Incoming freshman named Gatorade National Player Of The Year

By Lincoln Arneal

Harper Murray’s trophy case just got a little more crowded. 

The Ann Arbor (Mich.) Skyline senior was named the 2022-23 Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year. 

To surprise her, Skyline high school athletic director Andre Criswell arranged a ceremony at the school where they filled the trophy case with Gatorade and invited her family and classmates to celebrate. However, as she was about to be presented the award, she took off running when her teammates tried to dump a Gatorade bucket of confetti. 

“To have the support of everyone around me makes it a lot more special. It’s so very surreal,”  Murray said. “I’ve seen girls I know get this award. I’ve seen a lot of athletes get this award, so it’s a really big honor. I’m very honored.”

Harper Murray
Harper Murray

Murray, who will enroll at Nebraska next week, is the fifth Husker player to win the award, joining Ally Batenhorst (2020-21), Lexi Sun (2016-17), Mikaela Foecke (2014-15) and Gina Mancuso (2008-09).

The recognition caps off an impressive prep career for the 6-foot-2 outside hitter. She was named Michigan’s Miss Volleyball and earned first-team All-American honors from AVCA and MaxPreps. 

In addition, Murray was named the Best Spiker at the U19 Pan Am Cup in Tulsa in August as she led the United States to a gold medal. She also participated in the Under Armour All-America game earlier this month. The No. 2 ranked prospect by also helped her club team, Legacy, win a national title in 2021. 

This season for Skyline, Murray recorded 726 kills (6.1 per set) on a .405 hitting percentage as the Eagles went 39-8 and reached the Division 1 regional semifinals. She also added 409 digs, 86 aces and 40 blocks. Murray finished her career with 2,488 kills and 1,460 digs. 

Winners are selected for athletic excellence, academic achievement and exemplary character. Murray graduated with a 3.62 GPA and participated in her school’s Rising Scholars Leadership Program, designed to create access and opportunity for underrepresented yet high-achieving students. She volunteered for the Vada Murray Endowed Fund for Cancer Research, named for her late father. She also served as a lead coach for the Skyline Rising Eagle Volleyball Clinic.

She is one of two incoming freshmen to win Gatorade player of the year honors for her state, joining Bergen Reilly, who won her third-straight South Dakota award. 

They will join five previous state winners on the Huskers: Bekka Allick (Nebraska 2020-21), Ally Batenhorst (Texas 2019-20), Lindsay Krause (Nebraska, 2019-20), Kennedi Orr (Minnesota 2017-18, 2018-19), Lexi Rodriguez (Illinois 2019-20), 

The Thriving State of Volleyball

Nebraska Continues to Lead the Way

Story by Michael Kelly

Every team starts its season aiming for the top, hoping to win a title. But this is a year for every fan, player and coach of women’s and girls sports to celebrate another kind of title – Title IX.

Laura Kelly Brus, left, was UNO's starting right side hitter in the early '90s. She and daughters Bridget, Addison and Jenna attended the NCAA volleyball final four in Columbus, Ohio, in December.
Laura Kelly Brus, left, was UNO’s starting right side hitter in the early ’90s. She and daughters Bridget, Addison and Jenna attended the NCAA volleyball final four in Columbus, Ohio, in December.

That occurred to me as I sat with my four favorite volleyball players – my daughter and three teenage granddaughters – Dec. 16 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, cheering for the Huskers during the semifinals of the NCAA volleyball tournament.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a section of a 1972 federal education law that changed the trajectory of girls and women’s sports in America. It required that institutions receiving federal funds not discriminate on the basis of gender.

Maybe that’s old news. But now in my autumn years, it was satisfying to be with my seatmates – all wearing Nebraska shirts, though the granddaughters have grown up in Ohio – and reflect on how things have changed. And to enjoy Husker volleyball, an exemplar of excellence in women’s athletics.

Amid a traveling Husker Nation contingent of thousands (after driving 100 miles from Cincinnati), we watched two matches and five hours of top-flight athleticism on semifinal night, with Nebraska and Wisconsin emerging to battle two nights later in the finals.

Former Nebraska volleyball player Renee Saunders now coaches in Omaha.
Former Nebraska volleyball player Renee Saunders now coaches in Omaha.

Though the Huskers lost in five sets (by a mere three points) in the championship match, the Big Red will reload and hope to make another run at a national title this fall – at the CHI Health Center arena in Omaha. If NU were to win, that would be (pardon the Roman numerals) Title VI for Nebraska.

Final Four weekend includes a national convention of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), and among those in Columbus this year were two widely known coaches from Nebraska. Deb Grafentin, who grew up mostly before Title IX, and Renee Saunders, who came of age afterward, provided long perspectives of the state of Nebraska as a hotbed for volleyball.

Deb Grafentin, director of The Volleyball Academy in La Vista.
Deb Grafentin, director of The Volleyball Academy in La Vista.

In 1974, Nebraska announced it would create an intercollegiate athletics program for women under the old AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women), and a volleyball team started up the next year. As most fans know, Terry Pettit, who coached Nebraska from 1977 to 1999, became the godfather who created the Husker volleyball phenomenon – at first, though, he had to set up a couple of rows of folding chairs for fans.

Grafentin, a 1975 graduate of Omaha Northwest High School, was a competitive runner and swimmer in state meets and didn’t play volleyball until college at the University of Miami in Florida. Pettit’s greatest gift, she said, was conducting clinics for coaches and players around the state.

“So many of us coaches benefited from the education Terry gave us,” said Grafentin, longtime director of the River City Juniors volleyball club in Omaha and former state champion coach at Millard North. “He constantly sparked our passion, and he has such a great insight for the mental part of the game.”

The Coliseum was home to Husker volleyball from 1975-2013.
The Coliseum was home to Husker volleyball from 1975-2013.

Saunders, the state’s high school girl athlete of the year at Omaha Marian, was a freshman on Nebraska’s 1995 national champion team under Pettit. After graduation, she got into coaching, and her Omaha Skutt Catholic team just won its seventh straight Class B state championship, a record string.

Beyond the University of Nebraska, she noted, volleyball in the state exploded in popularity years ago – in high schools, club volleyball and at other colleges and universities.

“A lot of it traces to Terry Pettit,” Saunders said. “It goes back to the grassroots work he did in clinics and in getting fans interested, too.”

The history of volleyball in Nebraska would make a good book, but a few highlights are also fun to recall:

  • Julie Vollertsen of Palmyra, Nebraska, didn’t play for the Huskers but went west to a junior college and became a starter for the 1984 silver medal U.S. Olympic team – the team’s only player not from California or Texas. (She later played professionally in Italy, married and lived there; a son played briefly in the NBA.).
  • In 1986, Pettit was named the NCAA Division I coach of the year, and Janice Kruger of the University of Nebraska at Omaha was the NCAA Division II coach of the year.
  • In 1987, UNO set a Division II regular-season one-match attendance record of 3,004. The 1996 Maverick team won the Division II national title, and Rose Shires was named national coach of the year.
  • Nebraska renovated the old Nebraska Coliseum in 1990, setting up a cozy, always-packed 4,000-seat arena for volleyball, with the pep band adding to the excitement. Under Coach John Cook, who took over from Pettit in 2000, the team moved to the Bob Devaney Sports Center in 2013, where 8,000-seat sellouts have continued.
  • Nebraska and Hawaii are the only volleyball programs in the country that take in more revenue than they spend. Fan popularity and extensive news media coverage have helped attract many All-Americans – including Olympians like Lori Endicott, Allison Weston, Kayla Banwarth, Justine Wong-Orantes and Jordan Larson, who has traveled the world for volleyball after growing up in Hooper, Nebraska, population 775.
  • In 2018, the Huskers and Creighton Bluejays set the regular-season one-game national attendance record of 14,003 at the CHI Health Center. The Jays won the first two sets and NU the next three.
  • Creighton has won eight consecutive Big East championships under Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, and last fall the Bluejays defeated reigning national champion and No. 3-ranked Kentucky. The other now-Division I team from Omaha, UNO, went 16-2 in winning the Summit Conference championship under Coach Matt Buttermore.
  • Dani Busboom Kelly, a former Husker and now head coach at the University of Louisville, was named the national coach of the year and signed a multiyear contract extension – with a provision that she could leave early if Nebraska called. (When Louisville played the Huskers in Lincoln last fall, she took her team to her farm home near Cortland, Nebraska, where players sat around a bonfire and enjoyed hamburgers from the cattle her family raised.)
  • In 2021, the AVCA named libero Lexi Rodriguez of Nebraska as the national freshman of the year. gave that title to Creighton hitter Norah Sis, out of Papillion-La Vista.

It was an unusual year, with the delayed 2020 national tournament played in the spring of 2021 in – where else? – Nebraska. Under pandemic protocols that restricted fan attendance, all 48 teams came to the CHI Health Center in Omaha. In a large convention space, they played on portable courts that had been moved in, including three emblazoned with the names Nebraska, Creighton and Omaha (UNO).

Pettit told the World-Herald that Omaha’s enthusiasm and its reputation for presenting major sporting events made it a natural site. “If Omaha ran the world dominoes tournament,” he said, “it would be the best dominoes tournament that anybody ever went to.”

Saunders returns a hit for the Huskers. She went on to coach at Omaha Skutt.
Saunders returns a hit for the Huskers. She went on to coach at Omaha Skutt.

It’s not just the NCAA Division I teams that do well in Nebraska. Division II, NAIA and junior college volleyball teams around the state also have excelled, including Nebraska-Kearney, Wayne State, Midland, College of Saint Mary and Bellevue University.

Volleyball clubs, too, contribute greatly to the sport’s level of play. Even 5- and 6-year-olds can learn the game, in a category called “Li’l Diggers.” Girls grow up playing volleyball almost year around, gaining skills early.

More venues have been built, especially in Lincoln and Omaha, as well as across the river at Iowa West Field House in Council Bluffs, run by the Omaha Sports Academy. Grafentin, who has coached for 41 years, is director of the Volleyball Academy in the Omaha suburb of La Vista, near 120th Street and Giles Road, just off Interstate 80.

The $4.2 million, 50,000-square-foot academy sits near the developing Nebraska Multisports Complex. That’s a reminder that multiple girls and women’s sports have benefited from Title IX. The Husker women’s basketball team this year drew more than 8,000 fans for a game at Pinnacle Bank Arena against Iowa.

Some breakthroughs are a long time coming. Rachel Balkovec, 34, who played softball at Skutt Catholic and Creighton, recently was named the first female manager in minor league baseball – for the New York Yankees’ Class A Tampa Tarpons.

Girls wrestling has arrived! In January, Papillon-La Vista won the sport’s first-ever Metro Conference tournament. The state tournament will be held in Omaha Feb. 18-19 in conjunction with the boys. Other girls sports are doing well, too, but high school and college volleyball is the state’s franchise.

The sport certainly has grown nationally. The National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis said volleyball passed basketball in participants in 2013. That happened in Nebraska more than a decade earlier. Last year, the state’s high schools registered 6,536 players for volleyball and 5,325 for basketball.

Players, too, seemingly have grown. Husker volleyball rosters from the 1970s and ’80s included few over 6-foot-1. In the early ’90s, NU’s powerful Stephanie Thater, 6-2, hit so hard that her kills were said to leave “Thater Craters.” Lisa Reitsma, 6-4, made All-America for the Huskers a few years later.

Saunders played at Nebraska from 1995 through 1999.
Saunders played at Nebraska from 1995 through 1999.

By contrast, in the fall of 2021, the Husker roster listed nine players at 6-2 or taller, including 6-4 and 6-5. Wisconsin also had nine of at least 6-2; one was 6-9 and another 6-8 – AVCA national player of the year Dana Rettke.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s,” Grafentin said, “I don’t remember players at 6-5. Now you see taller ones all the time.”

“In general,” Skutt coach Saunders said, “players have gotten bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic. And they jump higher. They exercise more and put a lot into performance.”

Though usually not as tall, back-row defenders and passers are just as important. Said Grafentin: “Volleyball at its most competitive level is wonderful. The long rallies create more intensity, and the crowd gets into it more and more. As hard as college women hit the ball, it amazes me how the liberos and other defensive players not only handle the ball but direct it to the setter.”

Sports for girls and women have come a long way since Title IX a half-century ago. Of course, it’s not without occasional controversy or lawsuits. In some cases, colleges have eliminated men’s programs to make the overall totals of male and female athletes closer to equal. In others, schools have added a number of lesser female athletes to teams, like cross country or swimming, seeking overall numerical balance.

Like thousands of other volleyball dads and granddads, as well as moms and grandmas and other fans, I appreciate that girls and women receive every opportunity to excel in sports – knowing that the lessons of persistence, focus and hard work will extend to other parts of their lives. Grafentin and Saunders said they want to help their amazing players become amazing women.

At the semifinals in December, by the way, my Ohio granddaughters didn’t just don Husker gear purchased that day. Their mom played for UNO and they have followed Husker volleyball on the Big Ten Network for years; they know the names and positions of all the NU players – as do many other girls of Husker Nation who love the game.

A lot happens on that court, just 30 by 60 feet, with nets at 7-feet-4. It’s a game of speed, power and artistry, where players jump and dive and block and slam – a game of many dimensions played high in the air and low on the floor, you dig?

In the years since Title IX, volleyball and other sports for girls and women surely have grown in leaps and bounds.

Mike Kelly retired in 2018 after 48 years at the Omaha World-Herald, including 1981-91 as sports editor and sports columnist.

Finally in Husker Red

Allick’s Mentality Gives Huskers a Future Star

Story by Shane G. Gilster • Courtesy photos

The Nebraska volleyball program is a factory, annually taking in some of the finest recruits in the nation and churning out wins and All-Americans.

Bekka Allick of Waverly is now on the front-end of the assembly line, signing with the Huskers this past November. Allick, slated to be a middle blocker at NU, is part of a three-player recruiting class ranked No. 2 by

Allick is joined by setter/defensive specialist Maisie Boesiger (Firth, Neb.) and outside hitter Hayden Kubik (West Des Moines, Iowa).

“Our Class of 2022 will all enroll early, and they are a very tight-knit group,” NU coach John Cook said. “They are great competitors and teammates, and all three will have a chance to play as freshmen next year. We are super excited to add them to the Nebraska volleyball program.”

The 6-foot-3 Allick ranks as the No. 6 player nationally. She attended Lincoln North Star as a freshman and sophomore and spent her final two prep years at Waverly High, where she owns the school record of 37 kills in a single match.

Allick was also a member of the U.S. U18 National Team and competed at the FIVB U18 World Championships where the Americans finished third. In the bronze-medal match, Allick finished with a match-high 13 kills and three blocks against Serbia.

She also played club for the VCNebraska program. Her 18 Elite team won a national championship, and she was named to the event’s all-tournament team.

Allick (middle) was a member of the U.S. U18 National Team that won a bronze medal.
Allick (middle) was a member of the U.S. U18 National Team that won a bronze medal.

“Finally, Bekka is going to be a Husker,” Cook said on signing day. “It seems like she has been committed forever. Being at the top of her position and one of the top recruits overall in this class, Bekka provides us some much-needed depth at the middle blocker position, and we expect her to make a big impact on our team from the day she steps on campus.”

It has been a long road for Allick to get where she is today. Her family moved from Essex, Iowa, and got her into the club volleyball scene with VCNebraska. VCN’s director, Maggie Griffin, played on the Husker 2006 national championship team.

“Bekka started playing for us around 11 years old,” Griffin said. “It was the first experience for her in organized volleyball. She was pretty tall and gangly. But you could tell she was different, she was focused and wanted to be good. She was a perfectionist with a unique mindset. One of those kids that don’t come around very often.”

Allick needed to be challenged, so at VCN she always played up a few age groups. She also experimented with every position. When she was 14, she started drawing interest from Nebraska and others.

“I received my first letter from a school in the state of Washington and my heart just exploded,” Allick remembers. “I framed the letter and showed everyone. It made me realize that people saw me seriously. But I knew I had to keep working because there were girls my age that were doing some things that I still wasn’t able to do.”

Allick was technically offered by Nebraska in eighth grade. She credits VCN, which helped her in the recruiting process, for shielding her from all the college attention at that stage.

It wasn’t determined which position Allick fit the best until she was 16. That’s when Griffin saw that middle blocker was going to be her position in college. They then concentrated on improving position-specific skills.

“If it wasn’t for VCN, I don’t think I would be going to Nebraska because the way they run things is so similar to NU,” Allick said. “VCN was into servant leadership, doing the small things, like there is never a job that you are too big to do, like shagging balls and a policy of always being within 10 steps of each other. I have never seen a club install mature habits in its athletes. Teaching you how to be strong, respectful women, as well as athletes.”

Those principles helped Allick make it through a tough junior year when she broke her leg and missed half the season.

“We were playing Wahoo, she went up and when she came down, she just crumpled to the floor,” said Waverly coach Terri Neujahr. “She didn’t get back to playing until the next March for VCN. It was a six-month rehab process. … She had to do a lot of soul searching and had to pull herself out of the abyss of mental struggles.”

For every athlete, Neujahr said, the hardest part of recovery is the mental aspect.

“She was trying to get on Team USA, to play at Nebraska, all these elite things, and really did a fantastic job overcoming and getting back to the level she was playing at.”

Allick credits her mother, Colleen, for helping her face hardships and challenges. Colleen’s message to her daughter has always been to “Woman Up.”

“She just wanted to get me ready for the real world,” Allick said of her mother. “She is an independent woman, a single mom. One of her pillars of parenting is, ‘You always finish what you start.’ So, if I started a basketball season and hated it within the first month, she told me to stick it out, be respectful, finish it, and then don’t go out next year if you don’t want to.”

Her mental game makes Allick unique. She considers herself a “try-hard” and feeds off high-intensity situations and competition.

“My favorite plays are when everyone is scrambling and taking their biggest swings and chasing balls down,” she said. “It’s like a dog fight, and I like being a dog and getting after it.”

Playing for an elite volleyball program like Nebraska is going to be an adjustment, she said, and there is a lot to learn.

“It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you can’t find your role on the team, it’s never going to work,” she said. “I am all for a challenge, if you’re not being challenged, you are not growing. If you are sitting comfortable at one point, you are going to get worse. I don’t think Cook would have asked me to be on the team if he didn’t think I could compete with the girls. If I am able to beat them out, that just shows that I am progressing at my game.”

Neujahr has high expectations for her former player. She knows what it takes to play at Nebraska having coached under Terry Pettit at NU for two years along with Cook, then a fellow assistant.

“I have the expectation that at some point Bekka will start at Nebraska,” she said. “A small part of me can even see her starting at middle blocker next year. The jump from a high-level high school to college at Nebraska though is immense. But Bekka has that mindset to do it. She could someday become a first-team All-American and then have a shot of being on the Olympic team.”

If all those possibilities come to fruition, Allick knows who ultimately receives the credit.

“I get my talent from God,” she said. “God put this dream in my heart and I have been chasing it ever since.”

The Right Combination

Callin Hake’s Playing Style Fits the Husker Mold

Story by Shane G. Gilster • Courtesy photos

The Nebraska women’s basketball team likes to use interchangeable parts to play fast on offense and pressure the ball on defense, and it’s effectively recruiting players who fit the machine.

The latest player to be tabbed by the Huskers to fit the system is 5-foot-8 guard Callin Hake.

“She is going to be a versatile guard who can bring a lot of things to our team on the basketball court,” said NU coach Amy Williams. “I love that she is committed to playing hard on both ends of the court. Not only is Callin the perfect fit for us on the court, but she fits our family. She is not afraid to work and understands how to be a great teammate.”

Hake is currently a senior at Chanhassen, a 4A high school – the state’s largest for basketball – in suburban Minneapolis. After committing to NU in July of 2020, Hake signed her National Letter of Intent with the Huskers on Nov. 10. She’s set to join NU for the 2022-23 season.

“Nebraska really fits my style of play,” Hake said. “They are penetrating and then kicking it out and getting after it on defense, turning it into easy buckets. I like to pressure the heck out of everyone and want my on-ball defense to consistently keep getting better. I will talk it up on defense believing in chaos and noise as the best way to throw off your opponent.”

Among the first things Williams said to Hake was that she liked her heart and passion. “That just spoke to me because it’s true,” Hake said. “That can carry you a long way because you can’t teach those things.”

Hake brings impressive credentials as the No. 7 player in Minnesota and the No. 64 player in the nation by Prep Girls Hoops. Hake is already Chanhassen’s career scoring leader, having played on the varsity level as an eighth-grader, and is poised to hit 2,000 career points.

Hake started playing high school basketball as an eighth-grader.
Hake started playing high school basketball as an eighth-grader.

She averaged more than 20 points a game as a freshman, sophomore and junior. Hake also played for the Minnesota Fury, a highly competitive AAU program.

Hake’s high school coach calls her “the best player by far that we have had in our program.”

“She is the hardest worker that I have ever seen in high school or college in my coaching and playing career,” said Chanhassen coach Kayla Walsh, who played one college season at Iowa. “She has always been our go-to guard and can really do it all at either point or on the wing. She is the first one in the gym and last one to leave. She is always in the weight room and does personal film sessions with me. The sky is the limit for her.”

Hake uses strength and tenacity to be a factor on both ends. Walsh described her as a lockdown defender with a great ability to drive and finish. But that’s not all. Walsh said Hake can hit from mid-range and from 3-point range. Plus, her basketball IQ is top-notch.

“She is a natural leader, being a two-year captain for us,” Walsh continued. “She is a natural coach and could run practices for us if she had to. She is always calm, cool and collected. You are never going to see her eye-rolling or getting upset.”

Walsh believes Hake’s speed and quickness is Big Ten caliber and that her work ethic will have her in position to play early. “Nebraska is big on family and Hake has that whole mindset,” Walsh said. “They are a close-knit team with coaches that are supportive.”

Nebraska has had success recruiting Minnesota. Sam Haiby, Annika Stewart and Kendall Coley all have turned out to be good Husker fits after moving south. In particular, the versatile Haiby is a prime example upon whom NU would like Hake to model her game.

“We are fortunate right now where we have a lot of kids who are capable of playing that point-guard position,” Williams said. “But in certain situations and circumstances like set plays, we have some kids who can run the point position. Sam has the ability to go back and forth for us so we can have multiple point guards on the court at the same time.”

Hake’s background and upbringing has enabled her to be a flexible player with an all-around skill-set.

Hake’s parents both went to Wartburg College in Iowa, where her mom was a track-and-field athlete and her dad played football. Her parents had her play almost every sport available at the youth level, and her dad coached her in basketball since the second grade.

But Hake credits soccer as the sport that improved her game most. In fact, she liked soccer more than basketball until seventh grade when that feeling switched.

“I fell in love with the physicality and speed of the game of basketball,” she said. “Soccer made me a better basketball player because of the technicality, focus and IQ you need with soccer. The foot skills in soccer increased my footwork on the basketball court.”

On the academic side, Hake plans to major in marketing with a minor in biology. Her plan is to someday go into medical sales.

“The university provides endless opportunities that other schools in the Midwest do not have,” Hake said. “Nebraska checked all my boxes for me and my family. The coaching staff and the team’s character are unbelievable. You can just tell the girls on the team are best friends on and off the court.”

Big Red in the Bayou

Huskers Established Louisiana Recruiting Pipeline in the 1980s

Story by Shane G. Gilster • Photos by NU Sports Information & Huskers Illustrated Archives

There was a time when the fertile recruiting ground of Louisiana was still partially untapped, when many of the state’s talented players were not only ignored by Southeastern Conference schools, but by the state’s flagship university, LSU.

For a college coach and film-studier like Tom Osborne, it wasn’t difficult to see the number of potentially good players from Louisiana who weren’t getting a chance to play in a major conference. Osborne also saw how Oklahoma was able to convince good players to leave Louisiana and move north, albeit not as far north as Nebraska. The difficulty seemed to be convincing the young men to give another part of the country a chance.

Jack Pierce with Tyrone Hughes. Hughes was a fifth-round pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.
Jack Pierce with Tyrone Hughes. Hughes was a fifth-round pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.

To do that job, Osborne turned to assistant coach Jack Pierce, a former high school coach at Anniston, Alabama, who knew the South better than others on NU’s staff. Osborne made the state a priority, assigning defensive ends coach Tony Samuel to the Bayou beat as well.

The challenge as they saw it: Highlight the positives of a comparatively cold yet football-loving university and state, and convince young athletes to leave the warmth and Southern culture, which was all most had ever known.

“We looked at the kind of high school kids who were playing down there and looked at the LSU team and thought they were not doing a good job recruiting their home state,” Pierce said. “So Tony had the north half of the state and hit the Gramblings and Shreveports and that area, and I did the southern half of the state. We hit all the major high schools, from Lafayette to New Orleans, up the whole coastline. We covered it pretty darn well.”

As fate would have it, Nebraska already had a connection in the New Orleans area, which became Pierce’s main recruiting focus.

Burton Burns, who played at Nebraska, was the football coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. Burns helped Pierce and Samuel by letting them in his film room to watch players from around the state.

It also didn’t hurt that the Cornhuskers played LSU in the Sugar Bowl in 1985 and again in 1987, right in the heart of New Orleans. NU would hammer the Tigers both times, raising the Huskers’ profile locally.

“Playing in the Sugar Bowl in ’85 and ’87 brought a lot of attention to our program,” Pierce said. “I loved going to the Sugar Bowl because it affected my recruiting area in Louisiana. That was when we really started making inroads with those Louisiana kids. For me, it was like someone gave me a bonus to go to the Super Bowl, because it really paid off in helping me recruit these kids to play for Nebraska.”

LeRoy Etienne was a two-time All-Big Eight player.
LeRoy Etienne was a two-time All-Big Eight player.

Pierce’s recruiting philosophy involved being around the high schools as much as possible and repeatedly telling prospects how much they were wanted at Nebraska.

He would frequently stop by and talk to the coaches and remind them what Nebraska’s plans were for their kids. Pierce then would tell kids that he wouldn’t be there recruiting them if he didn’t think they could be a first- or second-year starter.

“I would drill into the kids’ minds about their ability to play and how they would fit into what we were trying to do,” Pierce said. “Tom would talk about how we would treat them like our sons, make sure they go to classes and graduate. That type of recruiting combination with the parents really resonated.”

Pierce was always on the lookout for that special player who might open once and for all the recruiting pipeline to Nebraska. He found him, but in a roundabout way.

Pierce was looking at a quarterback in New Orleans when a high school coach named LaBaron Kennedy at McDonough 35 told him about a player on his team who was tall and scrawny but could run like the wind.

As Pierce watched the kid’s film, he quickly recognized what Kennedy was talking about.

“All you had to do was watch one reel of film on him,” Pierce said. “He was only 6-foot-5, 208 pounds, but he never quit. He would run across the field making hits and tackling people into the band. He had a wingspan of a small condor and looked like a giant on the field.”

Neil Smith was drafted second overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1988.
Neil Smith was drafted second overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1988.

That giant was future All-American and NFL Pro Bowler Neil Smith. When Pierce got the OK from Osborne to recruit him, Smith couldn’t believe he might have the opportunity to play for a powerhouse like Nebraska. To that point, the only schools recruiting him were Grambling and Southern.

“Jack saw me and saw the motor and energy I had,” Smith said. “Football wasn’t something that I really tried hard at. It was something I just did because my high school team needed some bodies. Nebraska saw something in me and made a decision that I was a guy they wanted.”

Even though NU was recruiting him hard, Smith still wasn’t guaranteed a spot because the Huskers were down to their last scholarship for the 1984 recruiting class.

“They were waiting on an offensive lineman. If he committed then I wouldn’t get it, but it just so happened that an offensive lineman went to Oklahoma and I got the last scholarship. So, they called me the sleeper of the class,” Smith said, laughing.

Smith was thankful Nebraska took a chance on him, and NU got a player who might be the biggest recruiting steal in program history.

“It was a turning point in my life,” Smith said. “Back then, my family didn’t have the money to send me to a major school. I grew up in the projects in poverty, and I always said to myself that if I was going to make something of myself, I had to go out of state, and this was the perfect opportunity to go to Nebraska. Sometimes in life you get put in a position for a reason. By the blessings of God, Jack Pierce saw something in me on film.”

Thanks to Nebraska’s weight and conditioning program, Smith increased his weight to 260 pounds and would go on to become one of the Huskers’ all-time best on the defensive line. He was the second overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, and went on to play 13 seasons in the league, making the Pro Bowl six times and earning two Super Bowl rings.

“The weight, diet and conditioning program at Nebraska made me into the player I became,” Smith said. “Going to school there, attending one of the greatest universities in the world, also made me a better person and a better professional player. Lincoln was a big part of my success, and I met some of my best friends there.”

“Another good thing about my story,” Smith said, “was that I had the opportunity to open the recruiting window to the state of Louisiana for Nebraska.”

Smith’s success at Nebraska gave Pierce even more clout around Louisiana, but he knew that he still needed to learn the local culture and football language to really connect with the kids and their coaches.

“We went to coaching clinics in Louisiana, and even when we were not speaking, we came and sat in on them. I spent many a time talking to coaches late at night learning their terminology. We got to know a lot of the coaches and the great part about it was, once they got to know you down there, you are friends forever.”

It wasn’t long before the Louisiana players who followed Smith to Nebraska weren’t diamonds in the rough, but state players of the year.

“Neil was the first kid that got the ball rolling with getting kids from Louisiana,” Pierce said. “So then it opened the door to the more highly profiled players like LeRoy Etienne from New Iberia, Reggie Cooper from Slidell, Mickey Joseph from Shaw in Marrero and Tyrone Hughes from St. Augustine in New Orleans.”

Etienne was the state’s two-time defensive player of the year in 1984 and 1985. Joseph and Cooper were the 1986 offensive and defensive players of the year. Hughes was the 1987 offensive player of the year.

All credit Pierce as among the main reasons they wanted to go to Nebraska.

“Jack was the man,” Joseph said. “He would go into the projects and get the players. Jack came in and laid it all on the line. He was honest and real; nothing fake about him. He treated us like family and that was all we needed.”

Joseph not only was the state offensive MVP but a USA Today and Parade All-American. He was rated as the top high school quarterback recruit in the nation and No. 4 player overall by the National High School Football Recruiting Service before signing day in 1987.

“It came down to Nebraska and Oklahoma,” Joseph said. “I orally committed to OU and then committed to Nebraska. I thought the wishbone at OU was more of an offense that I would be pretty good in as opposed to Nebraska’s offense, which ran the option out of the I formation. But my mom fell in love with Coach Osborne and felt he was the right person to groom me.”

Cooper knew Joseph well and decided to join him at Nebraska. For him, it was either stay in-state or go to Nebraska.

Cooper was also recruited hard by Oklahoma and SEC schools, but after going to the 1987 Sugar Bowl to watch Nebraska hammer LSU, he was sold on the Huskers.

“I went inside the Nebraska locker room to meet the players like Neil Smith, and I just felt comfortable. I wanted to get away from home for college, and Mickey and I talked about going to Nebraska together,” Cooper said.

Pierce did his job selling Nebraska to Cooper’s parents. “Jack made everyone in my house feel comfortable about me going to Nebraska,” Cooper said. “They just had me look at the depth chart and told me how I was going to get a shot to play. Jack was just real. What I mean by that was there were a lot of recruiters you could tell were full of it, but Jack was fun-loving, outgoing, personable and trustworthy.”

Pierce remembers well the recruitment of Cooper and laughed as he recounted a story when he signed the highly recruited athlete in Slidell.

“The LSU coaches claimed I recruited Reggie illegally, but I didn’t,” he said. “I had run out of visits at his high school. This was back in the day when you could sign the kid at his high school. So I had Reggie come out to me and he signed his letter of intent on the hood of a Cadillac, and that photo ran in the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune sports section with the headline: ‘Cooper to Nebraska?’ The Cadillac was my rental car, but they were questioning whose car it was.”

Hughes’ father was a car salesman and got a lot of pressure from his co-workers for his son to go to LSU. The dealership even put up a sign that said, “Hodson to Hughes.” Tommy Hodson was the quarterback for LSU at the time.

“Jack Pierce was the main reason why Nebraska got me to come there,” Hughes said. “I was sold on Nebraska the day I met Jack. He sold the school by being honest with you. He looked you in the eye and you just knew what kind of man he was. My mom liked Nebraska because of Jack, but my dad wanted me to go to LSU.”

Hughes’ teammates at St. Augustine, linebacker David White and wingback Vincent Hawkins, also liked Nebraska and all three played at Nebraska together. White and Hawkins also had high praise for Pierce.

“If it wasn’t for Jack, I wouldn’t have even considered Nebraska,” said White, who wanted to go to college out of state and had Notre Dame and Oklahoma on his final list. “Once I visited Lincoln, it helped a lot that Reggie and Mickey were my recruiting hosts. I thought, ‘If they could adjust up there, I could do it too.'”

Said Hawkins: “Jack could relate to a rock. He was ‘Mr. Personality.’ He interacted well with my high school coach (Burton Burns) and they were good friends. Nebraska was a successful program with good, humble coaches. There wasn’t a sense they were doing things inappropriately and that I could cut corners by going to college there.”

It seemed Pierce had the magic touch. But he narrowly missed on two prized recruits.

Kordell Stewart was a star quarterback at John Ehret High School in Marrero and the state MVP. Pierce thought he had him until Colorado came in with a newly hired offensive coordinator and eventually won Stewart over.

Then there was Marshall Faulk who attended George Washington Carver in New Orleans. Pierce got Faulk to visit Lincoln but before he arrived on campus, Pierce told the other NU coaches to not mention Faulk as a possible defensive back recruit.

“As we were all walking up the stairs in South Stadium, the first thing our defensive back coach (George Darlington) told him was that he would look good back-pedaling as a defensive back,” Pierce remembered. “The kid’s face just dropped and it hit the stairs. He then got it in his mind that we didn’t want him as a running back and we had trouble convincing him otherwise. He went on to play running back at San Diego State.”

But the kids Pierce and Nebraska got were the right fit for the Husker program.

Smith, Etienne and Cooper were first-team All-Big Eight selections. Hughes led the Big Eight in kickoff returns in each of his last three years, finishing as NU’s record-holder in kickoff returns and second all-time in career punt returns. Joseph quarterbacked NU up to a No. 3 ranking during the 1990 season, and White and Hawkins were key contributors on the Husker Big Eight championship teams in 1991 and 1992.

“They believed in work and they were honest kids,” Pierce said. “They were about family, they worked hard, and if they said something to you, it was going to be done.”

Bolt Has a Loaded Deck

Depth and Starting Pitching Are on Huskers’ Side

Story by Steve Beideck • Photos by Amarillo Mullen

An experienced pitching staff and no 2022 recruits electing to turn pro are two big reasons for optimism about the upcoming Nebraska baseball season.

Left-hander Kyle Perry returns after Tommy John surgery.
Left-hander Kyle Perry returns after Tommy John surgery.

There are plenty of other signs that point to a successful campaign, but third-year Huskers coach Will Bolt said those two elements don’t occur as often as coaches would like.

“This is my first year since being here that we have a strong number of third- and fourth-year pitchers, guys who have been in the fire and have quite a bit of experience,” Bolt said. “With a bit of a shift in the roster dynamic, that’s a nice advantage to have.”

Nebraska has a large group of first-year players, including three in the signing class unveiled in November who are ranked among the nation’s top 200 recruits.

With the bumper crop of newcomers vying for playing time, an experienced pitching staff will give potential new starters a chance to settle in as the season progresses for the Huskers, ranked as high as No. 22 in the preseason.

Among experienced hurlers vying for extended playing time are juniors Braxton Bragg (Liberty. Missouri), Texas A&M transfer Mason Ornelas and Colby Gomes out of Millard West. Others include seniors Koty Frank (Tushka, Oklahoma), Shay Schanaman of Grand Island and Kyle Perry of Millard South, who returns after missing the 2021 season for Tommy John surgery.

Right-hander Braxton Bragg is part of a deep staff.
Right-hander Braxton Bragg is part of a deep staff.

The Huskers lost all four captains from the 2021 team that played in an NCAA Regional championship game for the first time since 2007 and won the Big Ten championship by 3.5 games.

“Getting all of our signees to campus helped to build some of the general excitement for this season,” Bolt said. “Any good team I’ve been a part of has that healthy competition. There will be a lot of competition with a lot of talented freshmen.”

The 2021 recruiting class, a larger-than-normal group for the Huskers, was ranked No. 20 by Perfect Game and No. 36 by Collegiate Baseball. While Bolt and his staff don’t put a lot of stock in those ratings, he said the plan was for a big class for the 2022 campaign.

“This class was larger by design,” Bolt said of the 10 signees. “It’s larger than you’re going to see us typically take. There was some initial roster turnover then departures when we got here. Sometimes you get more credit in the ratings with the size of your class.

Husker baseball right-hander Koty Frank.
Husker baseball right-hander Koty Frank.

“What it means to us is my assistant coaches have done a good job evaluating strong talent, telling kids what the University of Nebraska experience has to offer. It also shows sustainable success in your program.”

Bolt could already see the blending of veterans and first-year players taking shape during the fall season. He expects the “never-be-satisfied” mentality that took hold during the first semester to continue driving the team, beginning with a four-game series in Huntsville, Texas, Feb. 18-20 at Sam Houston State.

Only two starters from the ’21 squad that finished the season 34-14 appear to be entrenched at their positions. Third baseman Max Anderson hit .332 with seven home runs and 32 RBIs.

The Millard West graduate also was named a freshman All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Max Anderson looks to hold down his spot at third base.
Max Anderson looks to hold down his spot at third base.

“Having a full calendar year under his belt playing a position he’s never played before is big,” Bolt said. “He’s a nice anchor to have on that corner.”

Bolt said senior catcher Griffin Everitt has emerged as a vocal leader. He’s also happy with the depth that’s being built behind the Lincoln Southwest and Kansas City Kansas Community College graduate.

Sophomore Jack Steil from Cold Spring, Minnesota, is back at first base while another second-year player, Brice Matthews, could be moved this season to play shortstop. Matthews, from Humble, Texas, was selected to the Big Ten All-Freshman team and also was named to the NCAA All-Fayetteville Region team.

Home Stretch Struggles

Looking Forward Is Best for Husker Hoops Fans

Opinion • By Jacob Bigelow • Photos by Reggie Ryder

As we reach the home stretch of another Husker basketball season, it’s safe to say that any lofty expectations fans may have had for Fred Hoiberg’s team this winter have long since crashed to the ground.

As I write this, Nebraska has played 19 games, winning only six. The Huskers are 0-8 in Big Ten play and have not beaten a single power conference opponent. Needless to say, that’s not the type of resume that will earn a bid to any post-season tournament.

Alonzo Verge looks to the hoop.
Alonzo Verge looks to the hoop.

For hardcore Husker hoops fans, the page begins to turn to 2022-23. For next season to be a bit brighter, it’s necessary to first look at what ailed the Huskers this season. This season’s biggest problem is the way the roster is constructed. Hoiberg and lead recruiter and assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih made a point to bring in an arsenal of 3-point shooters who fit Hoiberg’s offensive philosophy. And that makes sense, but it’s hard to find truly great shooters in the transfer portal or junior college ranks. Frankly, it’s hard to find them anywhere.

The Huskers gave it a shot, bringing in Xavier transfer CJ Wilcher and junior college transfer Keisei Tominaga. Both are in Nebraska uniforms for one reason: to shoot.

Yet the best way to describe the Huskers’ shooting on the year is consistently inconsistent, which, to be fair, wasn’t all Wilcher’s or Tominaga’s fault. Nebraska ranks in the bottom tier of teams in the country in 3-point shooting percentage. Even with some recent improvement, NU still sits at No. 311 out of 357 teams in Division I basketball.

On the bright side, since conference play, Tominaga’s 3-point percentage was 42% in January and has climbed to 35% on the season, while Wilcher is shooting 47% from long distance in January and has climbed to 37% for the year.

Still, consistency from beyond the arc was expected to be a pillar of Hoiberg’s offense, and overall it has not been nearly good enough.

The lack of a true point guard also has been a detriment.

Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge joined the Huskers in July following Delano Banton’s decision to remain in the NBA Draft. Verge primarily played off the ball at ASU and did it well enough to be the Pac-12’s Sixth Man of the Year. He was handed the keys to Nebraska’s offense on somewhat short notice, and has been a target of plenty of vitriol from fans and critics alike even while appearing sometimes to be the only Husker who can create his own shot while the shot clock ticks down.

Is Verge playing out of position? Yes. In three years under Hoiberg, the Huskers have had maybe one true point guard at that spot, and it remains a position of need going into next season.

And what about a post presence? Wilhelm Briedenbach, at 6-foot-10, was a touted recruit coming into the season, but was injured. Derrick Walker has maximized his season, but at 6-8 or 6-9, he’s better cast as a Big Ten four-man. Walker did not have that luxury.

It’s hard, but if you dig deep, things may not seem so glum come this time next season.

Start with the addition of junior college big man Blaise Keita. At 6-11 and about 235 pounds, Keita’s frame better fits the image of the prototypical Big Ten big men you currently see at Illinois and Purdue. Along with the other three members of the 2022 recruiting class in 6-5 forward Denim Dawson (already on campus), 6-6 forward Ramel Lloyd and 6-3 guard Jamarques Lawrence, there are some pieces on the way.

Now use some imagination and weigh this what-if scenario: What if the McGowens brothers return?

Trey, still with a year of eligibility left, broke a foot early in the season but is now back and playing alongside younger brother Bryce, the highest rated recruit in program history, as you probably have heard. Trey missed 15 games, and while it appears Bryce is turning a corner and coming into his own, part of me has to wonder if the brothers would consider running it back next season in Lincoln.

Following Nebraska’s home loss to Indiana, Trey talked about some of the goals he has for himself. One was winning conference Defensive Player of the Year. Others were team-first goals like winning the Big Ten Tournament and going to the NCAA tournament to get Nebraska that elusive first win. Might those goals give Trey motivation to come back next year? Bryce started the season as a projected late lottery pick, but has slipped down mock drafts a bit as the season has gone on. Could Hoiberg and Co. sell him on another year of development to solidify his pro prospects?

With the loss to Indiana on Jan. 17, coach Fred Hoiberg's team is yet to win a conference game. The Huskers are 0-8 in the Big Ten and 6-13 overall.
With the loss to Indiana on Jan. 17, coach Fred Hoiberg’s team is yet to win a conference game. The Huskers are 0-8 in the Big Ten and 6-13 overall.

If this ship is ever going to be righted, some roster continuity would go a long way toward building a foundation for what he envisions his program becoming.

Besides, Husker basketball is way past due on receiving some kind of break. Perhaps it comes in the further development of young big man Eduardo Andre, who looked more and more promising as the season progressed. (Keita, Briedenbach and Andre, all 6-10 or taller, sounds like a decent Big Ten recipe to me.) And maybe that means opponents will have to worry more about the middle, which leaves space for Wilcher and Tominaga to do their work from 3-range. And what about Lat Mayen, who could finally find a comfort zone? And the return of the McGowens brothers? C’mon, one can hope.

If you squint a little bit, you can see a path for Hoiberg’s crew to get his program headed in the right direction. March doldrums in Nebraska can’t last forever, right?

Wait. Don’t answer that.

Philosophical Change

Husker Track & Field Focus Is on Winning Big While Going Small

Story by Steve Beideck • Photos by NU Sports Information

Seven coaching changes and a shift in postseason focus will bring a different look to the 2022 Nebraska track and field season.

Gary Pepin is still the leader of both the men’s and women’s programs. The dean of Big Ten track and field coaches is in his 39th season at the helm of the men’s program and 42nd as leader of the women’s program after taking over for Carol Frost following the 1980 season.

Pepin is one of the most successful college coaches in the history of the sport. His Husker teams won three women’s national championships in the 1980s and have a combined 74 conference championships between the Big Eight, Big 12 and Big Ten conferences.

But there hasn’t been much winning lately for the Huskers, and that doesn’t sit well with the man inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2008.

Latimer already owns the school record in the weight throw.
Latimer already owns the school record in the weight throw.

Three assistants were fired and another retired. Pepin said it’s never easy, but sometimes necessary, to make those changes.

“All of them were really good people,” Pepin said. “Most of them were here a long time. Sometimes things get just a little bit stale, and there were some areas where we needed to do a little bit better.

“It’s a tough situation because you like those people and they’re working at what they do. If things aren’t improving, sometimes as a head coach you have to make a change.”

Changes in the coaching staff and his approach to recruiting have reenergized Pepin, who continues to coach the long and triple jumps, since the indoor season began earlier this month.

New throws coach Justin St. Clair coached Olympians at North Dakota State. Two coaches from Eastern Illinois – Brenton Emanuel (sprints, hurdles) and Nikki Larch-Miller (multi-events) – are now on staff.

Former recruiting coordinator Matt Wackerly took over the cross country program and distance running duties following the retirement of Dave Harris. Dusty Jonas is still coaching the high jump and helping with sprints and hurdles.

“You can feel and see the difference in practice with all the groups,” Pepin said. “I can’t tell you quite why, but it’s so obvious that everybody has just stepped it up quite a bit and they’re having fun at the same time. A lot of the new personalities have blended well. Not only the athletes and the coaches, but also the staff.

Talley has two wins this season in the weight throw.
Talley has two wins this season in the weight throw.

“Everybody is working hard and having a lot of fun together. Maybe some of it is a younger staff. Everything here is new and exciting. There’s a lot of potential in some of these new people we’ve brought in who we believe will achieve at a higher level.”

With the international approach to recruiting still in place and some of the new coaches never having been at a Power Five conference school, selling athletes on Nebraska is exciting again.

Pepin said this and future Husker rosters, both for the men and women, will be smaller because the focus is turning to getting more elite athletes into the program who can score points at the national championship meets.

“Our philosophy has changed,” Pepin said. “Maybe until a couple of years ago we tried to have a complete team. We were very competitive in dual meets, and we’ve always had one of the best teams in the national dual meet rankings. There’s an enormous difference trying to win a conference meet as opposed to scoring high at nationals.

“If you’re winning that meet, you’ll have a chance to score some points. But there have been programs like Texas-El Paso that have won national championships, but they couldn’t win their conference.”

Pursuit of conference championships in the Big Ten era is different than the Big Eight and Big 12 days. Especially with indoor meets, there’s rarely a chance for the Huskers to see their conference rivals before the Big Ten meet at the end of February.

There were plenty of chances for the Huskers to size up their Big Eight and Big 12 foes because they would come to meets in Lincoln because the Devaney Center has one of the nation’s best hydraulic-banked tracks.

The Big Ten also has become much more competitive than when the Huskers first joined for the 2012 indoor and outdoor seasons. Yet there’s still plenty of competition in the Midwest where Pepin said the Huskers don’t have to travel to Michigan or Penn State.

“It wasn’t as tough as it is right now,” Pepin said. “The conference is so much better. There are new coaches, schools have new facilities, so they don’t have to travel as much to find good competition.”

Pepin said the ideal roster sizes at this point are roughly 50 men and 60 women. Smaller numbers mean more time for coaches to spend with athletes individually.

“We want people out there by the end of their freshman year who can make it to the conference meet,” Pepin said. “It will give all our coaches more time with the higher-level athletes. We’re putting more emphasis now on nationals. It takes time to get them up there.

“When we’re looking for kids at that level, they have to be good enough to get into the meet. Getting people in who are immediately at the top of the conference means having more people scoring at the national meet.”

The build up of national-level talent already is underway with Nebraska’s throwers and jumpers.

“In the field events, we’re pretty doggone good,” Pepin said. “On the men’s side in the field events we don’t have many holes. The women’s side it’s pretty much the same except for maybe the pole vault. We’re working to get more high-level people on the track.”

Alex Talley and Maxwell Otterdahl already have cracked the Huskers’ all-time charts in the weight throw and shot put since transferring from North Dakota State. Kansas State transfer Taylor Latimer set a school record in the weight throw in her first meet as a Husker Jan. 15 at the Graduate Classic.


Nebraska Nabs High-Level Recruit in Volleyball and Basketball

Story by Mike Malloy • Photos by the Deseret News

There comes a time when a great multi-sport athlete has to make the difficult decision to specialize. It’s still not that time for Maggie Mendelson.

Mendelson, a Fremont (Utah) High School junior from North Ogden, will enroll a year early at Nebraska and intends to play volleyball and basketball next season. Such double duty is rare, but so is an athlete like the 6-foot-5 Mendelson.

“Some people are like ‘you got this’ and some people are like ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do it. It’s so hard,'” Mendelson said. “I’ve got some really good supporters and some people to prove wrong.”

Asking Mendelson which sports she prefers is like asking a parent the same of their children. The love is equal though the sports are different.

“(Volleyball) is more of a perfectionist’s game. You have to know what the other team is doing at all times; know what holes are open, what route you need to run,” Mendelson said. “In basketball you have to run your plays, but for the most part you’re doing what you’re doing and in volleyball you have to play off the other team more.”

Mendelson looks to score during the Utah state tournament in 2021. The 6-foot-5 athlete will be playing basketball and volleyball starting this fall for Nebraska.
Mendelson looks to score during the Utah state tournament in 2021. The 6-foot-5 athlete will be playing basketball and volleyball starting this fall for Nebraska.

Her resume shows why picking one would be so difficult. Last June, Mendelson earned a spot with USA Basketball’s U16 team after competing in a national tryout. The next month, she did the same for USA Volleyball’s U18 team. Each team limits its roster to 12.

She played in international tournaments with both teams this fall.

“Playing against all those amazing girls, and with the best in the U.S. Most kids won’t get that opportunity,” she said. “And they let me keep the jerseys; I got five.”

Mendelson’s been playing beyond her years for quite some time. She joined an Under-17 volleyball club when she was 14, catching the attention of Eric Howard, director of Mendelson’s club volleyball team, the Utah Hive.

“She looked as good as any kid in Utah,” Howard said. “Maggie is legit. There is more than a ‘wow’ factor when you watch her play. She just blows my mind with how well she moves with her size.”

Lisa Dalebout, Mendelson’s high school basketball coach, had a similar first impression when Mendelson was a mere 6-1 fifth-grader.

“She probably could have played on the sophomore team,” Dalebout said. “She wasn’t that gangly tall girl; her speed and athleticism was what made her special.”

Back then, basketball was pretty easy – “I just had to keep the ball high,” Mendelson said – but along the way she’s developed an outside game. Mendelson loves the look on a defender’s face when she makes a 3-pointer.

“It’s one of the best things,” Mendelson said. “They’ll think, ‘I can slink off; she’s not going to shoot it.'”

As good as Mendelson is, the question persists: how can she manage six straight months of competition on top of schoolwork? Laura Buttermore is one of the few who knows what it takes.

The then-Laura Pilakowski was the Nebraska Female Student-Athlete of the year in 2003 after excelling at both sports. That, however, was not the plan.

Two days after Buttermore’s senior volleyball season ended, the two-time All-American’s phone rang. It was then-women’s basketball coach Connie Yori, whose team was short of players and short in stature.

Buttermore, an outside hitter on Nebraska’s 2000 national championship volleyball team, declined Yori’s initial invitation, but eventually agreed to pull on a pair of high-tops for the first time since graduating from Columbus High.

“I was not in basketball shape; that’s for sure,” she said.

Still, she was second on the team in rebounding and played in 18 games, starting three, in her only basketball season with the Huskers.

Could she have imagined playing both sports four years in a row?

“No,” she said. “It was harder mentally. Christmas break is amazing – just take some time for yourself. (Mendelson’s) not going to have that.”

Buttermore, now a strength coach at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said training for both sports is similar, with important differences.

“You still have to have first-step quickness in both sports, but it’s not the repetitive jumping in volleyball or the repetitive running in basketball,” Buttermore said. “The (weight) lifting program for volleyball and basketball are going to be pretty similar; you don’t want to get too sports-specific in the weight room (to avoid) repetitive motion injuries.”

The most valuable part of downtime is developing as a player. Buttermore said she made big strides as a player by going through a spring weight-training program between her freshman and sophomore seasons.

While Mendelson will have it both ways on the court, another decision forced her to choose.

Mendelson led Fremont High to an undefeated state girls basketball championship last spring while averaging 15 points and nine rebounds. A few months later, she decided to reclassify and graduate a year earlier than planned.

“It was thought through but it was a quick decision,” Mendelson said. “It was hard to leave all my friends. It sucks not being able to have my senior-year experience but I’m excited to see what I can do at Nebraska.”

Fremont finished seventh last fall at the state volleyball tournament. In what was her final high school season, Mendelson had 407 kills in 85 sets.

Dalebout, Fremont’s girls basketball coach, said she’s never heard of a Utah high schooler reclassifying but she respects Mendelson’s decision.

“I’d be a fool if I didn’t have some major sadness about her leaving, but I’ve always supported her,” Dalebout said. “We always knew it was a possibility; she was really open and honest about the process.”

Mendelson hit the recruiting trail wanting to find a school that would let her pursue her two-fold dream. After a July visit to Lincoln, her mind was made up.

“I think she’s good enough to start for both (teams),” volleyball coach John Cooke said at a press conference in November.

And Mendelson will have more on her mind than sets and shots. The National Honor Society member carries a 4.0 grade-point average and will major in environmental sciences.

“I’ve always been passionate about helping the Earth. That’s a cheesy thing to say, but I’ve always wanted to help out; lessen my carbon footprint,” Mendelson said.

Huskers Loaded for 2022

All Eyes on Final Four in Omaha

Story by Steve Beideck

Planning for the 2022 Nebraska volleyball season is now in full gear after John Cook took time to put the sport out of his mind following the Huskers’ latest NCAA championship chase.

The Nebraska bench celebrates a point in its own unique way during the fifth set against Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament's championship match.
The Nebraska bench celebrates a point in its own unique way during the fifth set against Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament’s championship match.

After getting to his home in the mountains of western Wyoming on Jan. 1, Cook successfully hit reset with three weeks of walks, hikes and quality time with his family near Alta in the Teton Range on the Wyoming-Idaho border.

“Normally I try to get away from Nebraska after the season,” Cook said. “We built a place up here; I call it going to the mountain top. It gets dark early up here, so you get the chance to sleep more. It’s the one place I can go where you don’t think a lot about Nebraska volleyball.”

A positive COVID-19 test just days after Nebraska’s championship match loss to Wisconsin in late December delayed Cook’s trek to the mountains. He spent 10 extra days in Lincoln, which included a quarantine Christmas celebration with a couple of staff members and players still in town.

Lexi Rodriguez celebrates after a point against Wisconsin.
Lexi Rodriguez celebrates after a point against Wisconsin.

That just made Cook appreciate even more the time he did get to spend in Wyoming taking late-night walks that included listening to coyote conversations.

“My wife and I went for a walk, and it was pitch black,” Cook said. “The coyotes are running all over the place. They’re hunting, talking to each other. Just thinking about the next step of your hike, wondering where the wolves might be, if you see any moose, that takes your mind off everything else.”

Now back in Lincoln, relaxed and refreshed, Cook is looking forward to another season of high expectations for the Huskers in 2022. All those notes he penciled into a notebook at 4 a.m. the past month, everything that needs to get done in 2022, are being reviewed in meetings.

Cook and his staff are starting 2022 with the end of the season in mind. The goal is a mid-December trip to Omaha for the final four at the CHI Health Center.

“We know where we want to go,” Cook said. “Now we need to work on how we get there. We’ll start mapping out what we want to do, talk about recruiting, what we learned from the past season, where we go forward with leadership.”

Nebraska head coach John Cook, left, and assistant Jaylen Reys yell encouragement to their players as they beat Texas in four sets. Nebraska advanced to the final four.
Nebraska head coach John Cook, left, and assistant Jaylen Reys yell encouragement to their players as they beat Texas in four sets. Nebraska advanced to the final four.

Nebraska is in a good place to get off to a fast start in 2022 because all but one starter – Lauren Stivrins – returns.

“Replacing Lauren’s leadership is important, and it helps that most of the team that had a great run at the final four is back,” Cook said. “The key is where will the leadership come from? It will be fun to build on that.”

Cook said the entire team is in Lincoln, even the three incoming freshmen – Waverly graduate Bekka Allick of Lincoln, Norris graduate Maisie Boesiger, and Hayden Kubik of West Des Moines, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2022. Kubik is the younger sister of NU junior outside hitter Madi Kubik.

Another first-year player scheduled to join the Huskers this summer is dual-sport star Maggie Mendelson of Fremont High School in North Ogden, Utah. Mendelson was ranked as the nation’s No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2023 before she reclassified and elected to graduate high school one year early.

The 6-foot-5 Mendelson is the only recruit in the country who is a member of the U.S. youth national teams in both volleyball and basketball. She also will play basketball for the Huskers beginning with the 2022-23 season.

Kayla Caffey has petitioned the NCAA for a wavier to allow her to come back and play one more season for the Huskers.
Kayla Caffey has petitioned the NCAA for a wavier to allow her to come back and play one more season for the Huskers.

Kayla Caffey and Nicklin Hames are two veterans who could step into a leadership role. Caffey is eligible for an additional season, which would be her seventh, as she was a redshirt in 2016, had a medical hardship season in 2018 and the 2020 COVID-19 season. Nebraska is working with the NCAA on a waiver that would grant Caffey that additional season.

“Kayla is in school and starting on her second master’s degree,” Cook said. “She’ll be playing beach volleyball and hopefully we can get that waiver for next season. Until we see it in writing, it’s not guaranteed.”

Hames will be back for her fifth season because of the extra year granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic. She was the starting setter for the Huskers the past four seasons but will take on a different role in ’22 as sophomore Kennedi Orr is expected to move into that position. In 2023 Hames is scheduled to begin her coaching career as a graduate assistant.

Three sophomores-to-be who are returning starters – Ally Batenhorst, Lexi Rodriguez and Lindsay Krause – are back and looking for even more playing time. A fourth, former Waverly standout Whitney Lauenstein, appeared in 27 matches and started Nebraska’s Nov. 26 match at Wisconsin.

Stivrins was a middle blocker, and two of the other players on the 2021 roster who played that position won’t be back in 2022. Callie Schwarzenbach is headed to Long Beach State as a graduate transfer. Cook said Elkhorn South graduate Rylee Gray left the team for medical reasons. Gray was granted a medical hardship and will continue to finish her degree at Nebraska.

Jaylen Reyes and the Husker bench watch the Louisville match from the sidelines.
Jaylen Reyes and the Husker bench watch the Louisville match from the sidelines.

One veteran who could see time at middle blocker is Superior graduate Kalynn Meyer. While she will continue to train with the volleyball team during the beach season, Meyer is also getting her first crack at track and field since arriving at Nebraska.

Meyer was a three-time state champion in the shot put and discus at Superior who had her senior season canceled because of COVID-19. With a career best discus throw of close to 190 feet, Meyer is already an Olympic-caliber competitor.

“We told her we would let her be a dual sport athlete,” Cook said. “The track season works well with our schedule. The new coaching staff has reignited her passion for being a track athlete. She’s going to come to a crossroads here. She has a shot to be an Olympian, so it will be interesting to see how this works out, how she does this spring and how she likes it.”

Meyer is competing in the shot put during the indoor season and likely will continue with that event, along with the discus, during the outdoor season.

Nebraska likely will be ranked in the top five to begin the 2022 season. While the transfer portal has made switching schools easier, Cook still expects most of the usual suspects to be contending for high seeds when the postseason begins.

“The transfer portal is the wild card now,” Cook said. “You can upgrade very quickly using the transfer portal. Now you have to look at who is going to return the most people and who took advantage of the transfer portal to improve their team.

“It’s the same cast of characters. Wisconsin returns a major part of its team but lost their setter and national player of the year but have talent to fill that. Ohio State and Minnesota are other teams in our conference that are right there that stand out to me on a national level.

“Texas lost two players, so they’re just reloading. Florida has reloaded. Kentucky and Louisville return quite a bit. On the West Coast, USC has reloaded their team from the transfer portal, and UCLA, Stanford, Oregon, Washington, they’ll all be up there.”

Cook also said that in-state foe Creighton should never be counted out. A visit to Omaha to play the Bluejays and a trip to Kentucky are a couple of the known nonconference road trips.

Stanford and Pepperdine will be coming to Lincoln for matches, as will Mississippi. Former Nebraska All-American and assistant coach Kayla Banwarth is in her third season as the Rebels head coach.

While Nebraska played Creighton in Omaha in 2021, Cook said having this season’s match at CHI Health Center is a good move for both squads.

“The reason for that is the final four is in Omaha,” Cook said. “It’s good to play them up there. Everybody will get a chance to play where the final four is going to be.”