity. I just remember showing up to practice wanting to do so good and show them what I could do but I knew I had so much to learn.
Coming from Arizona, volleyball isn’t that big there compared to California, Texas and the states close to me that have these really good teams. Everything is just so technical and the fundamentals, and everything I had to be retaught. On top of my fundamentals that I needed to fix or gain, the technical side of volleyball, I also had to learn different defenses.
I don’t think people realize how much scheming goes into the Nebraska defense, really. If you watch a game, you’ll see the middle blockers are always the ones they show showing signals behind their back and they get the signs from our coaches and everything’s code for a different defense against a certain player, or against a setter, or with what we need to do. That was definitely overwhelming.
I just wanted to go out and play and I didn’t understand all this strategy that was going on here and that’s what made Nebraska such a top program. They’re very prepared, they know what to expect, they know how to train and I mean there was a number of practices that I was just wondering to myself if I was going to get through this. Not just because of the physical side of it, the physical side I can push through. It was easier to get through that than the mental side of it.
Coming out of Nebraska I’m so much more mentally strong from just the demanding coaching style. I really appreciate that because it’s made me a better person and a better player all-around.
I definitely have to thank Christina Houghtelling. She was a Senior outside-hitter when I was a Freshman. She was the main person, you know, if I was in the wrong spot she’d be like, “Hey, Red Defense! You gotta be here! You gotta watch this! Expect this!” She helped keep me calm and relaxed and in the right place, doing the right thing and having me doing the right job that I needed to.
Q: Nebraska Volleyball has some of the best, if not the best, fans in the country – What sets the Big Red Faithful apart from other fanbases?
A: I think the biggest overall difference is that they appreciate the game. They understand the game. They’re VERY dedicated and that’s what’s so cool. I think we were playing Texas in the Coliseum and we had a couple really long rallies and we were going back and forth, really battling. Even when we lost a rally or that point, the fans still cheer because it’s just great volleyball.
Even if another team wins the point, they really appreciate the excitement of the game and they understand it. It’s so funny because you go some places and play and some fans maybe don’t understand that if there’s a touch off the block it’s the other team’s point. Or when people are arguing balls that are barely in or out. In Nebraska, they really understand the technical side of it and they understand what’s a good call and what’s a bad call. What’s really funny to me is if a ref makes a bad call, and it really is that, the fans got our back. Usually our fans are a little bit older so it’s pretty cool when you see them get fired up over a call.
I think Nebraska is the best place to play in the country.
Q: What’s it like to play in the Coliseum? What are your thoughts about the volleyball team moving to the Devaney Center?
A: Every year we play at Devaney so I’ve actually had the opportunity to play there. I think that when we play there once a year or every now and then I think it’s really cool for the fans that normally don’t get a chance to go to a game in the coliseum because of the demand for the tickets. I think it’s really awesome for an every once in a while game because I think we’ve either been close to filling the Devaney or actually have, but when that thing is packed it’s an amazing atmosphere. But, everyone is so much further and it’s not as intimate (as the Coliseum). This could be good or bad because, to be honest with you, sometimes in the Coliseum everybody is so close you can see faces on people. You know, sometimes I catch myself looking around. I don’t want to tell Coach Cook that because he probably wouldn’t be too happy with that, but you can see people’s expressions and who is out there like, “oh, there’s my parents” and in the Devaney it’s just crowd.
I like the Coliseum; I like how it’s intimate. I like being able to, I know it sounds kind of corny, but see my mom. I think it’ll be a good place but a different vibe for Nebraska Volleyball.
(The intimacy) has got to be intimidating for the road team.
I think it’s cool to think about going to the ASU volleyball games when I was growing up and watching them play in a big arena like the Devaney. To see it in two totally different lights from being filled (Nebraska) and all empty (ASU) is pretty cool. It’s really special that Nebraska has a fanbase like it does.
Q: What was your best volleyball memory as a Cornhusker?
A: First thing that comes to my mind when you say that is 2008 when we beat Washington to go to the Final Four. Not just because we won, even though that’s a big part of it, but the fact during that match we were down 9-3 in the 5th. That’s unheard of for a team to come back from that in that big of a match. I just remember feeling so calm and that I wasn’t even thinking what was behind us or ahead of us. I was really in the moment of playing that match, especially that 5th match. That’s something I think every athlete tries to embrace. Playing without looking back. That feeling is something that I still strive for. I don’t know if it sounds hard or easy, but it’s definitely a hard thing to achieve and I remember that game for that feeling.
(RE: playing Penn State next) –
You know what’s funny. When I get a little discouraged out here (Switzerland), I go back and watch those games on YouTube. I watch the Penn State game, or watch the Washington win. It kind of brings me back to how I can play and how things were in Nebraska and how cool and special that was.
Q: What is your favorite John Cook memory?
A: Oh my god yes.
Coach Cook is very intense and very focused, but he can also be personable. I don’t want to say you can go to his office and talk to him necessarily because every time he wanted to chat with me I was still like, “what did I do wrong?” so it’s not really on a personal level quite like that.
But, when we were in China in 2009 before my senior year, we were waiting to warm up and we were just kind of hanging out. Coach Cook, I don’t even know where this came from, but Coach Cook picks up a ball and he starts imitating how the non-setters set. Coach grabs the ball and throws it in the air and starts imitating (Lindsey) Light. Lindsey is a 6’4, 6’5 girl, and I hope she doesn’t get mad at me or reads this, but she waves her hands back and forth and she’s like calling for the ball and the flailing of her hands when she sets is the funniest thing. So Coach Cook is like making fun of Light for how she sets and then makes fun of Kayla (Barnwarth). Kayla has her own thing where she wipes her hand on her shirt as the ball is coming down and then see goes to set.
And there’s me.
So, I’m a little pigeon toed and you know my knees kind of go in, but I just say that I walk like an athlete. I kind of flip it. It just keeps me balanced being pigeon toed. So Coach Cook does me, turns his toes in, turns his knees in, and is running, and if you know volleyball I “deep dish” when I set. A deep dish set is not allowed in indoor volleyball, but in beach volleyball you’re basically allowed to grab the ball and throw it up so there’s no spin on it. That’s basically how I set. So, he comes up and imitates me setting and I couldn’t help but laugh. It was hilarious. It really looked just like how everybody else set. You never see him out of his “Coach Cook Element” like this. To see him let loose, make fun of us, and make fun of himself was pretty funny.
I wish somebody had it on camera. It definitely sounds like I’m talking about another person but I’m talking about Coach Cook.
Q: Where did life take you after your playing days at Nebraska?
A: I don’t think people know this, but right after my Senior year I was done with volleyball. I was burnt out. I really didn’t want to play again.
So I started working at the Venue in Lincoln, an awesome place by the way, waitressing pretty much all of last year. I was fine and if I didn’t watch volleyball or if I didn’t play it at all, I was ok.
The second I stepped back on the court and touched a ball I asked myself, “What am I doing?” This is what I need to be doing. This is what I love. I just needed a little break. So I’m like, “I gotta play.”
I played in a tournament over the summer with Brooke Delano and Sydney Anderson; we were all on the same team. Brooke had played in Puerto Rico and Sydney had played in both Germany and Puerto Rico so I was talking to those two and I told them I needed to get back on the court. They could see it. They could see it in my eyes and they could see it in the way I was playing that I missed it. So, I actually started talking with Brooke’s agent and gathered all the film I had and everything else I needed to get the opportunity to play. He then hooked me up with the job out here (Switzerland), but it’s not so easy after you take the year off.
The second I touched a ball again I knew this is what I got to be doing. I love volleyball more than anything.
Q: How different is Düdingen, Switzerland compared to Lincoln, Nebraska?
A: It’s pretty small out here also. We have sheep in our backyard so that’s pretty cool for me. It’s a very nice place. Dudingen is pretty much a small village. Everything closes at five everyday and nothing is open on Sundays. You have to prepare for yourself for the weekend because if you need something it’s not like you can just go to Walmart at ten at night. That doesn’t happen here.
The people are very reserved. They’re calm and I think focused. My roommate is from Sweden and I was talking to her and a couple of my other teammates about the pressure the people out here have on them – the school, work and success. I think it kind of makes people a little reserved. And then there’s me. I’m very loud and outgoing. I think they can tell right away I’m not from here but that’s ok with me. If you talk to anyone that’s played any sport overseas it’s a very different lifestyle and the sport is very different.
My coach out here has his own opinions about technique and strategy. Some of that I don’t necessarily agree with, but you don’t want to step on any toes. At the same time you know what works and we’re brought here to raise the level of the team. Any foreign player is brought in to raise the level. You’ve got to do what works, but at the same time you do what the coach is asking you. Sometimes that’s very difficult for me.
Let me tell you this though. Even though Nebraska is cold and it gets windier for sure, it gets cold here and it feels like it’s been winter the whole time I’ve been here. I’m waiting for the snow to go away and just be able to wear a t-shirt outside. I guess that’ll happen after I leave.
Q: You’ve helped out at various volleyball camps before – do you have any aspirations of coaching someday?
A: I would love to. I’ve coached club a little bit with 14 and 15 year olds and I’ve done the Husker camps in the summer. I think maybe down the road I’d like to coach, but right now I just want to be playing as long as I can. As long as my body lets me I want to play. You know maybe after that since volleyball is what I know and what I love. Why not share that with other people. It’s definitely something I’d be interested in whenever I’m done playing. Who knows where I’m going to be.
Q. Nebraska recently added Sand Volleyball as an Intercollegiate Sport this year – What are your thoughts on this and do you think this would have benefited your teams during your playing days at Nebraska?
A: I wish I were younger so I could have played beach volleyball in college. Really. Bottom line. I’m so jealous of the girls who get to do this in college. I was so mad when they introduced it after I graduated. I think beach volleyball is really one of the best ways to improve your indoor game. You have to do everything. You have to pass. You have to set. You need ball control. You have to be able to read the offense coming at you and stay balanced on defense. Really, every aspect of the game you can imagine you have to do in beach volleyball. I absolutely love beach volleyball. When I was at Nebraska we had a sand volleyball pit at Hawks and we’d go in there and we’d have to play 40 beach games a summer. I loved it and I think it just makes you a better player. It improves your quickness, it improves your vertical and I think it was really good that we did that. I’m really jealous.
I’m curious to see how it might take the professional beach volleyball to another level now since you have more girls going to college playing the game. Back then, unless you were a girl who grew up on the beach, if you wanted to play volleyball in college it was indoor. It’ll be interesting to see how the professional ranks improve and become more competitive.