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Huskers’ Winning Tradition: Surprise Return to the Top for Nebraska Volleyball

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Huskers’ Winning TraditionSurprise Return to the Top for Nebraska Volleyball

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Scott Bruhn

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln volleyball team entered 2017 with tempered expectations after losing three All-Americans and two assistant coaches from the previous season. But what began as a rebuilding year became a 32-4 national championship campaign for the overachieving Huskers, who capped an unexpected return to the pinnacle of their sport by defeating Florida in four sets in the NCAA title match on Dec. 16.

Thousands of Big Red fans made the trip to Kansas City for the Final Four, where a record crowd of 18,000-plus viewed the deciding contest.

While tradition-rich Husker football has been in the doldrums for two decades, the equally tradition-rich volleyball program has carried the school’s elite athletic banner. NU volleyball and its gridiron brothers have now won five NCAA titles apiece. This was NU’s second volleyball crown in three years and the fourth under head coach John Cook since succeeding program architect Terry Pettit in 2000.

Cook was an assistant under Pettit, whose stellar work at Nebraska—including one NCAA title (along with his overall contributions to the sport)—landed him in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame back in 2009. The current Huskers volleyball coach joined his predecessor as an inductee in the fall of 2017. Cook’s formal induction came only hours before facing the No. 1 seed Penn State in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Cook has said the 2017 Huskers, led by Papillion native and setter extraordinaire Kelly Hunter, were a joy to coach because they actually lived out their season slogan: “with each other, for each other.” That mantra got tested early when the young, inexperienced squad opened the season without an injured Hunter on the court and promptly suffered two losses—one against future NCAA finals opponent Florida. But the Huskers stayed the course and with Hunter back at setter the rest of the way, they rallied to finish the non-conference schedule with a 7-3 mark. The team really found its groove in tough Big Ten play, going 19-1 to share the league championship with arch-rival Penn State, and finished the regular season 26-4.

Hunter and fellow seniors Briana Holman (middle blocker) and Annika Albrecht (outside hitter) led the way with junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and junior libero Kenzie Maloney. Two dynamic freshmen—middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and outside hitter Jazz Sweet—rounded out the balanced team volleyball approach that became NU’s trademark. No superstars. Just solid players executing their roles and having each other’s backs, whether at the net or in the back-row.

Hunter, Albrecht, and Foecke did earn All-America honors.

Months before seeing Penn State in the semifinals, on Sept. 22, NU dealt the No. 1-ranked and star-studded Nittany Lions their only regular-season loss by sweeping them at Happy Valley. The Huskers earned the right to host a first-round NCAA Tournament playoff in Lincoln, where fans jammed the Devaney Center. Fifth-seeded NU swept both its foes to advance to regionals in Lexington, Kentucky, where NU downed Colorado and host Kentucky, dropping only one set in the process.

For their national semifinal match in K.C., the Huskers drew Big Ten nemesis and No. 1 overall seed Penn State. In an epic classic, the Big Red prevailed in five sets. Then, in the ensuing final against Florida, NU avenged that early season loss to the Gators in capturing collegiate volleyball’s top prize. Hunter and Foecke were named co-outstanding players of the tournament.

In 2018, NU loses Hunter, Holman, and Albrecht—look for at least one to be the latest Husker to make the U.S. national team—but the team otherwise returns with the core stable of their 2017 championship team. NU will add four top recruits to the mix, too. As defending champs, no one will underestimate the Huskers this time. A key to the season will be finding a setter to replace Hunter, the team’s on-court quarterback. Incoming freshman Nicklin Hames may just be the heir apparent in that key role.

But you can bet that Cook & Co. will stress the benefits of playing team volleyball in search of another title.

To learn more about how volleyball has become the top sport in Nebraska (and how Omaha plays an important role in the talent pipeline) be sure to pick up the January/February edition of Omaha Magazine featuring my cover story. Or link to the story here: https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/21/the-state-of-vol…rican-volleyball/

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The State of Volleyball: How Nebraska Became the Epicenter of American Volleyball

January 21, 2018 1 comment

The State of VolleyballHow Nebraska Became the Epicenter of American Volleyball

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine


For generations, football gave Nebraska a statewide identity. But with Husker gridiron fortunes flagging, volleyball is the new signature sport with booming participation and success.

Here and nationally, more girls now play volleyball than basketball (according to the National Federation of State High School Associations).

“It’s the main or premier sport for women right now,” Doane University coach Gwen Egbert says.

Omaha has become a volleyball showcase. The city hosted NCAA Division I Finals in 2006, 2008, and 2015, with the Cornhuskers competing on all three occasions (winning the national title in 2006 and 2015).

Packed crowds at the CenturyLink Center will once again welcome the nation’s top teams when Omaha hosts the championships in 2020. Meanwhile, Creighton University is emerging as another major volleyball powerhouse, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha has made strides in the Mavericks’ first two years of full Division I eligibility since joining the Summit Conference.

In the 2017 NCAA tournament, Creighton advanced to the second round (but fell to Michigan State). As this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press, the Cornhuskers headed to regionals in hopeful pursuit of a fifth national championship.

“The fact Nebraska has done and drawn so well, and that kids are seeing the sport at a high level at a young age, gets people excited to play,” says Husker legend Karen Dahlgren Schonewise, who coaches for Nebraska Elite club volleyball and Duchesne Academy in Omaha.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln first reached a national title game with Schonewise in 1986. The dominant defensive player set Nebraska’s career record for solo blocks (132)—a record that still stands—before going on to play professionally. (The Cornhuskers didn’t win the national championship until 1995.)

“I think the amount of kids that play in Nebraska is No. 1, per capita, in the country. I think the level of play is far higher than many states in the country,” says Omaha Skutt Catholic coach Renee Saunders, whose star freshman, 6-foot-3 Lindsay Krause, is a UNL verbal commit.

Volleyball’s attraction starts with plentiful scholarships, top-flight coaching, TV coverage, and professional playing opportunities.

Few states match the fan support found here.

“We have probably the most educated fans in the nation,” Saunders says. “They’re a great fan base. They know how to support their teams, and they’re very embracing of volleyball in general.”

The lack of physical contact appeals to some girls. The frequent team huddles after rallies draw others.

Omaha Northwest High School coach Shannon Walker says “the camaraderie” is huge. You really have to work together as a unit, communicate, and be six people moving within a tiny space.”

Volleyball’s hold is rural and urban in a state that has produced All-Americans, national champions, and Olympians.

The Husker program has been elite since the 1980s. Its architect, former UNL coach Terry Pettit, planted the seeds that grew this second-to-none volleyball culture.

“He really spearheaded a grassroots effort to build the sport,” says Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth. “Besides winning, he also worked diligently to train our high school coaches.”

“It’s important to realize this goes back many years,” former Husker (2009-2012) Gina Mancuso says, “and I think a lot of credit goes to Terry Pettit. He created such an awesome program with high standards and expectations.”

Pettit products like Gwen Egbert have carried those winning ways to coaching successful club and high school programs and working area camps. Egbert built a dynasty at Papillion-LaVista South before going to Doane. Several Papio South players have excelled as Huskers (the Rolzen twins, Kelly Hunter, etc.).

 

Their paths inspired future Husker Lindsay Krause.

“Seeing the success is a big motivation to want to play,” Krause says. “Just watching all the success everyone has in this state makes you feel like it’s all the more possible for you to be able to do that.”

Many top former players go on to coach here, and most remain even after they achieve great success.

Walker says quality coaches don’t leave because “it’s the hotbed of volleyball—they’re staying here and growing home talent now.”

“It’s us colleges that reap the benefits,” Bernthal Booth says.

Pettit says it’s a matter of “success breeds success.”

Schonewise agrees, saying, “Once you see success, others want to try it and do it and more programs become successful.”

“The standard is high and people want to be at that high level. They don’t want to be mediocre,” UNO coach Rose Shires says.

Wayne State, Kearney, Hastings, and Bellevue all boast top small college programs. In 2017, Doane was the first Nebraska National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program to record 1,000 wins.

“We’ve got great Division I, Division II, NAIA, and junior college volleyball programs,” says Bernthal Booth, who took the Creighton job in part due to the area’s rich talent base. She feels CU’s breakout success coincided with the 2008 opening of D.J. Sokol Arena, which she considers among the nation’s best volleyball facilities.

“All these colleges in Nebraska are in the top 25 in their respective divisions,” Saunders says. “It’s crazy how high the level of play has gone, and I think it’s going to keep going that way.”

“It’s really built a great fan base of support,” Mancuso says, “and I think the reason the state produces a lot of great volleyball players is the fact we have great high school coaches, great college programs, and great club programs.”

Club programs are talent pipelines. There are far more today than even a decade ago. Their explosion has meant youth getting involved at younger ages and training/playing year-round. Nebraska Elite is building a new facility to accommodate all the action.

“The athleticism found in the state has always been pretty high, but the level of play has definitely improved. The kids playing today are more skilled. The game is faster,” Egbert says. “When I started out, you’d maybe have one or two really good players, and now you could have a whole team of really good players.”

“You have your pick of dozens of clubs, and a lot of those clubs compete at the USA national qualifiers and get their players that exposure,” says Shannon Walker, the Northwest High School coach who is also the director of the Omaha Starlings volleyball club.

“Volleyball is such a joy to be a part of in this state,” Mancuso says.

“It’s cool to be a part of everything going on in Nebraska and watching it grow and develop,” Skutt freshman phenom Krause says.

“My goal is to make Lindsay ready to play top-level Division I volleyball by the time she graduates here,” Saunders says. “She already has the physicality, the competitive edge, the smarts. Now it’s just getting her to play to her full potential, which she hasn’t had to yet because she’s always been bigger than everybody. She’s definitely not shy of challenges. I feel like every time I give her a challenge, she steps up and delivers.”

Krause values that Saunders “gives great feedback on things I have to fix.”

Native Nebraskans dot the rosters of in-state and out-of-state programs. Along with Krause, Elkhorn South freshman Rylee Gray—who holds scholarship offers from Nebraska and Creighton—may emerge as another next big name from the Omaha metro. But they are both still a few years from the collegiate level.

UNO’s Shires says “impassioned” coaches like Saunders are why volleyball is rooted and embraced here. Shires came to Omaha from Texas to join the dominant program Janice Kruger built for the Mavericks at the Division II level. Kruger, now head coach at the University of Maryland, was previously captain of the Cornhuskers’ team (1977).

Further enhancing the volleyball culture, Shires says, is having former Olympian Jordan Larson and current pro Gina Mancuso come back and work with local players. Mancuso’s pro career has taken her around the world. She wants the players she works with at UNO, where she’s an assistant, to “see where it can take them.”

As volleyball has taken off, it’s grown more diverse. Most clubs are suburban-based and priced beyond the means of many inner-city families. The Omaha Starlings provide an alternative option. “Our fees are significantly lower than everybody else’s,” says Walker, the club’s director and Northwestern’s coach. “Anybody that can’t afford to pay, we scholarship.”

Broadening volleyball’s reach, she says, “is so necessary. As a result, we do have a pretty diverse group of kids. I’ve had so many really talented athletes and great kids who would have never been able to afford other clubs. We’re trying to even the scale and offer that same experience to kids who have the interest and the ability but just can’t afford it.”

“It’s very exciting to see diversity in the sport—it’s been a long time coming,” Schonewise says.

Forty-five Starlings have earned scholarships, some to historically black colleges and universities. Star grad Samara West (Omaha North) ended up at Iowa State.

Starlings have figured prominently in Omaha Northwest’s rise from also-ran to contender. Eight of nine varsity players in 2017 played for the club.

Walker knew volleyball had big potential, yet it’s exceeded her expectations. She says while competition is fierce among Nebraska coaches and players, they share a love that finds them, when not competing against each other, cheering on their fellows in this ever-growing volleyball family/community.

“It’s awesome,” Walker says. “But I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to reaching our peak yet.”

 

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