When Letter-Winners Aren’t Letter-Winners

By Lincoln Arneal

When the Casper, Wyoming, recreational league volleyball season started for Ann (Garrett) Zespy last season, she received some bad news.

Her intramural team was being relegated down a section. That didn’t, however, deter the team of sexagenarians from playing mostly younger teams.

 “Last year, we got moved down one more section because we’re all older,” Zespy said. “I said, ‘Well, if I’m upright, yeah, I’d like to still play if you still want me.’ It’s a lot of fun.”

 Zespy’s volleyball career began at Lewiston Consolidated High School in Wyoming before she played at Nebraska for three years. She was a junior outside hitter on the 1974 Nebraska volleyball team, the first team to play as part of the NU Athletic Department and receive scholarships.

 Her Husker career ended after her junior season when she left Nebraska to attend a radiology program in Omaha. She said a chemistry class stood between her and a job as a medical technician, but she decided to wrap up her playing days and enter the real world.

“I knew I wasn’t going to do any more actual college, and I just needed to find a career,” Zespy said.

 After finishing the hospital-based program in Omaha, Zespy eventually settled in Casper to build her career and family.

Because her career ended in 1974, Zespy and three seniors on that team – Cheryl (Nolte) Henry, Vicki (Ossenkop) Highstreet and Denise Stange – weren’t recognized as an official part of the Nebraska volleyball program.

 The 1974 team was the first volleyball team to be supervised by the athletic department after Title IX moved women’s athletics from the physical education department. It also awarded scholarships for the first time to six players: Highstreet, Henry, Stange, juniors Laury (Harmon) Riley and Linda (Brown) Dutton and sophomore Susie Heiser.

Vicki Ossenkop Highstreet 1 1
On Field Presentation VB vs Maryland

Previously the athletic department recognized the 1975-76 academic year as the first year of the modern history of women’s athletics at Nebraska. The only difference between the two years was an increased budget ($60,000 to $132,000) and the hiring of Aleen Swofford as assistant athletic director to directly oversee women’s athletics and Jay Davis, a sports information director, who helped keep official records of the results of every match.

 Zespy said she is honored to be part of the illustrious history of Nebraska volleyball. Even though she’s lived more than half her life in Wyoming, she will always consider herself a Husker.

“History has to begin somewhere, and 1974 was the real beginning of what volleyball is today in Nebraska,” she said. “I’m very proud to say that I was a part of the team that got it started. It would mean the world to me to be noted as a part of the official history of the Nebraska volleyball program.”

Huskers Illustrated provided the NU Athletic Department in late January with the complete schedule and newspaper clippings from the 1974 season, along with other contemporary articles stating volleyball was supervised by then-Athletic Director Bob Devaney.

 On March 22, the three seniors and Zespy received an email from Marquita Armstead, NU’s executive associate athletic director and senior woman administrator. She wrote that they would not be recognized as letter-winners since the athletic department does not plan to change its records retroactively despite the new information about the 1974 team.

“After much internal discussion and consideration of the historical records of women’s athletics at the University of Nebraska, as well as the historical records of letter-winners at the University of Nebraska dating back to 1890, we remain firm in our stance of the 1975-76 academic year being the first year that letters were issued to student-athletes participating in women’s intercollegiate athletics at the University of Nebraska,” Armstead wrote.

Despite the lack of official recognition, Armstead said the athletic department wanted to honor their impact on the beginning of NU volleyball by offering the former student-athletes the benefits of the N Club, Nebraska Athletics’ letter-winner alumni group. They will be allowed into a club area for football games, admission into Olympic sporting events, the ability to purchase a letter-winners plaque and receive invites to other N Club events.

In addition, Nebraska will add a permanent display of the 1974 team photo with roster and results to the public glass display cases on the south concourse at the Devaney Center, which also houses Olympic jerseys from former players and memorabilia from the Huskers’ foreign trips.

The athletic department didn’t contact any of the seniors on the 1974 team before issuing the email. Armstead declined an interview request to explain the decision, and an NU spokesperson said “the athletic department and volleyball program do not wish to do any interviews on this subject moving forward.”

Members of the 1974 team followed up seeking the rationale for the decision to give them the benefits of a letter-winner, but without official recognition.

Armstead responded on April 11, writing the topic has been discussed several times internally over the years and that they would not be changing the current status of recognizing letter-winners for women’s athletics in 1975. She added that the late Barb Hibner, the long-time senior woman administrator who joined the athletic department in 1978, said the 1974 participants were not awarded letter awards.

The athletic department’s explanation left some members of the 1974 team perplexed by the decision, even with complete results, historical records showing the oversight of the athletic department of women’s sports and proof of awarding of scholarships.

Despite not receiving official recognition, Highstreet is ready for someone else to carry the torch, saying the fight has worn her out. For many years, she worked at the university and led the charge to include that first team in the annals. Highstreet talked to university and athletic department employees behind the scenes trying to gain recognition for the 1974 team.

“It’s a legacy thing for us,” she said. “We’re pretty proud of the fact that we were the first letter-winner class, but nowhere does it say that besides in our heads.”