By Lincoln Arneal
One of the mantras of John Cook’s volleyball program is to dream big.
For Nebraska, it can’t get much bigger than hosting a volleyball match outdoors in the 85,458-seat Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska announced on Friday that it would play Omaha on Aug. 30 in a celebration of volleyball in the state at the 100-year-old stadium. The day will also feature an exhibition match between Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State in an exhibition at 4:30 p.m. and be followed by the Huskers and Mavericks at 7 p.m. The games will be paired with a music concert by a to-be-announced national recording artist.
The match at Memorial Stadium would likely be the first NCAA volleyball match played outdoors, not including the beach season. Playing outside would present new challenges in dealing with wind, humidity and sun. However, for the Huskers, who all play beach volleyball, the conditions would be similar to what they experience during the spring season, but with a more stable surface. However, Cook appreciated NU athletic director Trev Alberts’s confidence in their ability to pull off the event.
“It’s cool to be around people that dream big,” Cook said. “That’s what we talk about all the time. This is just the next step we can take to make Nebraska volleyball really special or more than it is and really put it on a world stage.”
Tickets go on sale Apr. 25 to season-ticket holders and to the public one day later. Tickets will be $25 for adults and $5 for high school-age and under. A ticket will gain entrance to both volleyball matches and the concert.
NU middle blocker Bekka Allick said she was pumped about the opportunity to play in front of a stadium full of Nebraska volleyball fans.
“They’ve got the right amount of crazy,” the Waverly graduate said. “I think it doesn’t take normal, chill fans to want to do this nor to want to fill a stadium like this. It takes that next level of passion, almost obsession, and just love for the game and to see their athletes do well and just want to be there for them like a family.”
Nebraska isn’t just seeking to raise the bar and take back the regular-season, single-match volleyball attendance record. Instead, the Huskers aim to annihilate the previous mark and launch it into a new stratosphere.
The event’s origins hatched last fall after Wisconsin hosted Florida, attracting 16,833 fans at the Kohl Center in Madison. The Badgers’ record erased the previous mark set by Nebraska and Creighton nine days earlier when 15,797 fans watched the instate rivals play at the CHI Health Center in Omaha.
Cook said he talked with Alberts about how to take the record back. Since Pinnacle Bank Arena can only hold 15,290 for volleyball, the only other option was the football stadium.
“We’re going to do this once, and I want to hope that the number is large enough that nobody dares even try to attack our all-time record,” Alberts said.
Allick said she took it personally when Wisconsin took away the attendance mark. She admits she gets a little competitive about anything and wants to take back the record.
“I get freakishly competitive about anything. If I’m in traffic and if someone accelerates too fast, I’m gonna take it personal,” the Waverly graduate said. “When I saw that they set the trend I was like, ‘Alright, game on.’ We don’t just roll over to anybody. There was a little bit of talk in the locker room. Then, of course, Coach drops the mic and says, ‘Yeah, we’re playing Memorial Stadium.’ Let’s pack it.”
The other three schools will receive $50,000 for participating as a bonus. If the event is moved to Devaney because of weather, their share will be $15,000.
Alberts said Nebraska would apply to the Board of Regents for an exemption to sell alcohol in the stadium, similar to the Garth Brooks concert in 2021. He also said the musical artist would be announced at a later date.
Before the 2022 season, Nebraska was part of the 12 largest regular-season crowds, which were either played at CHI Center or the original configuration of the Devaney Center.
Seven of the eight largest attendance figures for any volleyball match, and 12 of the top 14, all featured Nebraska in the national championship match or national semifinals. The 2021 NCAA title match between Nebraska and Wisconsin drew the biggest crowd to ever watch a college volleyball match with 18,755 fans at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The announcement press conference also featured Alberts, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, University of Nebraska system president Ted Carter, UNL chancellor Ronnie Green and all four head coaches.
Carter said he was excited to see all three schools in the Nebraska university system participate in an event celebrating women’s athletics. The court will be set up in the north end zone with the concert stage in the middle of the field. None of the speakers were shy about calling for fans to turn out and fill the stadium.
“I’m just not going to be happy with 20,000 or 30,000,” Carter said. “I want to challenge all Nebraskans. We have sold out this stadium for every sporting event we’ve put in that stadium since 1962. Let’s pack the stadium. But sell this thing out and show the world how great we as Nebraskans are as sports fans.”
College basketball has tried the outdoor experiment as four games have been played on the decks of aircraft carriers, starting in 2011. (Two more were scheduled to play, but condensation on the court canceled them.) The NBA played four preseason games outdoors, with the last three played at Indian Wells Tennis Garden near Palm Springs, California. The WNBA hosted a regular season game at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York, in 2008.
Pillen, who played football for Nebraska in the 1970s, said he thought about how special it would be for the athletes to participate in the event.
“This is Nebraska,” he said. “Innovation across the state and incredible innovation from Memorial Stadium.”
Pillen issued a proclamation declaring Aug. 30 as Volleyball Day in the state. He read off the list of accomplishments for Nebraska and the other three programs and even got a little choked up when reading the official decree. Pillen also presented Cook with a cowboy hat and dispensed the honor of becoming an admiral in the Nebraska Navy to the Husker coach.
Each coach of the four schools talked about what a unique opportunity this event would be.
Wayne State coach Scott Kneifl said he was sold right away on the event because it is a great opportunity to showcase his program and UNK. He told his team about the news Friday morning as they prepared to play Nebraska in beach volleyball.
“There were a lot of big eyes in the room,” he said. “They’re trying to process it a little bit, I think, but at the same time, I think that they’re super excited. They know this isn’t something that’s going to happen every year. I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and they’re just really pumped to be a part of it.”
The Division II season doesn’t officially kick off until that weekend, meaning the matting between Wayne State and UNK will be an exhibition. WSC finished last season ranked No. 5, while the Lopers were No. 15. They haven’t played a regular season match-up since 2015.
While Nebraska recently saw its regular season record taken away, so did Nebraska-Kearney and Nebraska-Omaha. They owned the Division II attendance record of 3,520 in 1996. Last year, Central Washington and Anchorage-Alaska played a match in front of 3,888 fans at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Although this match won’t count for the Division II record, UNK coach Rick Squires said they are working to bring that back to Nebraska as well.
“We’ve already had discussions on our campus about making sure that we also regain the home court attendance record,” he said. “We’re in the process of trying to pick out the right date and get everybody in Kearney to make sure we’re back on top.”
Largest regular-season match attendance
16,833 – Florida-*Wisconsin 3-2, Sept. 16, 2022, Kohl Center Madison, Wisc.
15,797 – Nebraska-*Creighton 3-2, Sept. 9, 2022, CHI Health Center
14,022 – Nebraska-*Creighton 3-2, Sept. 6, 2018, CHI Health Center
13,870 – UCLA-*Nebraska 3-2, Sept. 13, 2009, Devaney Center
13,412 – *Nebraska-LSU 3-0, Sept. 12, 2008, Devaney Center
13,396 – *Nebraska-Hawaii 3-0, Oct. 21, 2007, Devaney Center
13,081 – Cal Poly-*Creighton 3-0/Nebraska-Penn State 3-0, Sept. 2, 2007, CHI Health Center 12,504 – *Nebraska-Colorado 3-0, Nov. 4, 2000, Devaney Center
12,112 – Nebraska-*Creighton 3-1, Sept. 24, 2006, CHI Health Center
11,892 – Dayton-Western Michigan 3-0/*Nebraska-Illinois 3-2, Sept. 11, 2010, Devaney Center 11,529 – *Nebraska-Colorado 3-0, Oct. 22, 1995, Devaney Center
11,279 – Nebraska-Creighton 3-0, Sept. 8, 2021, CHI Health Center
11,076 – Nebraska-UCLA 3-1/Tennessee-Utah 3-2, Aug. 25, 2007, CHI Health Center
11,032 – UCLA-*Nebraska 3-1, Sept. 14, 1991, Devaney Center
* Host institution