The 1974 Volleyball Team Claims Its Spot in Husker Annals
By Lincoln Arneal
The 1974 Nebraska volleyball team exists in the pages of Cheryl (Nolte) Henry’s scrapbook – filled with clippings of photos and stories of its exploits.
The team exists in the memories of first-year coach Pat Sullivan, the dozen players and the scant fans who watched them play home matches in Mabel Lee Hall.
The team also exists in a letter sent to Henry on Dec. 13, 1974, apologizing for the delay in her financial aid. It was the first time NU female student-athletes had received scholarships for participating in athletics. Nebraska had run into “snags which caused considerable delay and uncertainty” about the disbursement date.
However, the 1974 team does not exist in the official record book of Nebraska volleyball. Despite being the first team supervised by the athletic department and awarded athletic scholarships, 1975 is the first season recognized in program history.
That means the wins and losses don’t count in Sullivan’s career coaching record, and the three seniors on that team – Henry, Vicki (Ossenkop) Highstreet and Denise Stange – are not recognized as letter winners in the media guide or on the wall outside the Nebraska locker room.
“We tell our kids this – we were the first, you know?” Henry said. “Then, we take them to Devaney, and our names aren’t there.”
The reasons provided by the NU athletic department why the 1974 team isn’t recognized are a lack of records and tradition. In 2000, the athletic department celebrated 25 years of women’s sports at Nebraska, commemorating 1975 as the first season. Also, a complete list of results for the first year didn’t exist, so adding them to the record book was all but impossible.
According to Nebraska media guides, the first official season of competition for most women’s sports happened during the 1975-76 academic year, including volleyball, gymnastics, tennis, softball and swimming and diving – even though all those sports competed the previous year. Women’s basketball is the outlier and cites the 1974-75 team as its inaugural season, going 9-7 under Jan Callahan.
“We just kind of fell through the cracks,” Highstreet said. “It’s like they were trying to catch up, and they really didn’t catch up.”
However, for the first time, the complete results of the first volleyball team with scholarship student-athletes have been compiled through newspaper archives. In 1974, the Huskers went 25-10-1 and finished second in the Nebraska state tournament and sixth in the AIAW, or Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, regional tournament.
Now with those records and conversations stemming from a reunion last fall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, members of the 1974 team can be included in the storied history of Nebraska volleyball.
“Can I live without being recognized? Well, that’s fine. But if you’re going to recognize it, let’s do it historically accurate,” Stange said. “Why are you ignoring us if we got scholarships? We’re no different than the next year – ’75. They were not the first class. The names are all over, starting with ’75. Their names are engraved on the walls at the Devaney Center. We aren’t that much of an ego people, but if you’re going to tell the story as a university and tell it historically, let’s do it accurately.”
Sullivan was on the job hunt in 1973. She was about to finish her master’s degree at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., when she traveled to Minnesota for a national physical education conference hoping to find a place to start her career.
While there, she ran into Gail Whitaker, who had graduated from Smith College a year earlier and was the tennis coach at Nebraska. Whitaker connected Sullivan with Madge Phillips, the head of the NU P.E. department, who was looking for someone to teach and coach swimming. After an interview, Sullivan was offered a job.
After some hesitation, Sullivan, who earned her undergraduate degree from SUNY-Cortland, received encouragement from friends on the East Coast. Seek out new experiences, they said.
“So I did, and I took their advice and would be forever grateful for that advice,” Sullivan said. “Because it was so different. It’s so different from the Northeast, and it opened up lots of doors and provided new experiences. I just put myself out there.”
After Sullivan’s first year, the volleyball coach position opened after Margaret Penney, who guided the team when it operated under the P.E. department, stepped down. The Nebraska administration knew Sullivan had volleyball coaching in her background, so she readily agreed to add another sport to her duties.
“I really wanted to be involved in the volleyball world,” Sullivan said. “That was really where I felt like I belonged.”
Despite feeling at home on the volleyball court, juggling her duties was challenging. For two years, Sullivan pulled double duty, coaching volleyball and then switching her focus to swimming. A few times, the sports overlapped.
Sullivan recalled one weekend when Nebraska was hosting a volleyball tournament in Mabel Lee Hall, and the swimming team was competing in the Big Eight relays in Kansas. Sullivan left the volleyball team in the hands of a local club coach while she accompanied the swimmers to Lawrence, Kan.
On the volleyball court, Sullivan inherited a large group of talented players from the P.E. supervised team. According to a 1974 season preview in the Lincoln Journal Star, the team went 14-3 the previous year, winning the state title and eventually placing sixth in the regional tournament. Behind a talented group, she helped NU improve on the court and recorded a winning record as an athletic department team.
“I was biting off a big chunk when I went to Nebraska, but we just built,” Sullivan said. “We were very successful in Year 1 and just kept on going, and I just kept on learning. You don’t ever quit.”
Although the team was successful in the P.E era, Sullivan added more credibility. Practices became more structured and intense. The group began doing different drills. Everything had a purpose. Individual development led to team development.
“Practice definitely went up a level,” Highstreet said. “The intensity – that definitely grew with her coming. She had the strategic mind for it. I think that legitimized what we were doing a little bit more.”
While she was only five years older than some of her players, Sullivan commanded the room and earned the players’ respect. She didn’t talk down to players if they didn’t understand a concept but would break it down into steps to help them master it.
Janice Kruger, a sophomore on the 1974 team, described Sullivan as a player’s coach and quite skilled at teaching the nuances with new techniques. Sullivan used motivation to keep improving and pushing her players forward. She’d take a simple concept like adding a short set to the middle blocker, teach the setter the move, implement the footwork for the attack and work on the timing between the two players.
“She keeps everybody rowing in the same direction, and it was managed in such a way that people know what’s going on,” Kruger said. “People know expectations, and people have fun doing what they’re doing. She was the best I’ve ever had. And I had a really good high school coach. Pat took it to another level.”
They came from Florida, Oregon, Massachusetts and all corners of Nebraska.
In late October, members from Nebraska’s first volleyball teams gathered for a weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX legislation and the beginning of women’s athletics at NU. Sullivan and 14 members from the early days gathered for a weekend of honoring the past, catching up with friends and enjoying the legacy they helped create.
Initially, the gathering was more limited. When invites were sent out, it was just for members of the 1975 team. However, when Sullivan saw the list, she sent an “extended email” to Nebraska volleyball’s director of operations, Lindsay Peterson, making the case to include the seniors of the 1974 team and the manager for both teams, Sandy Stewart.
“I said we have one chance to get this right,” Sullivan said. “This kind of a celebration isn’t going to happen again anytime soon, and these people are already old. So make this happen.”
Soon, invitations went out to the 1974 seniors and a few others left off the initial list. The ceremony would now honor the first two Husker volleyball teams.
Once the weekend arrived, the festivities started on a Friday with the former players visiting a Husker practice session. They shared a few thoughts with the current team and swapped stories.
NU coach John Cook said he received several notes afterward from players back for the reunion about how they appreciated interacting with the team and getting to know them. As fun as it was for the original members to meet the modern iteration of the Huskers, he thought the student-athletes also gained a new perspective from hearing about the early days of the volleyball program.
“I thought it was really great for our players to hear their stories because we talk about having an attitude of gratitude for everything they get now because they get a lot and more than any time in college sports for women,” he said. “We tell them the greater the rewards, the greater the responsibility. We’re trying to instill that in them. So it was good for them to hear that.”
That evening, the reunion included a banquet at Devaney Center where Cook talked to the group, and they shared memories from their playing days and caught up on each other’s lives. They also toured the Husker locker room, training facilities and medical treatment room – a far cry from what they used in Mabel Lee Hall.
Even though they stayed connected a bit over the years through phone calls, emails and Facebook, Kruger said it was a different energy when everyone was in the same room.
“That was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful treat to be able to connect there,” Kruger said almost three months later. “It’s almost like it was just yesterday. It’s a strong connection. It was just special times with special people. When you’re that young and you’re going through so many changes and growth, those things are significant in your life.”
On Saturday, they gathered at Susie Heiser’s family tailgate before being introduced as a group at Memorial Stadium during the Nebraska-Illinois football game.
That evening at the volleyball match against Maryland, 15 members of the 1974 and 1975 teams were honored after the second set, each individually introduced. The crowd never sat down, giving them a standing ovation the entire time they were on the court.
“That gave us all goosebumps,” Stewart said. “Having our picture up on the big screen at the Devaney Center and being introduced individually, we were getting the applause that we never got. That was really special.”
The current edition of the Huskers honored the original teams by wearing special jerseys that mimicked the look of the first team – a red outline of the state with the number inside and a red Iron N under the panhandle.
Despite her early protests about the invite list, Sullivan said the weekend couldn’t have gone much better.
“I wish we had a little bit more time just to connect, but I’m really pleased with the way the university handled their part to honor those people,” she said. “It was really about them and their contributions to the early days of Nebraska athletics.”
During the summer of 1974, the athletics department underwent transformative change. To comply with Title IX legislation passed two years earlier, sports began to migrate to the jurisdiction of the athletic department, and scholarships were offered for the first time. No longer would Sullivan report to the P.E. department. Her new boss would be Bob Devaney, the athletic director and recently retired football coach.
The change increased the women’s athletics budget from $15,000 to $60,000, with half allocated for full-tuition waivers. According to an article in the Daily Nebraskan, 39 women received scholarships across seven sports: volleyball, women’s basketball, gymnastics, softball, swimming and diving, tennis and field hockey. (Track and field competed in its first season in the spring of 1975, while field hockey was dropped after the 1976 season.)
The budget also paid for food, lodging, equipment, officials and transportation. It also included funds for a search to hire an assistant athletic director just for women’s athletics, which led to 25-year-old Aleen Swofford’s hiring in the summer of 1975. It was a whole new world for the players, who often had to pay for food and lodging when the programs were part of the P.E. department.
For the first four who received scholarships – Henry, Stange, Highstreet and Heiser – there wasn’t much fanfare. Social media didn’t exist to share the news. There were no signing ceremonies. Scholarships weren’t life-changing financial windfalls. When Kruger received a scholarship the following year, she learned about it through a casual conversation with Sullivan.
“I don’t even know if people knew” who was on scholarship, Kruger said. “It wasn’t something we talked about really. It wasn’t a real big deal.”
It wasn’t a smooth process either. Henry didn’t receive notification that her scholarship check was ready until Dec. 13 – the Friday before finals and three weeks after the volleyball season had ended.
While there could have been some division between scholarship players and those not receiving aid, Sullivan ensured it didn’t get in the way of any relationships. The low-key nature of awarding the first scholarships was part of her general approach. Sullivan tried to keep what was happening on the court separate from what was happening in the outside world.
On the court, it was smooth sailing for most of the 1974 season. The Huskers went unscathed through the first few weeks, winning their opening nine matches against in-state competition. After dropping a match to Chadron State, NU faced its toughest battles of the year at a tournament in Kansas. NU beat Missouri but split sets against Drake before losing to Kansas and regional power Southwest Missouri State.
The Huskers finished the regular season 14-4-1 before the state tournament. NU suffered its second loss of the year to Nebraska-Omaha but rebounded to make the title match against Kearney State. The Lopers controlled the match and won the title, but with a runner-up finish, the Huskers qualified for the AIAW Region VI tournament. NU went 4-2 in pool play to advance to the top eight. However, it stumbled on the final day and finished in sixth place with another loss to Kansas.
While reminiscing with players during the reunion, Sullivan pulled back the curtain for the first time on what was happening behind the scenes that first season. She was constantly working on getting all she could to support her team. She talked about how they got kicked out of the Rec Center racquetball courts, even though they had keys to the building. Sometimes, small details get overlooked when you’re launching an athletic department – like keeping records. However, whenever she could, Sullivan was there fighting for her players.
Support beyond the court was nonexistent. If a player needed an ankle taped, she better get in line to have a coach do it or learn how to tape it herself. If a player wanted to work out, she could use one universal weight-lifting machine, but she’d have to develop the workouts herself.
The players who had played as part of the P.E. department team didn’t know about the transition until it was almost complete.
“It was unbeknownst to us at that time that (Sullivan) was an employee of the athletic department and fighting new Title IX battles for our team,” Stange said. “As oblivious college seniors, we just continued to practice hard and improve as a team just as in the previous years because we loved the sport of volleyball.”
The history of Nebraska volleyball begins before 1974.
As alluded to several times above, the sport was played under the supervision of the university’s P.E. department for four years before transitioning to the athletic department and awarding scholarships. The team often played nearby schools and participated in now-defunct AIAW regional tournaments. During the 1960s, many women’s athletic competitions that existed as intramurals began evolving into club and extramural competitions.
Stange is grateful for the dozens of women who played volleyball as part of the P.E. department before she arrived on campus. She called those players the true pioneers, playing the sport even before Title IX.
“It wasn’t like there was no volleyball at UNL until ’74 or ’75,” she said. “That’s why we don’t want to step on their toes either. It was just by chance of timing and our age that we were in that first group. It’s nothing special we did.”
Volleyball also existed on the high school level in Nebraska long before the first NU team took the court. Having a foundation of high-quality high school players allowed the Huskers to pack rosters with Nebraska natives and win most matches early on. That early success has allowed Nebraska never to have a losing season in program history.
Sullivan said the high school coaches produced strong, fundamentally sound players. So when she got them in the gym at Nebraska, she wasn’t starting from scratch. Then, when she did start recruiting, she stayed local and didn’t have to travel far to find high-level players, and it helped that Nebraska kids wanted to go to Nebraska.
“I don’t know that I was smart enough to know what I was doing was what needed to happen,” Sullivan said. “At the time, we were going to move fast because pretty quickly, other people were going to catch up. So we needed to lay that groundwork. We needed to hold on to the kids from Nebraska. I needed to get better fast.”
Women’s athletics would continue to expand at Nebraska. With Swofford’s hiring in 1975, one of her first initiatives was to start a women’s sports information department – which might explain why records for 1974 teams don’t exist. Women’s sports employed their own athletic trainers, and Stewart assisted with fall sports. Golf was added for the 1975-76 school year. Scholarships and the budget continued to grow and women could begin lifting weights in Schulte Fieldhouse, where the football team worked out.
As time passed, the original Nebraska volleyball team moved on and spread out while continuing to impact the volleyball world all over the country.
Sullivan stepped away after the 1976 season and went into administration as an assistant athletic director. She thought it would be a long-term career move. The following year, she set up the first academic support system for women student-athletes, ran tournaments and provided support for whatever the women’s programs needed.
After helping out with a regional club volleyball team, Sullivan realized she still had a passion for coaching. She left Nebraska and headed back East to become the volleyball coach at George Washington. Sullivan led the Colonials for nine seasons, accumulating a record of 289-140. After retiring from coaching in 1987, she earned her doctorate in higher education from GW in 1989 and was inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame in 1995. She remains the winningest coach in program history.
Sullivan wasn’t the only person from that first team who went on to coaching success.
Kruger coached at Nebraska-Omaha and led the Mavs to a trio of third-place finishes in the NCAA Division II tournament and two AVCA national coach of the year awards. She later worked at Maryland for 20 years and became the all-time winningest coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 363 victories.
After short stints as an assistant at Houston and LSU, Stewart served as the head coach at Iowa from 1982-88, winning 136 games. The Big Ten coach of the year in 1983, she is still the winningest coach in Hawkeye program history.
Many others coached at the high school level or worked as referees, staying involved with the game in whatever way they could. Their passion for the sport shouldn’t be a surprise as many early players weren’t recruited and chose to play the sport independently. Plus, the coaching path was natural since many were physical education majors and were going into teaching.
For now, the 1974 team’s legacy isn’t found in any record book at Nebraska, but they know they set the program on an early path to success. After Sullivan left, Nebraska hired Terry Pettit, who would eventually win NU’s first national volleyball championship in 1995, just more than two decades after the original Huskers played in front of family and friends with ankles they taped themselves.
Sullivan said she is proud of the groundwork those early teams laid. However, she’s also passionate that all the players get credit for their contribution, especially that 1974 team. She regrets not correcting the oversight earlier.
When she returned for the 25-year celebration of women’s athletics at NU, Sullivan noted the 1975 team was recognized as the first. Alarm bells went off in her head, but she didn’t know how to correct the record.
“I feel like we’ve got a window here to make something happen,” Sullivan said. “Had I not been coaching somewhere else and heavily involved in like a million other things in my career, I would have taken care of that way back in 1977. I would have made that happen then, but that wasn’t high on my list. We weren’t posting stuff online. There weren’t media guides that everybody was looking at. We didn’t have that. I just took it for granted.
“I remember when we went back for 25 years, even at that point, they were saying ’75 was the first team. I just thought, ‘Well, you’re wrong.’ But what am I going to do about it now? Yeah, I should have jumped on it. I should have, would have, could have, right? But it’s not too late.”
Consider the record corrected.