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.

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.”

Suddenly, Optimism Abounds With Inflow of Talent

Portal, Junior Colleges Kind to Huskers

Story by Steve Beideck

Rewind your mind two months, to the day after Thanksgiving when Iowa came to Lincoln and scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to hand Nebraska its seventh loss of seven points or less.

So many questions and no immediate, reassuring answers were available to soothe what Nebraska football fans had just endured – a 3-9 season where the biggest margin of defeat in any single game was just nine points.

Turnovers, penalties and mental miscues that proved so costly in all nine of those losses rotated among position groups like a wheel of misfortune. Drilling down on someone or a single position group was akin to putting a finger in a dike.

Who should fix these things and how should it be done? The new athletic director was the one who should – and did – begin to provide that guidance.

Now, not even two months later, there are reasons for optimism. Hype or hope? Doesn’t matter. The present suddenly offers so many presents for Nebraska fans to mentally unwrap the next seven months. Will that trip to Ireland for the 2022 season opener bring the Huskers two commodities that were in short supply last season – victories and luck?

Former four-star recruit Chubba Purdy will have four years of eligibility at Nebraska and is expected to battle for the starting quarterback position in 2022.
Former four-star recruit Chubba Purdy will have four years of eligibility at Nebraska and is expected to battle for the starting quarterback position in 2022.

The state of Nebraska football will come into truer focus during the Aug. 27 opener against Northwestern. A thorough evaluation will be ongoing through the regular season finale Nov. 25 at Iowa.

But think about where the Huskers are now compared to two months ago. The transfer portal has brought to Nebraska the starting quarterback at Texas (Casey Thompson) and a potential starter-in-waiting at Florida State (Chubba Purdy).

Thompson will have two seasons of eligibility while Purdy, who heavily weighed Oklahoma before committing to the Huskers, has four years remaining after playing in just three games in 2020 and once in 2021.

In 10 games as the Longhorns starting quarterback, Thompson threw for 2,421 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Working with both new quarterbacks and the others already on Nebraska’s roster will be new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. It was Whipple who built the Pittsburgh offense that led the Panthers to a 45-21 victory over Wake Forest in the ACC championship game.

Whipple molded Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett into a Heisman Trophy finalist. Whipple also owns a Super Bowl ring and had stints with three different NFL teams. He’s a man who happily says he loves helping players get better, no matter where they are on the depth chart.

Don’t forget about two new running backs who used to call Florida State and Texas A&M home. Anthony Grant, the top junior college running back in 2021, was most recently at New Mexico Military Institute where he helped lead the Broncos to victory in the NJCAA Division I national championship game over Iowa Western.

Grant rushed for 1,730 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2021, including 192 yards on 34 carries in the championship game. At FSU Grant was the Seminoles’ primary kick returner in 2018 and redshirted the following season before his two seasons in Roswell.

Deondre Jackson will have four years of eligibility remaining when he joins the Huskers after the conclusion of the second semester. In two seasons with the Aggies, Jackson had just three carries for 13 yards, but his turn to shine may await at Nebraska.

Two receivers will add talented depth to the group now being coached by former Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph. Speedster Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda comes to Lincoln from New Mexico State with two seasons of eligibility plus a redshirt season.

Former five-star recruit Trey Palmer followed Joseph from LSU, and he’s expected to contribute both as a wide receiver and return specialist. In 2021 Palmer caught 30 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. In 2020 Palmer was the first LSU player since 1981 to return a kickoff for a touchdown in Tiger Stadium.

Combined with his punt return touchdown in 2019 against Northwestern State, Palmer became just the eighth player in school history to return both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in a career. Among those other seven players were Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon, Kevin Faulk and Eddie Kennison.

Offensive linemen Kevin Williams of Northern Colorado and Hunter Anthony of Oklahoma State bring versatility and experience to a unit that can use a dose of both. Williams, who is an Omaha North graduate, and Anthony both will have two seasons of eligibility.

The Nebraska defense and special teams also picked up some transfer portal talent.

Arizona State defensive back Tommy Hill will bring a year of experience with the Sun Devils to a position group that lost three starters to graduation.

Hill, who was recruited by Nebraska out of Orlando (Edgewater) High School, played in 11 games and finished 2021 with seven solo tackles and two assists.

Another cornerback from the portal is 2019 FCS defensive freshman of the year Omar Brown out of Northern Iowa, who has two years of eligibility remaining.

Yet another touted defensive back, Javier Morton, is on board from the junior college ranks (Garden City Community College in Kansas). At 6-2 and 185 pounds, he is said to have the potential to be a lock-down corner.

Punter Brian Buschini is the second Montana transfer into the Nebraska program in as many seasons. If he comes close to matching the success wide receiver Samori Toure had for the Huskers in 2021 – 46 catches for 896 yards and five touchdowns – Buschini will become a fan favorite.

The FCS punter of the year averaged 46.7 yards on 56 punts in the 2021 season, with a long of 62 yards. Twenty-six of his punts landed inside the 20-yard line, and 27 of his boots went for more than 50 yards.

Former Furman kicker Timmy Bleekrode is expected to become Nebraska’s new placekicking specialist. Converting on 84% (21-of-25) of his field goal attempts over two seasons, Bleekrode has three remaining seasons of eligibility.

No one could have imagined that while watching Iowa land those fourth quarter blows that would make Nebraska’s record 13-18 the past five seasons at Memorial Stadium that the Huskers could make such impressive additions to their roster in a short period of time.

Suddenly it’s OK to start dreaming of another 7-0 home record like the one the 2016 team posted in an emotional season when some amount of confidence was achieved by stacking wins together.

That 2016 bunch also was the last to play in a bowl game. That’s a fact that stings anyone who has ever had any kind of emotional investment in the Nebraska football program, whether that investment has been for six years or six decades.

For a program once accustomed to playing in bowl games and even national championships, a five-year absence from postseason play has been a source of frustration. Making it to a bowl game in 2022 would be a positive step.

Suddenly, it seems attainable.


Troy Dumas Was Part of the Transition That Led to a Championship

Story by Shane G. Gilster

Troy Dumas grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the middle of cowboy country. So it figures that when he first arrived in Lincoln his wardrobe staples included a hat, boots and belt buckle.

The image makes Dumas laugh. “No, far from it,” he said. “I didn’t always live in Wyoming.”

Dumas’ dad was in the Air Force so the family moved often. Dumas lived in Riverside, California; Syracuse, New York; and then moved to Cheyenne when he was 10.

The transition to a more rural area of the country was no big deal to Dumas. He made friends easily, even if he didn’t wear a cowboy hat.

“I grew up playing football in the backyards and fields,” he said. “It was just the thing to do growing up there.”

Troy Dumas
Troy Dumas played safety and linebacker for Nebraska.

There were only two main high schools in Cheyenne, East and Central. There was also a smaller Catholic school in town. Dumas attended East where he played running back, safety and linebacker. He became a big college football fan and listened to Husker games on the radio.

“I liked that Nebraska was close and had a huge tradition of football excellence,” Dumas said. “There were a lot of Nebraska fans in Cheyenne and I knew that was where I wanted to go to college since I was a sophomore in high school. Wyoming was down my list because I wanted to play at a bigger school. I grew up as a college football junkie and always bought Athlon’s Big Eight edition magazine and College Football Weekly.”

Nebraska got a recruiting tip about Dumas from a coach at Scottsbluff High School, which played Cheyenne East. After NU watched Dumas’ film, Husker coach Tom Osborne called him to see if he would be interested in attending NU’s summer camp. After two days in Lincoln, in which he was timed at 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, Dumas received a scholarship offer.

“When Nebraska offered, it was a done deal,” Dumas said. “Colorado was looking at me on offense because I also played running back in high school. Nebraska liked me at safety, but Coach Solich said I could also try running back, but I was too tall and the competition at I-back at Nebraska was national. I was dead set to play defense.”

When he got to Nebraska, Dumas said he was motivated to show that the kid from Wyoming could play. He remembers new teammates from all over the country like Florida, California and Texas who didn’t think he could play at that level because he was from Wyoming. The doubters made him more determined to play as a freshman, which he accomplished in 1991.

Dumas was one of three true freshmen to play, joining New Jersey linebacker Doug Colman and California wingback Abdul Muhammad. He became a starter at safety in the Husker nickel defense.

The following year, Dumas backed up Tyrone Byrd most of the season but did start two games at free safety and played special teams. Then the Blackshirt defense made a transition, switching from a 5-2 to a 4-3 scheme before Dumas’ junior year in 1993. NU brought in consultant Larry Mac Duff, the Arizona defensive coordinator who came up with that school’s Desert Swarm defense, to help revamp the Blackshirts.

Dumas was one of the players who made a position switch from safety to linebacker. He officially moved the last game of the season against Oklahoma.

“What it did was we were able to put our fastest guys on the field. It made the whole defense quicker,” Dumas said. “Basically what we did was move the average running safeties to linebacker and some of the slower cornerbacks to safety. It just freed us up to cover and line up man-to-man and allowed our guys up front to handle their business. We were able to emulate what Florida State and Miami were doing. So when we played them, we matched up on them one-on-one.”

When Dumas and the rest of the Blackshirts played Florida State in the 1994 Orange Bowl, they proved to themselves and the rest of the country that NU’s new defensive era had begun. The Seminoles, with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Charlie Ward, were a 17-point favorite, but the Huskers sacked Ward five times and pretty much shut down the high-powered FSU offense in an 18-16 loss.

Dumas remembers the night before the Orange Bowl when teammate Trev Alberts called a meeting for the defense.

“He said everyone had already picked Florida State as the national champion and they already had T-shirts made up with ‘national champions’ on them,” he said. “He wanted us to give them our best shot and he led the way playing like a wrecking machine in that game. If you are a player inspiring to be great, he is a guy you need to model yourself after.”

Alberts is now the NU athletic director, and Dumas is confident his former teammate is the man to turn around the Husker football program. He described Alberts as the ultimate Blackshirt and team guy, who never thought he was above his teammates. He was a leader who led by example.

“He is already taking the football program in the right direction,” Dumas said. “When Trev got there, you saw changes being made. Trev is getting coaches in the football program who have a winning attitude, who bring something different to the table that is more suitable to the Big Ten. The new coaching staff and those transfer players should get us over the hump.”

When Dumas played, the winning tradition and culture were already set, and Alberts and the rest of the seniors that 1993 season helped set the tone for 1994 when NU finally won a national championship under Osborne.

“I would say our 1994 defense was the best when I played,” Dumas said. “Donta Jones stepped in for Trev Alberts when he left. Donta wasn’t as big, but was just as strong and fast coming off the edge. Overall, we had more faster guys on the field in 1994 than 1993. Our attitude on defense was to kill everyone. We wanted to show our defense was just as good as our offense. We practiced like we were in a game.”

The favorite game of Dumas’ career came in that ’94 season. It was against No. 16 Kansas State in Manhattan and their outspoken quarterback Chad May.

May made this inflammatory quote before the game. “If you watch Nebraska on TV, they always run the same offense and defense. They won’t show anything different. We’ll find the holes and pick them apart.”

The Huskers countered by dropping its linebackers into pass coverage, playing a combination of zone and man. It helped that Dumas and Ed Stewart were safeties earlier in their playing careers.

“You can’t say enough good about them,” said NU secondary coach George Darlington after that game. “You put one of those great receivers on a linebacker, and you figure they’re going to light up the scoreboard. Eddie Stewart and Troy Dumas had a tougher job than any of our defensive backs the whole game.”

Dumas had six tackles in the game and made two huge plays in the contest, which were game-changers. The first was a blocked extra point that kept the Huskers in the lead, 7-6. The second was an interception late in the first half. Dumas stepped in front of a pass at the NU 17 and returned it 54 yards to the KSU 29-yard line. The Huskers went on to win 17-6.

“We were supposed to lose that game,” Dumas said. “Just for the simple fact that we were down to our third-string quarterback and the whole talk that week was that Kansas State was going to win. It was a turning point for our defense. It showed that Nebraska had an outstanding defense.”

It also showed Dumas’ versatility. It was one of the main reasons he was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the third round (97th overall) of the 1995 NFL Draft. But a promising professional career was cut short by injuries. He ended up missing his rookie season after injuring his knee in the second preseason game. He then appeared mostly on special teams for the Chiefs before bouncing around with the St. Louis Rams and finally the Denver Broncos in 1999. Dumas played some in the Arena Football League and XFL before retiring.

Troy Dumas
Dumas was an All-Big Eight selection in 1994.

Dumas graduated from NU in 1995 with a degree in human resources then got into coaching. His first job was as an assistant at Cheyenne Central High School, then as the defensive coordinator at Doane College under head coach and former Husker teammate Tommie Frazier. Dumas continued to move up the coaching ranks in 2008 as the linebacker coach at Southeast Missouri State. He also earned an NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship with the Kansas City Chiefs.

While at Southeast Missouri, he served under head coach and former NU assistant coach Tony Samuel. Other former Huskers were also on the staff, including Brian Boerboom, Lorenzo Brinkley, Chris Norris and Kenny Wilhite.

Dumas got out of coaching around 2012. His dad had health complications so he moved back to Cheyenne to help him. He’s now living in Fort Collins, Colorado, working for the state in its compliance department in Denver, ensuring businesses are complying with the workers’ compensation act.

The 49-year-old has been married for the last 13 years to Elizabeth (Cansdale), who played basketball at Ole Miss. They met at Southeast Missouri where Elizabeth was an assistant basketball coach.

The couple have two boys (Donovan 12, Derek 11) and one daughter (Anna 9). All three are involved in sports and inspire to be future Huskers. Dumas helps coach his sons’ youth football teams but likely won’t coach at a higher level as he once did.

“My body is pretty beat up nowadays,” he said. “I’ve had shoulder and knee replacements, with severe arthritis in all my joints all from my football playing career.”

But despite the physical wear and tear he suffered playing in college and the NFL, he wouldn’t change that experience, especially at Nebraska during that two-year run playing for the national championship.

“In all of college football history, there hasn’t been too many teams do what we did,” Dumas said. “We weren’t the most talented but we played with huge hearts and we never gave up. We were all brothers and had one goal in mind. A lot of college football players never get to experience that kind of opportunity.”

Plowing Forward

After a 12-0 Start, Huskers Hit Big Ten Grind

By Steve Beideck • Photos by Amarillo Mullen

Some of the early excitement around Nebraska’s 12-0 start to the women’s basketball season has been tempered the past month by the challenges of a rugged Big Ten schedule.

Sam Haiby goes in for a layup past Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall. More than 8,000 fans attended the game in Lincoln.
Sam Haiby goes in for a layup past Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall. More than 8,000 fans attended the game in Lincoln.

Seven of the 14 Big Ten squads were ranked in the top 47 in the ratings through games played Jan. 19. The Huskers fit comfortably in that group at No. 37 with a 13-4 overall record.

Coach Amy Williams’ charges own the only conference win over No. 8-ranked Michigan through the first month of the season. That 79-58 drubbing of the Wolverines, ranked 13th in the RealTimeRPI, gave the Huskers their first victory over an AP Top-10 opponent since a victory over No. 9 Duke in 2014.

But since then, the Huskers have lost three consecutive conference games and are 2-4 in the league. A 72-65 loss to No. 6 Indiana – the Big Ten leader at 6-0 – was sandwiched between a pair of losses to Iowa.

Amy Williams encourages her team during its loss to the Hawkeyes, 95-86, in Lincoln.
Amy Williams encourages her team during its loss to the Hawkeyes, 95-86, in Lincoln.

That 2-4 record has the Huskers in 10th place in the conference standings. Nebraska’s other conference victory was a 70-67 decision over Minnesota on Dec. 6. Before the Jan. 4 upset of Michigan, Nebraska fell to Michigan State 72-69 on Dec. 30 in East Lansing.

Nebraska was set to begin a stretch of five games, including four at home, against teams with a sub-.500 record in conference play with a Jan. 20 game against Rutgers. Because of health and safety protocols within the Huskers program, that game against the last-place Scarlet Knights (7-12, 0-7) is being postponed to Feb. 1 in Lincoln.

Health and safety protocols also forced the postponement of Nebraska’s trip to Champaign for a Jan. 23 game against Illinois to face the 6-10 Fighting Illini (1-4 Big Ten). That means Nebraska won’t play again until kicking off a three-game homestand Jan. 27 against Wisconsin (4-13, 1-6).

The other two games in that stretch are a Jan. 30 matchup against Purdue (12-6, 3-4) and Penn State (Feb. 3). The Nittany Lions (9-7, 3-3) are one of the two East Division teams the Huskers play a home-and-home series with this season.

Isabelle Bourne drives past Iowa’s Tomi Taiwo.
Isabelle Bourne drives past Iowa’s Tomi Taiwo.

Nebraska will travel to State College for the rematch on Feb. 17. Indiana is the other East Division opponent the Huskers face; that game in Lincoln is scheduled for Feb. 14.

If the Huskers can run the table against those teams, their Feb. 6 game at Maryland would become a big game that could help Nebraska’s bid for an NCAA tournament berth. The Terrapins are currently ranked No. 20 in the RealTimeRPI standings, three spots ahead of Indiana.

Nebraska has had success to this point because they are playing well at both ends of the court. Four players are averaging double figures in scoring, led by sophomore guard Jaz Shelley and her 13.8 points per game.

Ashley Scoggin dishes a pass between a pair of Michigan defenders in Nebraska's 79-58 win.
Ashley Scoggin dishes a pass between a pair of Michigan defenders in Nebraska’s 79-58 win.

Sam Haiby and Isabelle Bourne are averaging 11.0 and 10.1 points per game, respectively. Bourne and Shelley both have made 74 field goals this season, with 40 of Shelley’s being 3-pointers.

Nebraska’s newest offensive star has just begun to shine in the past month. Freshman forward Alexis Markowski already has been namen the Big Ten Freshman of the Week four times, and she also was honored Jan. 11 as the National Freshman of the Week by the United States Basketball Writers Association.

In NU’s victory over Michigan and first loss to Iowa, the Lincoln Pius X graduate averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The Michigan game was Markowski’s first collegiate start as she stepped in for injured teammate Bella Cravens.

After scoring 20 points against the Hawkeyes in the first meeting, Markowski made a career-high six 3-pointers and posted a career-high 27 points Jan. 16 in Nebraska’s 93-83 loss.

Markowski is 10-of-14 from beyond the arc (71.4%), and she also leads the Huskers in overall field goal percentage having made 67-of-127 shots (.528). She’s also second to Shelley in total rebounds (120-109).

Raiola Looks to Patch Up Pipeline

Story by Jansen Coburn • Photos by Jeff Bundy

It always figured that Donovan Raiola would be wearing Husker red in Memorial Stadium on fall Saturdays.

It’s just 20 years later than many Husker fans thought, and Raiola won’t be wearing a helmet.

As part of coach Scott Frost’s purge of his offensive coaching staff, Raiola replaces Greg Austin as offensive line coach and will be charged with re-energizing and refocusing a maligned Husker unit that sometimes struggled with everything from procedure penalties to protecting the quarterback.

Raiola’s remedy? For starters, he will preach togetherness as a building block. “Five guys need to see the game as one,” he told media members at his introductory news conference. “That’s the most important thing right now.

“It’s definitely a process. Everything we do, we are going to do it together.”

That may sound overly simplified, but that’s Riola’s method. Playing on the offensive line is complicated, breaking it down into more digestible pieces, particularly for developing players, eventually leads to flawlessness.

Dominic Raiola, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's best center at NU in 2000, talked often about Nebraska with his younger brother, Donovan.
Dominic Raiola, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s best center at NU in 2000, talked often about Nebraska with his younger brother, Donovan.

Take care of the basics and then everything falls into place, he says.

Fundamentals will be key for NU to reach its once high standard, which Raiola learned about while in high school at home in Hawaii from his older brother, Dominic, a dominant player for the Huskers while winning the Rimington Award in 2000 as the nation’s top center. Dominic would also go on to play 14 seasons for the NFL’s Detroit Lions.

To some fans at the time, Donovan seemed like a shoo-in to be a Husker himself coming out of high school in the early 2000s, but he went to Wisconsin instead where became an honorable-mention All-Big Ten selection at center from 2003-2005.

Because of his brother’s experience at Nebraska, Donovan knows where the bar is set in Lincoln.

“This is a special place to me and has a great offensive line tradition,” he told reporters. About his older, “We talk every day,” he said.

At Wisconsin, he said, player development was essential. “That program was built on developing players,” he said, sounding like he was looking forward to that part of the job as a Husker coach.

“I really enjoy helping people,” he said. “Helping kids develop into men is exciting.”

The makings of a good offensive lineman, he said, are “tough, smart and athletic” and the main thing he learned playing on Wisconsin’s offensive line is that, “It takes a lot of hard work.”

Two of the things his players at Nebraska will have to always know and understand are the the toughness and discipline they will have to play with.

The Husker hire received the seal of approval from his old coach at Wisconsin.

“He was a student of the game, he loves football and will do a great job relating to his players,” said Barry Alvarez, himself a former Husker.

“He’s worked his way up and he’s worked under great people. I think he’ll be outstanding.”

Following his career at Wisconsin, Raiola played parts of five seasons in the NFL – contracts with the Rams, Steelers, Seahawks, Cardinals, Bears and Buccaneers – and then went into coaching.

He coached at the high school level for two seasons (2012, 2013) in Hawaii before moving to the University of Hawaii in 2014 as an offensive intern. He was an offensive graduate assistant at Notre Dame in 2015 and 2016 before spending 2017 as offensive line coach at Aurora University in Illinois. It was then onto the Chicago Bears, where he’s been an assistant offensive line coach since 2018.

After accepting the Nebraska job in December, Raiola was said to have received a standing ovation from the team in his final practice before departing to Lincoln.

NFL rookie offensive guard Tristen Hoge was coached by Raiola during his first two seasons at Notre Dame before transferring to BYU. He described Raiola as an “even-keeled” personality who could separate on-the-field intensity from his naturally calm demeanor.

Hoge said Raiola has picked up a lot of experience in a relatively short time.

“He has the luxury of being coached by some of the most prolific coaches in his career and has brought the knowledge with him through his coaching,” Hoge said.

Raiola now looks to utilize that knowledge to restore nastiness, toughness and grit to the Husker “pipeline.”

Weigert Adds Name to College Hall

Story by Jeff Bundy • Photos by NU Sports Information & Husker Illustrated Archives

Zach Wiegert, an All-American offensive lineman at Nebraska, will be the 20th Husker player inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

The tackle was part of dominant Husker offensive lines from 1991 through 1994 and won the Outland Trophy in 1994, when he was a unanimous first-team All-American and leader of the Nebraska “pipeline” that helped NU to a 1994 national championship win over Miami in the Orange Bowl. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior led all Husker linemen that year with 113 pancake blocks.

Husker football player in uniform

The Fremont, Nebraska, native who attended Fremont Bergan High School received one first-place vote for the Heisman, was a finalist for the Lombardi Award, and was the UPI Lineman of the Year and Touchdown Club of Columbus (Ohio) Offensive Lineman of the Year.

“Wiegert was a great player at Nebraska during the 1990s,” former Husker coach Tom Osborne said. “Zach was very intelligent and was also very aggressive and athletic. He stood out as an exceptional offensive lineman among many who played on our offensive lines during that period.”

Weigert’s jersey number 72 was retired before the 1995 season.

Wiegert went on to be a second-round NFL draft pick by the St. Louis Rams and played 12 seasons in the NFL for the Rams, Jaguars and Texans.

Nebraska has 26 members in the college hall, including six coaches. Wiegert will be the seventh Husker lineman inducted. The 2022 induction ceremony will take place Dec. 6.