By Kyle Koso
While many maneuvers in rebooting a college sports program require long-term patience, sometimes it’s a quick trip to success when the right factors come together.
Quite suddenly, the University of Houston volleyball squad has awakened from a slumbering era, very much timed to the arrival of head coach David Rehr ahead of the 2019 season. After seven years with Arkansas State, Rehr made the move to a program he saw as a “sleeping giant” and currently sits with a 10-2 record as Houston prepares to launch American Athletic Conference play Friday at home versus Tulsa.
Rehr’s enthusiastic embrace of the Houston job led to a table-setting debut season (16-17 overall) in 2019, followed by a West Division title in the American Athletic Conference during 2020’s COVID-altered campaign. Most notable, arguably, was the sight of four different Cougar players earning league player of the week honors – an indication the depth of the roster was emerging early.
“I didn’t even know that, but I knew we won a lot of weekly awards. To get three first team and two second team all-conference kids told me we had something special last year,” said Rehr, whose team had a 13-6 record overall. “I think the whole year was a pleasant surprise. This year, honestly, we wanted to see if last year was a fluke. We came up short in two matches, but we came close to the goal. We really didn’t have a spring – normally, you can break things down, revamp your team and fix problems, and we just had seven days where we could do something.”
There’s a logical core on the floor for Houston, with sophomore setter Annie Cooke running the show (471 assists, 10.02 per set) and primary outside hitter Abbie Jackson piling up kills (171 overall, 3.64 per set). Winning teams will always need a sense of balance, and the Cougars are enjoying that as well with good kill totals from Idaho transfer Kennedy Warren (109), Isabel Theut (98) and Kortlyn Henderson (92). Defensively, there’s a constant push at the net from Rachel Tullos (57 blocks).
Developing more touches and impact from the middles and establishing a deeper bench have also been important developments. It’s led to nice wins over Power 5 teams such as Oregon State, Oklahoma and Mississippi State and competitive losses to Texas A&M and Alabama.
“And there are growing pains that come with that success, the growing pains of being on somebody’s scouting report. But we’ve been able to rely on an all-conference setter and an all-conference outside (in Cooke and Jackson),” Rehr said. “Abbie is not just a banger; she can cut-roll and play any style she needs and can pass with the best of them, a true volleyball player.
“Kennedy came in as a transfer to help take some pressure off Abbie. We’ve had some great matches from (others), and we were looking to get some balance because we were so heavy on Abbie and Kortlyn last year. We can move some things around and not just be stuck praying that Abbie or Kortlyn doesn’t get hurt.”
Houston was picked second behind Central Florida in the AAC preseason poll, another sign of respect and evolution from 2016-18 when the Cougars were 34-58 overall.
Rehr readily admits there’s a long line of accomplished programs in and around Texas, which on the surface makes it hard for Houston to get noticed, even if there are recent improvements to facilities, locker rooms and practice courts. The Cougars are starting to get longer looks at players who have entered the transfer portal, and it’s likely more bright light will shine when the school moves to the Big 12 Conference in a couple of years, making Houston more appealing to the vast supply of top-shelf club talent in the city that, for now, tends to look elsewhere.
“There are moments where it’s exactly that, a daunting challenge. I’ll be at these huge club events and be surrounded by those who are there for the same talent you’re after,” Rehr said. “Big names, Power 5’s, and you’re fearful of getting beat out because of their name. But I like being the underdog, building and rebuilding. There’s the potential of this program, knowing the talent around … we’re elevating everything. We’ve got to improve the brand and the outlook on Houston volleyball; we thought it would be three or four years, but we’ve exceeded expectations. Eventually, the kids who should be here will stay home.”
Houston will start against Tulsa and Wichita State (6-3), then take on a serious test with four consecutive league matchups (Tulane, Temple, UCF and South Florida).
Plans for the 2021 NIVC continue to move forward; Houston coach Dave Rehr has participated twice in the event, once while at Arkansas State and once with the Cougars. Said Rehr:
“In basketball they have (multiple) postseason tournaments, and teams rally around tournaments like that. To teach your volleyball team how to play in December is crucial. To have the experience of extra practice and matchups against really quality teams can only make your team better. The volleyball community needs to rally behind the NIVC and see it for the value it is.”