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.
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.”
CENTRAL CITY — There is no rivalry at the setter position for Nebraska. In fact, Kennedi Orr and Bergen Reilly might be each other’s biggest fans.
However, after the Huskers ran a 6-2 system last season, NU coach John Cook is poised to return to a one-setter offense this year. That means either Orr, a junior, or newcomer Reilly will be relegated to a reserve role.
That decision will be put off until August.
For now, both are acquitting themselves well. On Saturday during Nebraska’s sweep over Wichita State in the Huskers’ lone public exhibition during the spring, Orr finished with 15 assists in the first set guiding the Huskers to a .256 hitting percentage. Reilly played the final two sets and recorded 28 assists as NU hit .352.
After the match, both spoke glowingly of each other.
“I think she’s one of the smartest players we have here,” Orr said of Reilly. “So I think that’s super helpful. Just (listening to) her talking about offense is really crazy to listen to since she’s 17. We’re just kind of the best friends. That’s what happens when you go out for setters (warmup) 30 minutes before every practice and grinding extra time every day.”
And Reilly on Orr: “She welcomed me with open arms, and we obviously push each other. We push each other to get better and we’re competing against each other but we’re such good friends off the court.”
Cook said both setters struggled to settle in initially on Saturday but handled the quick tempo well.
“When it all clicks, it looks really good. It’s hard to defend,” Cook said. “They both had a really good spring. They’re competing. It’s going to be a battle.”
Last year, Orr struggled to rebound after surgery knocked her out of the beach season. She appeared in 17 matches and averaged 5.11 assists per set. She sat out beach season this spring and worked individually with Cook and assistant coach Kelly Hunter.
Orr said she focused on simplifying everything and rebuilt her setting from footwork to hand placement. She struggled at times last year with double contacts but wasn’t called for any in the match against the Shockers.
“In college volleyball, you kind of get thrown in, and they expect you to do things. After my surgery, I don’t know if I really have those basics anymore,” Orr said. “Just going back and getting the fundamentals down was super helpful.”
The decision to stick with Reilly instead of bringing back Orr in the third set might have been more related to health reasons than performance. Cook said one of the benefits of a closed scrimmage last week was that players could take more time between sets to loosen up. So without the possibility of an extended warmup, Cook opted to play it safe with Orr, who has undergone two knee surgeries in the past three years.
Reilly lived up to the hype as one of the best recruits in the nation, which included an appearance with the United States senior national team for a tournament last fall.
Cook said Reilly has an excellent feel for the game and other intangibles.
“The great ones have things you can’t coach,” he said. “She’s got a lot of work to do, but she’s just got great instincts. She just knows when to set things at the right time.”
Against the Shockers, Reilly connected with her middles well, including fellow freshman Andi Jackson, who went off for seven kills in the third set. Even though she began the match in the unusual spot on the bench, Reilly said she liked the ability to scout what Wichita State was doing defensively and how she wanted to attack it.
“Honestly, it was pretty good for me,” she said of the bench time. “I could figure out what I wanted to do when I got in. So it was good to see that, feel out the crowd, feel out the gym and everything and just ease into it a little.”
TAKING CENTER STAGE — After group photos, TV interviews and post-match hugs, Merritt Beason didn’t need an introduction as she talked to the fans. But she gave one anyway.
Beason, a junior opposite who transferred from Florida, thanked the Central City fans for all their support for the sold-out spring match.
“Hi, everyone. My name is Merritt Beason,” she said. “You guys have given us the warmest welcome, and you went above and beyond. We cannot thank you enough for that. We are excited for the fall and we know we have a lot to work on. This team is really excited to get back to work and we can’t wait to show you what we are all about in the fall.”
Even though the public address announcer said team captains would address the crowd, Cook clarified they have not yet elected leaders – that will happen during the team’s Brazil trip next month. However, Beason was chosen to speak for the team to the fans. Cook said Beason, who plans to be an elementary school teacher, has embraced the role, even unofficially.
While she might have been a little nervous playing her first game in a Nebraska uniform, Beason finished with a solid stat line of five kills, four digs and an ace.
“She has definitely stepped up as somebody who wants to lead,” Cook said.
The Huskers have a leadership void after losing two of last year’s captains – Kenzie Knuckles and Madi Kubik – and Nicklin Hames, who was elected team captain for three seasons. This spring, Cook has offered optional leadership seminars that the whole team has attended.
Beason has emerged as a unifying voice even amongst a team with several big personalities.
Bekka Allick said Beason has a different leadership style than her. The junior middle blocker said she prefers to push people out of their comfort zone, while Beason is a “lover” and uses kindness to guide others.
“She’s the kind of person that’s gonna love you through that type of situation with gentleness, but at the same time, what she’s saying is true, and it’s right and she’s not going to sugarcoat it,” Allick said. “Her motherly kind of love is what she has to offer to the team. She speaks for all of us, and not one of us wasn’t heard from whenever she speaks on our behalf. She’s a beautiful person from the inside and out and I think she brings a lot to this team.”
COWBOY COOK — When Cook emerged from the locker room, he drew a big cheer from the crowd. The 2,096 fans were glad to see the coach, but they were also excited about his outfit.
Gone was his usual attire of a button-up shirt and dress pants. Instead, Cook wore an Adidas polo, Wrangler jeans, his commemorative 800th victory belt buckle and boots. The boots were custom-made by Russ Saunders, who owns The Leather Shack in Central City, as payment for a speaking arrangement a few years ago.
Cook said the initial plan for the weekend was to be at a branding in western Nebraska, but when football moved its spring game to April 22 and pushed volleyball back a week, he thought he would keep the spirit of the activity alive.
“People in Nebraska west of Lincoln love this. Love it,” Cook said. “I just wanted to show them respect.”
The look got positive reviews from the players. Orr said she had only seen him in jeans during a team outing with the UNL rodeo team to practice roping.
“Oh, I loved it,” Orr said. “I told him that when he walked out and said, ‘Coach, you look great.’”
Said Allick: “I’m all about boots and blue jeans. So I think he looks so good.”
MORE WORK TO DO — Even though the official end of spring practice came with Saturday’s scrimmage, the Huskers will stay plenty busy.
NU coaches can still work with the players next week on skill development, and then the players will take a break for dead week and finals. Then, they will return to the gym on May 20 to prepare for the Brazil trip from May 29-June 14.
Cook said the quadrennial foreign trip comes at a valuable time because it allows his players to develop chemistry and challenge themselves in matches against the U19 and U21 Brazil national teams and the Brazil women’s military team.
“We need the work,” he said. ”This gives us a great opportunity, and the fact that we don’t have any seniors. We’ve got a full roster. We’re not waiting for freshmen to come in. So it’s an ideal time to do that. So we’re really, really excited about that.”
CENTRAL CITY — Harper Murray will return to Michigan for her senior prom in a few weeks.
But on Saturday in Nebraska’s spring match in Central City, the Husker freshman outside hitter was the belle of the ball.
Murray displayed exceptional athleticism, big swings and solid passing in her Husker debut finishing with a match-high 12 kills and a .391 hitting percentage. Behind solid play from Murray and five other newcomers, NU swept Wichita State 25-20, 25-21, 25-21 in front of 2,096 fans in a sold-out Bison Activity Dome.
Murray, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter, said she’s been looking forward to the match since she enrolled early at Nebraska in January.
“There is still a little bit of nerves, you know, it’s my first game technically,” Murray said. “But I thought having all the upperclassmen with me who’ve been in that situation before really helped calm me down, so credit to them for being so confident and helping all of us through it.”
Murray, who was named the top recruit in the nation by VolleyballMag.com this month, only played the first two sets but earned the start in her first public outing with the Huskers.
While her hitting stole the show in the Huskers’ only public spring match, NU coach John Cook said he went with Murray because of her back-row play.
“She’s been performing at a high level very consistently, and she’s been passing well,” he said. “If you’re going to play six rotations, you got to be able to pass and she’s done a great job managing all the skills and you can see she can get some big kills.”
Murray was not the only freshman who left a positive impression in her unofficial debut. Bergen Reilly set the final two frames and tallied 28 assists as she helped NU hit .352 during her time on the court.
Middle blocker Andi Jackson only played the third set but finished with seven kills on eight swings with a block. Opposite Caroline Jurevicious amassed three kills and two blocks in the third set.
Defensive specialist Laney Choboy made one of the plays of the game when she laid out to save a ball from going off the court. Setter Kennedi Orr then sent a freeball over, and NU recorded a block to end the rally.
“The freshmen came in and it was never like they acted like freshmen,” said Orr, now a junior. “They just came right in, they wanted a spot and they wanted to work hard. They wanted to be here, so yeah, I would say that the dynamic of the gym is everyone wants to play, we want to compete and we want to win.”
Cook said the challenge for the freshmen is to refine their skills so they don’t rely on talent only but make the proper plays. For instance, he said teammates sometimes shut Jackson down in spring practices because they knew the shots she would hit. The challenge going forward for all the freshmen is being more creative and consistent.
“Not relying just on athletic ability, but just learning how to be really good volleyball players and do it every day,” Cook said. “That’s been the biggest jump they’ve made and I’ve challenged some of them on that.”
Another newcomer, junior Florida transfer Merritt Beason, also made an impact. She racked up five kills and four digs and was selected by teammates to address the standing-room-only crowd following the match.
Cook said Beason was a little nervous for the match and struggled early with a couple of hitting errors early in the first set.
“She’s played in some big matches, but again, the first time you play in this environment and play for Nebraska, she was trying a little hard tonight and finally got herself down a little bit and she did great,” Cook said. “She’s a great addition to our program.”
While the newbies made an impression, the returnees also showed out well for the Huskers.
Sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick racked up eight kills on 10 errorless swings to go with six blocks. Junior Lindsay Krause started the game as an outside hitter and finished with four kills and three aces in two sets of action. Ally Batenhorst played the final set and notched five kills at a .364 clip. Orr amassed 15 assists in the first set.
Sophomore Maggie Mendelson added three kills and a block, while classmate Hayden Kubik also tallied a kill.
Junior libero Lexi Rodriguez led the Huskers with 12 digs, while Choboy added seven.
Wichita State was led by 10 kills from junior outside hitter Barbara Koehler. Senior setter Izzi Strand added seven kills, 23 assists and 10 digs.
The game marked another sellout for the Huskers’ spring game outside its home arena.
The players talked glowingly about the reception they received from the community both on Friday and during the match. Fans started to line up at the doors at 11 a.m. Some fans used the morning to tailgate and others waited in their cars.
“Obviously, there’s no place like Nebraska and it was just super cool that we finally got to experience that,” Reilly said. “All the freshmen coming in and Merritt, it’s just an unreal place and we couldn’t have had a better spring game.”
Orr said she felt like a celebrity when she had to run out to the bus to get her warm-up shirt and make her way through the lines. When she came out 75 minutes before the match for setter warm ups, the gym was already packed.
“You have to be grateful because when you walk out, everyone’s clapping and cheering you on,” she said. “You got to take that moment and just run with it and be super grateful for the people that are cheering you on and not take it as pressure.”
After the match, players signed autographs for more than two hours after the final point as almost everyone in attendance lined up to get volleyballs, programs and posters signed.
Cook said he was impressed with Central City’s new facility, which was completed last fall. He said the locker rooms were nicer than some of the ones they use during Big Ten play.
“This felt like it’s a Final Four in a way, just with the gifts, everything we went to and how it was all set up,” Cook said. “The court was great, the venue was great. I think everybody had a great seat tonight. … It just had a really big-time feeling.”
More than 2,000 fans packed into a high school gym. Sellouts that happen in less than an hour. The entire state focused on an exhibition where the results mean nothing.
This is what Harper Murray signed up for in the world of Nebraska volleyball.
Murray and the Huskers will travel to Central City to play its lone public match of the spring season Saturday at the 2,100 Bison Activity Dome.
“We knew coming in how the fan base was and how supportive everybody was,” Murray said. “The coaches and all the former players have done a really good job welcoming all of us. So it was a really easy transition for us, and we’re excited to go out there and play.”
The Huskers will take on Wichita State at 2 p.m. in the first monolithic dome in the state, which also doubles as an EMA-rated tornado shelter. The community replaced the gym near the elementary school with a $7.7 million dome, which was built with the help of a federal grant. The dome was completed late last year.
Fans in Central City are eager to welcome Nebraska to their hometown. Tickets were only sold in person on April 10, and people began lining up the night before. The event sold out in less than an hour. It will also be televised on Nebraska Public Media and B1G+.
The event continues the tradition of the Huskers playing their spring match around the state. NU has gone to Grand Island, McCook, Kearney, Norfolk, Ogallala and Wayne in the past decade.
“I’m just excited to go out there and see my cowboy friends,” NU coach John Cook said. “It’s gonna feel like a big-time event. These have been really special matches when we get to go to these towns and the way they appreciate it and the way they treat us. That to me, is the highlight of this. It just means a lot, so that’s what’s really cool.”
On the court, Cook said he would treat the match like a regular competition. He said he would determine a starting lineup late in the week. He said he would try to get all the players into the match if he could.
On the other side, the Shockers return all the key players from a team that went 18-13 last year, finishing in fourth place in the American Athletic Conference standings. They lost in the first round of the NIVC to Grand Canyon.
In a closed scrimmage against Creighton last week, the Huskers used two different units switching out between sets. He said the challenge for Saturday’s match is keeping players warm on the bench.
The one position change for the Huskers this spring is Lindsay Krause working full-time as an outside hitter. The 6-foot-4 junior primarily played on the right side the last two seasons but made a few appearances at the left pin. She is battling for playing time with junior Ally Batenhorst, sophomore Hayden Kubik and Murray.
“I made the commitment to her, a promise (to play) on the left,” Cook said. “She’s going to do some really nice things, but they all can. Every day one of them stands out and it’s not like one stood out the whole spring. It’s a great competition.”
Nebraska is working to integrate six newcomers into its lineup, including five early enrollees and transfer Merritt Beason. Those players have injected more energy into practice and competition at every position as they fight for playing time.
Murray said she is super excited for the match and will allow them to build trust and confidence in each other, even if they are a little nervous.
“It’s a lot of our first game, and there are a lot of new people on the team,” Murray said. “Saturday is going to be a great match. So it’s good to see new faces and to see a new type of play.”
When Nebraska announced its intention to play a volleyball match in Memorial Stadium, the intention was to take back the single-match record for attendance.
It turns out NU set its sights too low.
The public snatched up all available tickets as Nebraska announced that the event was a sell-out, with more than 82,900 tickets sold Thursday afternoon for its match against Omaha on Aug. 30. Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State will play the opener that afternoon. That number does not include field-level seating or indoor club seating.
Wisconsin currently holds the NCAA regular-season record, attracting 16,833 fans for a match against Florida last September at the Kohl Center in Madison. The Badgers’ record erased the previous mark set by Nebraska and Creighton nine days earlier when 15,797 fans watched the instate rivals play at the CHI Health Center in Omaha.
“I’ve never seen a reaction like a stadium match because I just think it’s so unique,” NU coach John Cook said Tuesday. “I think this is an event that everybody wants to say, ‘Hey, I was there.’”
However, with more than four times that many tickets already sold, the Volleyball Day celebration could be one of the most attended women’s athletic events ever.
The current record for a women’s event was set in March 2022, when Barcelona hosted Real Madrid for a UEFA Women’s Champions League match that drew 91,553 at Camp Nou. No. 2 on the list is the 1999 World Cup final (90,185) between the United States and China in 1999.
It might be difficult to reach those marks, but the volleyball match could reach the top five events, which currently include a match between Australia and India at the 2020 Cricket World Cup (86,174 in Melbourne), the 2012 Olympic soccer gold medal match (80,203 in London) and a 2019 soccer friendly between England and Germany (77,768 in London).
Season ticket holders purchased 17,900 tickets on Tuesday before they were made available to the public Wednesday at 10 a.m. The initial allotment was gone in less than an hour, and the NU Ticket Office opened up the rest of the stadium.
Only limited-view seats were left by Wednesday night, and all of those were sold by 6:40 a.m. on Thursday. Later that day, students claimed on-field standing-room-only tickets.
A concert is also scheduled after the volleyball matches, but NU has not announced who the musical artist will be.
“It’s really exciting,” Cook said. “We want to make it a volleyball day of celebration. It’s great. Nebraska is trying to do some special things here, and our fans are the best and they want to be a part of it.”
Seven of the eight largest attendance figures for any volleyball match, and 12 of the top 14, featured Nebraska in the national championship match or national semifinals. The 2021 NCAA title match between Nebraska and Wisconsin drew the biggest crowd to watch a college volleyball match with 18,755 fans at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Attracting more than 80,000 for a single match is unheard of in college volleyball. Only four teams drew more than that figure for the entire 2022 season. Nebraska (155,618) and Wisconsin (139,701) were the only schools that attracted six figures. Third place Hawaii saw 89,450 total fans at its 15 home matches, and Minnesota had a total attendance of 80,886 at 17 home contests.
The stands were empty, the scores didn’t matter and plenty of kinks were still being worked out.
But don’t try to tell that the scrimmage against Creighton last Friday didn’t matter to members of the Nebraska volleyball team. Before the first competition this spring against a different team, NU coach John Cook said a couple of the freshmen lost their breath.
“These guys get really fired up,” Cook said on Tuesday. “We gotta learn how to control that a little bit, but it’s fun to see that because they’re just so fired up to play.”
Even Harper Murray, who was named the top recruit in the nation by VolleyballMag.com, got caught up in the moment.
“Maybe a little bit,” Murray said when asked if she was one of the freshmen struggling to breathe before the scrimmage. “I’m still getting used to those big moments, but I think overall, I think we played really well as a team.”
The scrimmage came together last minute thanks to a calendar quirk that gave the Huskers an extra week of practice after spring break. Nebraska split its roster into two complete teams and swapped them between sets. Murray said she was glad the Huskers pulled out a victory.
While spring scrimmages can be a mixed bag because of an incomplete roster, Cook said he was impressed with Creighton’s lineup and said both teams competed at a high level. In addition, the competitive fire he sees daily in practice carried over to the scrimmage.
“I would pay to watch these practices,” he said. “These practices are awesome.”
Murray said the scrimmage featured a lot of learning moments. They are still figuring out how to play together and building trust and confidence in each other.
Murray said she’s also grown a lot during her first months of college volleyball. She enjoyed adjusting during the beach season and learning from her partner, junior Merritt Beason. One lesson she’s learned is how to deal with the mental side of the game and try not to get in her head too much and play more consistently.
“Merritt was a great beach partner for me,” Murray said. “She’s a very calm and a competent person. I think that she was one of the people that’s helped me give grace to myself. I’m very lucky that I have her on the court with me because she’s a very good teammate and a good leader.”
SET ON ONE SETTER — Cook said the Huskers have not practiced any 6-2 offense this spring.
Last year, NU ran almost exclusively a two-setter system with Nicklin Hames, Anni Evans and Kennedi Orr splitting time running the offense. With Hames out of eligibility and Evans set to transfer to San Diego, Orr is taking turns with freshman Bergen Reilly at setter.
Cook said he hasn’t figured out how they will divide up playing time Saturday against Wichita State.
“They’re competing this week, so we’ll see,” he said. “The last two days, we go tomorrow and then we’ll decide the starting lineup.”
Cook said he planned to designate a top group and then try to get everyone else into the match.
LEADERS STEPPING UP — After several consecutive miscues in practice, Beason asked Cook if they could have a moment to regroup.
Players from both sides of the net circled up and talked amongst themselves. After the break, the Huskers played much more sharply and focused on the drill.
While the Huskers have not announced their captains or leadership structure yet, he’s been offering optional leadership workshops every week.
“I think everybody has shown up,” he said. “So obviously, they’re interested in learning how to be leaders and growing in that area.”
AWARD SEASON — The Nebraska athletic department hosted its annual award banquet on Sunday night with several volleyball players earning awards.
Evans earned the Outstanding Scholar Award for having a GPA higher than 3.9 and graduating in May. She also won the Elite 90 award in 2021 for the highest GPA amongst the Final Four teams.
Hames won the Heart and Soul award for her volunteerism and leadership, while Bekka Allick was named one of 27 recipients of the Sam Foltz Hero Leadership Award.
BRISK SALES — Tickets went on sale Tuesday for the Aug. 30 Volleyball Day matches in Memorial Stadium to season ticket holders and volleyball alums, and the response was strong.
While sales numbers were unavailable, reports of busy phone lines and an overwhelmed website were common on the first day of availability.
The public can purchase tickets starting Wednesday at 10 a.m.
The Devaney Center gym was filled with yells, cheers and lots of banter as Nebraska volleyball players battled during drills on Monday.
Moments after Caroline Jurevicius slammed home a kill, Andi Jackson blocked another attack. Then Laney Choboy delivered a diving dig to set up a point.
All three are newcomers and part of the group making an impact in their first spring with the Huskers with an injection of energy, athleticism and competition. It only takes a few seconds of listening to an NU volleyball practice to tell that it is a different type of team as it began its fourth week of spring practice on Monday.
Even with six newcomers, the camaraderie is tight among the 14 players.
“It’s a very, very live group, as you can tell,” sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick said. “There’s a lot of friendly smack-talking going on. It’s a very, very feisty group.”
All five incoming freshmen enrolled early and are joined by junior opposite Merritt Beason, a transfer from Florida. The Huskers added a new player at each position, creating competition for playing time at each spot.
Beason said the position battles and everyone pushing each other every day stood out to her.
“How hard those girls go each and every day and the coaches – how hard they push us – it’s been really cool to see and to be a part of,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a challenge, but it was something that I noticed from the start that I was like, ‘Wow, this is really special.’”
After one of the most successful beach seasons in program history, the Huskers transitioned to indoor quickly after spring break. Maggie Mendelson joined the group a week after taking a few days off following the end of the women’s basketball season on March 23.
Because of the academic calendar and the late spring exhibition, the Huskers can practice for six weeks this year, one more than in previous springs.
With so many newcomers, Cook said discussing priorities for the upcoming season will wait. Instead, NU is focusing on terminology and installing practice drills right now.
Beason said having so many new players has made it easy to mesh with everyone since almost everyone has a learning curve.
“There have been lots of things that we’ve had to learn really, really fast, but all of the girls that have been here were really welcoming and open,” she said. “They’ve welcomed us with open arms, so they’ve made the transition really easy.”
Beason has integrated seamlessly with the team. She is rooming with junior Lindsay Krause and enjoyed connecting with teammates during the Hawaii trip. The 6-foot-3 opposite has already made an impact as Cook asked her to design the logo for NU’s Brazil trip.
Some of the returners are experiencing new roles as well. Allick said she’s had to transition to being the veteran middle blocker. Even though she’s just a sophomore, she’s the most experienced player at the position after starting 29 matches last season.
Allick said she is impressed with Jackson and doesn’t think that starting is too far out of her future. When Jackson has questions during practice, she turns to the Waverly product for help.
“On the first day, she was like, ‘Bekka, I’m gonna follow you.’ I was like, ‘Oh, crap.’ I’m used to usually being the follower and I never really had to think about that,” Allick said. “Knowing that someone is watching my moves, what I’m doing in practice, and how I talk to coaches and things like that, that’s what she’s going to assume is a standard. So being that older sister figure is new.”
NU lost four players to graduation, plus setter Anni Evans, who transferred to San Diego during the offseason. So even though the Huskers return multiple key contributors from last year’s team, which went 26-6 and exited the NCAA tournament in the regional semifinals, they are left with a young team.
Not only do they not have any seniors, none of the players have turned 21. Cook said they are a curious group and want to learn as much as possible. The one thing Cook hasn’t had to worry about is challenging them to bring energy to the gym daily.
“They’re not bashful,” he said. “They don’t care how old they are or who’s ahead of them. They’re competing. They want to play. … The game doesn’t know how old you are.”
To no surprise, tickets for the spring match in Central City sold out in less than an hour Monday morning.
With tickets only available for in-person purchase in Central City, fans began lining up around 8 p.m. Sunday, 12 hours before sales started. The seats sold out in 38 minutes, and then 14 minutes later, all the standing-room-only tickets were gone.
The Huskers will play Wichita State on April 29 at the newly constructed Bison Dome, which can hold around 2,100 fans.
Head coach John Cook said Central City had talked to Nebraska for four years while constructing the first monolithic dome in the state, which also doubles as an EMA-rated tornado shelter.
“It’s a pride for the community and I think by Nebraska volleyball or any of our Nebraska teams coming out there and playing it just kind of validates,” he said. “This is a big deal.”
ORR MAKING PROGRESS — Kennedi Orr has received plenty of attention this spring. While the rest of her teammates participated in beach volleyball, the junior setter worked out with Cook and assistant coach Kelly Hunter.
After undergoing a minor procedure on her knee last year, she traveled to Hawaii with the rest of the team during spring break. While there, they found a gym through a connection with assistant coach Jaylen Reyes and worked out.
Cook said he saw “major” progress from Orr during the spring.
“We trained the heck out of her,” Cook said. “She got a lot of individual attention. We worked really hard, and she worked really hard… Life is good for Kennedy Orr.”
RETURNING SOON — Junior libero Lexi Rodriguez and Beason each missed portions of practice on Monday.
Rodriguez was wearing street clothes on Monday and said on her social media that she suffered a concussion last week after taking an attack to the head. Beason sat out the second half of practice after feeling under the weather.
Cook said he expected both of them back on Tuesday.
“These are just little things that if it was fall, they wouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “But since it is just spring, we don’t push through some of these things.”
STRONG RESPONSE — Whether he’s on the speaking circuit or out recruiting, the most common topic that people ask Cook about during the last month has been Nebraska’s outdoor match scheduled for Memorial Stadium in August.
“It’s unreal. I mean, there’s people going to come in from all over the world for this thing,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Cook said he expects the stadium to sell out when tickets go on sale on April 25. He doesn’t know what the capacity will be with the court and concert setup, but he expects a strong response.
Allick said people also talk to her about the match when she’s out. One of her friends on the soccer team was asked about it because she was wearing Huskers clothing.
Beason said she was impressed with the response. While she’s always been involved with volleyball, it’s at a different level in Nebraska compared to growing up in Alabama.
“For me, it’s been really cool just to see how big volleyball is up here,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to come here was how big and how important volleyball is. It blows my mind to think about it.”
One of the mantras of John Cook’s volleyball program is to dream big.
For Nebraska, it can’t get much bigger than hosting a volleyball match outdoors in the 85,458-seat Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska announced on Friday that it would play Omaha on Aug. 30 in a celebration of volleyball in the state at the 100-year-old stadium. The day will also feature an exhibition match between Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State in an exhibition at 4:30 p.m. and be followed by the Huskers and Mavericks at 7 p.m. The games will be paired with a music concert by a to-be-announced national recording artist.
The match at Memorial Stadium would likely be the first NCAA volleyball match played outdoors, not including the beach season. Playing outside would present new challenges in dealing with wind, humidity and sun. However, for the Huskers, who all play beach volleyball, the conditions would be similar to what they experience during the spring season, but with a more stable surface. However, Cook appreciated NU athletic director Trev Alberts’s confidence in their ability to pull off the event.
“It’s cool to be around people that dream big,” Cook said. “That’s what we talk about all the time. This is just the next step we can take to make Nebraska volleyball really special or more than it is and really put it on a world stage.”
Tickets go on sale Apr. 25 to season-ticket holders and to the public one day later. Tickets will be $25 for adults and $5 for high school-age and under. A ticket will gain entrance to both volleyball matches and the concert.
NU middle blocker Bekka Allick said she was pumped about the opportunity to play in front of a stadium full of Nebraska volleyball fans.
“They’ve got the right amount of crazy,” the Waverly graduate said. “I think it doesn’t take normal, chill fans to want to do this nor to want to fill a stadium like this. It takes that next level of passion, almost obsession, and just love for the game and to see their athletes do well and just want to be there for them like a family.”
Nebraska isn’t just seeking to raise the bar and take back the regular-season, single-match volleyball attendance record. Instead, the Huskers aim to annihilate the previous mark and launch it into a new stratosphere.
The event’s origins hatched last fall after Wisconsin hosted Florida, attracting 16,833 fans at the Kohl Center in Madison. The Badgers’ record erased the previous mark set by Nebraska and Creighton nine days earlier when 15,797 fans watched the instate rivals play at the CHI Health Center in Omaha.
Cook said he talked with Alberts about how to take the record back. Since Pinnacle Bank Arena can only hold 15,290 for volleyball, the only other option was the football stadium.
“We’re going to do this once, and I want to hope that the number is large enough that nobody dares even try to attack our all-time record,” Alberts said.
Allick said she took it personally when Wisconsin took away the attendance mark. She admits she gets a little competitive about anything and wants to take back the record.
“I get freakishly competitive about anything. If I’m in traffic and if someone accelerates too fast, I’m gonna take it personal,” the Waverly graduate said. “When I saw that they set the trend I was like, ‘Alright, game on.’ We don’t just roll over to anybody. There was a little bit of talk in the locker room. Then, of course, Coach drops the mic and says, ‘Yeah, we’re playing Memorial Stadium.’ Let’s pack it.”
The other three schools will receive $50,000 for participating as a bonus. If the event is moved to Devaney because of weather, their share will be $15,000.
Alberts said Nebraska would apply to the Board of Regents for an exemption to sell alcohol in the stadium, similar to the Garth Brooks concert in 2021. He also said the musical artist would be announced at a later date.
Before the 2022 season, Nebraska was part of the 12 largest regular-season crowds, which were either played at CHI Center or the original configuration of the Devaney Center.
Seven of the eight largest attendance figures for any volleyball match, and 12 of the top 14, all featured Nebraska in the national championship match or national semifinals. The 2021 NCAA title match between Nebraska and Wisconsin drew the biggest crowd to ever watch a college volleyball match with 18,755 fans at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The announcement press conference also featured Alberts, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, University of Nebraska system president Ted Carter, UNL chancellor Ronnie Green and all four head coaches.
Carter said he was excited to see all three schools in the Nebraska university system participate in an event celebrating women’s athletics. The court will be set up in the north end zone with the concert stage in the middle of the field. None of the speakers were shy about calling for fans to turn out and fill the stadium.
“I’m just not going to be happy with 20,000 or 30,000,” Carter said. “I want to challenge all Nebraskans. We have sold out this stadium for every sporting event we’ve put in that stadium since 1962. Let’s pack the stadium. But sell this thing out and show the world how great we as Nebraskans are as sports fans.”
College basketball has tried the outdoor experiment as four games have been played on the decks of aircraft carriers, starting in 2011. (Two more were scheduled to play, but condensation on the court canceled them.) The NBA played four preseason games outdoors, with the last three played at Indian Wells Tennis Garden near Palm Springs, California. The WNBA hosted a regular season game at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York, in 2008.
Pillen, who played football for Nebraska in the 1970s, said he thought about how special it would be for the athletes to participate in the event.
“This is Nebraska,” he said. “Innovation across the state and incredible innovation from Memorial Stadium.”
Pillen issued a proclamation declaring Aug. 30 as Volleyball Day in the state. He read off the list of accomplishments for Nebraska and the other three programs and even got a little choked up when reading the official decree. Pillen also presented Cook with a cowboy hat and dispensed the honor of becoming an admiral in the Nebraska Navy to the Husker coach.
Each coach of the four schools talked about what a unique opportunity this event would be.
Wayne State coach Scott Kneifl said he was sold right away on the event because it is a great opportunity to showcase his program and UNK. He told his team about the news Friday morning as they prepared to play Nebraska in beach volleyball.
“There were a lot of big eyes in the room,” he said. “They’re trying to process it a little bit, I think, but at the same time, I think that they’re super excited. They know this isn’t something that’s going to happen every year. I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and they’re just really pumped to be a part of it.”
The Division II season doesn’t officially kick off until that weekend, meaning the matting between Wayne State and UNK will be an exhibition. WSC finished last season ranked No. 5, while the Lopers were No. 15. They haven’t played a regular season match-up since 2015.
While Nebraska recently saw its regular season record taken away, so did Nebraska-Kearney and Nebraska-Omaha. They owned the Division II attendance record of 3,520 in 1996. Last year, Central Washington and Anchorage-Alaska played a match in front of 3,888 fans at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Although this match won’t count for the Division II record, UNK coach Rick Squires said they are working to bring that back to Nebraska as well.
“We’ve already had discussions on our campus about making sure that we also regain the home court attendance record,” he said. “We’re in the process of trying to pick out the right date and get everybody in Kearney to make sure we’re back on top.”
The 1974 Volleyball Team Claims Its Spot in Husker Annals
By Lincoln Arneal
The 1974 Nebraska volleyball team exists in the pages of Cheryl (Nolte) Henry’s scrapbook – filled with clippings of photos and stories of its exploits.
The team exists in the memories of first-year coach Pat Sullivan, the dozen players and the scant fans who watched them play home matches in Mabel Lee Hall.
The team also exists in a letter sent to Henry on Dec. 13, 1974, apologizing for the delay in her financial aid. It was the first time NU female student-athletes had received scholarships for participating in athletics. Nebraska had run into “snags which caused considerable delay and uncertainty” about the disbursement date.
However, the 1974 team does not exist in the official record book of Nebraska volleyball. Despite being the first team supervised by the athletic department and awarded athletic scholarships, 1975 is the first season recognized in program history.
That means the wins and losses don’t count in Sullivan’s career coaching record, and the three seniors on that team – Henry, Vicki (Ossenkop) Highstreet and Denise Stange – are not recognized as letter winners in the media guide or on the wall outside the Nebraska locker room.
“We tell our kids this – we were the first, you know?” Henry said. “Then, we take them to Devaney, and our names aren’t there.”
The reasons provided by the NU athletic department why the 1974 team isn’t recognized are a lack of records and tradition. In 2000, the athletic department celebrated 25 years of women’s sports at Nebraska, commemorating 1975 as the first season. Also, a complete list of results for the first year didn’t exist, so adding them to the record book was all but impossible.
According to Nebraska media guides, the first official season of competition for most women’s sports happened during the 1975-76 academic year, including volleyball, gymnastics, tennis, softball and swimming and diving – even though all those sports competed the previous year. Women’s basketball is the outlier and cites the 1974-75 team as its inaugural season, going 9-7 under Jan Callahan.
“We just kind of fell through the cracks,” Highstreet said. “It’s like they were trying to catch up, and they really didn’t catch up.”
However, for the first time, the complete results of the first volleyball team with scholarship student-athletes have been compiled through newspaper archives. In 1974, the Huskers went 25-10-1 and finished second in the Nebraska state tournament and sixth in the AIAW, or Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, regional tournament.
Now with those records and conversations stemming from a reunion last fall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, members of the 1974 team can be included in the storied history of Nebraska volleyball.
“Can I live without being recognized? Well, that’s fine. But if you’re going to recognize it, let’s do it historically accurate,” Stange said. “Why are you ignoring us if we got scholarships? We’re no different than the next year – ’75. They were not the first class. The names are all over, starting with ’75. Their names are engraved on the walls at the Devaney Center. We aren’t that much of an ego people, but if you’re going to tell the story as a university and tell it historically, let’s do it accurately.”
Sullivan was on the job hunt in 1973. She was about to finish her master’s degree at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., when she traveled to Minnesota for a national physical education conference hoping to find a place to start her career.
While there, she ran into Gail Whitaker, who had graduated from Smith College a year earlier and was the tennis coach at Nebraska. Whitaker connected Sullivan with Madge Phillips, the head of the NU P.E. department, who was looking for someone to teach and coach swimming. After an interview, Sullivan was offered a job.
After some hesitation, Sullivan, who earned her undergraduate degree from SUNY-Cortland, received encouragement from friends on the East Coast. Seek out new experiences, they said.
“So I did, and I took their advice and would be forever grateful for that advice,” Sullivan said. “Because it was so different. It’s so different from the Northeast, and it opened up lots of doors and provided new experiences. I just put myself out there.”
After Sullivan’s first year, the volleyball coach position opened after Margaret Penney, who guided the team when it operated under the P.E. department, stepped down. The Nebraska administration knew Sullivan had volleyball coaching in her background, so she readily agreed to add another sport to her duties.
“I really wanted to be involved in the volleyball world,” Sullivan said. “That was really where I felt like I belonged.”
Despite feeling at home on the volleyball court, juggling her duties was challenging. For two years, Sullivan pulled double duty, coaching volleyball and then switching her focus to swimming. A few times, the sports overlapped.
Sullivan recalled one weekend when Nebraska was hosting a volleyball tournament in Mabel Lee Hall, and the swimming team was competing in the Big Eight relays in Kansas. Sullivan left the volleyball team in the hands of a local club coach while she accompanied the swimmers to Lawrence, Kan.
On the volleyball court, Sullivan inherited a large group of talented players from the P.E. supervised team. According to a 1974 season preview in the Lincoln Journal Star, the team went 14-3 the previous year, winning the state title and eventually placing sixth in the regional tournament. Behind a talented group, she helped NU improve on the court and recorded a winning record as an athletic department team.
“I was biting off a big chunk when I went to Nebraska, but we just built,” Sullivan said. “We were very successful in Year 1 and just kept on going, and I just kept on learning. You don’t ever quit.”
Although the team was successful in the P.E era, Sullivan added more credibility. Practices became more structured and intense. The group began doing different drills. Everything had a purpose. Individual development led to team development.
“Practice definitely went up a level,” Highstreet said. “The intensity – that definitely grew with her coming. She had the strategic mind for it. I think that legitimized what we were doing a little bit more.”
While she was only five years older than some of her players, Sullivan commanded the room and earned the players’ respect. She didn’t talk down to players if they didn’t understand a concept but would break it down into steps to help them master it.
Janice Kruger, a sophomore on the 1974 team, described Sullivan as a player’s coach and quite skilled at teaching the nuances with new techniques. Sullivan used motivation to keep improving and pushing her players forward. She’d take a simple concept like adding a short set to the middle blocker, teach the setter the move, implement the footwork for the attack and work on the timing between the two players.
“She keeps everybody rowing in the same direction, and it was managed in such a way that people know what’s going on,” Kruger said. “People know expectations, and people have fun doing what they’re doing. She was the best I’ve ever had. And I had a really good high school coach. Pat took it to another level.”
They came from Florida, Oregon, Massachusetts and all corners of Nebraska.
In late October, members from Nebraska’s first volleyball teams gathered for a weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX legislation and the beginning of women’s athletics at NU. Sullivan and 14 members from the early days gathered for a weekend of honoring the past, catching up with friends and enjoying the legacy they helped create.
Initially, the gathering was more limited. When invites were sent out, it was just for members of the 1975 team. However, when Sullivan saw the list, she sent an “extended email” to Nebraska volleyball’s director of operations, Lindsay Peterson, making the case to include the seniors of the 1974 team and the manager for both teams, Sandy Stewart.
“I said we have one chance to get this right,” Sullivan said. “This kind of a celebration isn’t going to happen again anytime soon, and these people are already old. So make this happen.”
Soon, invitations went out to the 1974 seniors and a few others left off the initial list. The ceremony would now honor the first two Husker volleyball teams.
Once the weekend arrived, the festivities started on a Friday with the former players visiting a Husker practice session. They shared a few thoughts with the current team and swapped stories.
NU coach John Cook said he received several notes afterward from players back for the reunion about how they appreciated interacting with the team and getting to know them. As fun as it was for the original members to meet the modern iteration of the Huskers, he thought the student-athletes also gained a new perspective from hearing about the early days of the volleyball program.
“I thought it was really great for our players to hear their stories because we talk about having an attitude of gratitude for everything they get now because they get a lot and more than any time in college sports for women,” he said. “We tell them the greater the rewards, the greater the responsibility. We’re trying to instill that in them. So it was good for them to hear that.”
That evening, the reunion included a banquet at Devaney Center where Cook talked to the group, and they shared memories from their playing days and caught up on each other’s lives. They also toured the Husker locker room, training facilities and medical treatment room – a far cry from what they used in Mabel Lee Hall.
Even though they stayed connected a bit over the years through phone calls, emails and Facebook, Kruger said it was a different energy when everyone was in the same room.
“That was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful treat to be able to connect there,” Kruger said almost three months later. “It’s almost like it was just yesterday. It’s a strong connection. It was just special times with special people. When you’re that young and you’re going through so many changes and growth, those things are significant in your life.”
On Saturday, they gathered at Susie Heiser’s family tailgate before being introduced as a group at Memorial Stadium during the Nebraska-Illinois football game.
That evening at the volleyball match against Maryland, 15 members of the 1974 and 1975 teams were honored after the second set, each individually introduced. The crowd never sat down, giving them a standing ovation the entire time they were on the court.
“That gave us all goosebumps,” Stewart said. “Having our picture up on the big screen at the Devaney Center and being introduced individually, we were getting the applause that we never got. That was really special.”
The current edition of the Huskers honored the original teams by wearing special jerseys that mimicked the look of the first team – a red outline of the state with the number inside and a red Iron N under the panhandle.
Despite her early protests about the invite list, Sullivan said the weekend couldn’t have gone much better.
“I wish we had a little bit more time just to connect, but I’m really pleased with the way the university handled their part to honor those people,” she said. “It was really about them and their contributions to the early days of Nebraska athletics.”
During the summer of 1974, the athletics department underwent transformative change. To comply with Title IX legislation passed two years earlier, sports began to migrate to the jurisdiction of the athletic department, and scholarships were offered for the first time. No longer would Sullivan report to the P.E. department. Her new boss would be Bob Devaney, the athletic director and recently retired football coach.
The change increased the women’s athletics budget from $15,000 to $60,000, with half allocated for full-tuition waivers. According to an article in the Daily Nebraskan, 39 women received scholarships across seven sports: volleyball, women’s basketball, gymnastics, softball, swimming and diving, tennis and field hockey. (Track and field competed in its first season in the spring of 1975, while field hockey was dropped after the 1976 season.)
The budget also paid for food, lodging, equipment, officials and transportation. It also included funds for a search to hire an assistant athletic director just for women’s athletics, which led to 25-year-old Aleen Swofford’s hiring in the summer of 1975. It was a whole new world for the players, who often had to pay for food and lodging when the programs were part of the P.E. department.
For the first four who received scholarships – Henry, Stange, Highstreet and Heiser – there wasn’t much fanfare. Social media didn’t exist to share the news. There were no signing ceremonies. Scholarships weren’t life-changing financial windfalls. When Kruger received a scholarship the following year, she learned about it through a casual conversation with Sullivan.
“I don’t even know if people knew” who was on scholarship, Kruger said. “It wasn’t something we talked about really. It wasn’t a real big deal.”
It wasn’t a smooth process either. Henry didn’t receive notification that her scholarship check was ready until Dec. 13 – the Friday before finals and three weeks after the volleyball season had ended.
While there could have been some division between scholarship players and those not receiving aid, Sullivan ensured it didn’t get in the way of any relationships. The low-key nature of awarding the first scholarships was part of her general approach. Sullivan tried to keep what was happening on the court separate from what was happening in the outside world.
On the court, it was smooth sailing for most of the 1974 season. The Huskers went unscathed through the first few weeks, winning their opening nine matches against in-state competition. After dropping a match to Chadron State, NU faced its toughest battles of the year at a tournament in Kansas. NU beat Missouri but split sets against Drake before losing to Kansas and regional power Southwest Missouri State.
The Huskers finished the regular season 14-4-1 before the state tournament. NU suffered its second loss of the year to Nebraska-Omaha but rebounded to make the title match against Kearney State. The Lopers controlled the match and won the title, but with a runner-up finish, the Huskers qualified for the AIAW Region VI tournament. NU went 4-2 in pool play to advance to the top eight. However, it stumbled on the final day and finished in sixth place with another loss to Kansas.
While reminiscing with players during the reunion, Sullivan pulled back the curtain for the first time on what was happening behind the scenes that first season. She was constantly working on getting all she could to support her team. She talked about how they got kicked out of the Rec Center racquetball courts, even though they had keys to the building. Sometimes, small details get overlooked when you’re launching an athletic department – like keeping records. However, whenever she could, Sullivan was there fighting for her players.
Support beyond the court was nonexistent. If a player needed an ankle taped, she better get in line to have a coach do it or learn how to tape it herself. If a player wanted to work out, she could use one universal weight-lifting machine, but she’d have to develop the workouts herself.
The players who had played as part of the P.E. department team didn’t know about the transition until it was almost complete.
“It was unbeknownst to us at that time that (Sullivan) was an employee of the athletic department and fighting new Title IX battles for our team,” Stange said. “As oblivious college seniors, we just continued to practice hard and improve as a team just as in the previous years because we loved the sport of volleyball.”
The history of Nebraska volleyball begins before 1974.
As alluded to several times above, the sport was played under the supervision of the university’s P.E. department for four years before transitioning to the athletic department and awarding scholarships. The team often played nearby schools and participated in now-defunct AIAW regional tournaments. During the 1960s, many women’s athletic competitions that existed as intramurals began evolving into club and extramural competitions.
Stange is grateful for the dozens of women who played volleyball as part of the P.E. department before she arrived on campus. She called those players the true pioneers, playing the sport even before Title IX.
“It wasn’t like there was no volleyball at UNL until ’74 or ’75,” she said. “That’s why we don’t want to step on their toes either. It was just by chance of timing and our age that we were in that first group. It’s nothing special we did.”
Volleyball also existed on the high school level in Nebraska long before the first NU team took the court. Having a foundation of high-quality high school players allowed the Huskers to pack rosters with Nebraska natives and win most matches early on. That early success has allowed Nebraska never to have a losing season in program history.
Sullivan said the high school coaches produced strong, fundamentally sound players. So when she got them in the gym at Nebraska, she wasn’t starting from scratch. Then, when she did start recruiting, she stayed local and didn’t have to travel far to find high-level players, and it helped that Nebraska kids wanted to go to Nebraska.
“I don’t know that I was smart enough to know what I was doing was what needed to happen,” Sullivan said. “At the time, we were going to move fast because pretty quickly, other people were going to catch up. So we needed to lay that groundwork. We needed to hold on to the kids from Nebraska. I needed to get better fast.”
Women’s athletics would continue to expand at Nebraska. With Swofford’s hiring in 1975, one of her first initiatives was to start a women’s sports information department – which might explain why records for 1974 teams don’t exist. Women’s sports employed their own athletic trainers, and Stewart assisted with fall sports. Golf was added for the 1975-76 school year. Scholarships and the budget continued to grow and women could begin lifting weights in Schulte Fieldhouse, where the football team worked out.
As time passed, the original Nebraska volleyball team moved on and spread out while continuing to impact the volleyball world all over the country.
Sullivan stepped away after the 1976 season and went into administration as an assistant athletic director. She thought it would be a long-term career move. The following year, she set up the first academic support system for women student-athletes, ran tournaments and provided support for whatever the women’s programs needed.
After helping out with a regional club volleyball team, Sullivan realized she still had a passion for coaching. She left Nebraska and headed back East to become the volleyball coach at George Washington. Sullivan led the Colonials for nine seasons, accumulating a record of 289-140. After retiring from coaching in 1987, she earned her doctorate in higher education from GW in 1989 and was inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame in 1995. She remains the winningest coach in program history.
Sullivan wasn’t the only person from that first team who went on to coaching success.
Kruger coached at Nebraska-Omaha and led the Mavs to a trio of third-place finishes in the NCAA Division II tournament and two AVCA national coach of the year awards. She later worked at Maryland for 20 years and became the all-time winningest coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 363 victories.
After short stints as an assistant at Houston and LSU, Stewart served as the head coach at Iowa from 1982-88, winning 136 games. The Big Ten coach of the year in 1983, she is still the winningest coach in Hawkeye program history.
Many others coached at the high school level or worked as referees, staying involved with the game in whatever way they could. Their passion for the sport shouldn’t be a surprise as many early players weren’t recruited and chose to play the sport independently. Plus, the coaching path was natural since many were physical education majors and were going into teaching.
For now, the 1974 team’s legacy isn’t found in any record book at Nebraska, but they know they set the program on an early path to success. After Sullivan left, Nebraska hired Terry Pettit, who would eventually win NU’s first national volleyball championship in 1995, just more than two decades after the original Huskers played in front of family and friends with ankles they taped themselves.
Sullivan said she is proud of the groundwork those early teams laid. However, she’s also passionate that all the players get credit for their contribution, especially that 1974 team. She regrets not correcting the oversight earlier.
When she returned for the 25-year celebration of women’s athletics at NU, Sullivan noted the 1975 team was recognized as the first. Alarm bells went off in her head, but she didn’t know how to correct the record.
“I feel like we’ve got a window here to make something happen,” Sullivan said. “Had I not been coaching somewhere else and heavily involved in like a million other things in my career, I would have taken care of that way back in 1977. I would have made that happen then, but that wasn’t high on my list. We weren’t posting stuff online. There weren’t media guides that everybody was looking at. We didn’t have that. I just took it for granted.
“I remember when we went back for 25 years, even at that point, they were saying ’75 was the first team. I just thought, ‘Well, you’re wrong.’ But what am I going to do about it now? Yeah, I should have jumped on it. I should have, would have, could have, right? But it’s not too late.”