By Lincoln Arneal
Harper Murray has taken the volleyball world by storm.
Six weeks into her college career, Nebraska’s explosive outside hitter has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times, is among the Top 10 in the league for points and kills per set and has helped the team to a 13-0 record and the No. 2 ranking.
However, when the Huskers take on Michigan on Saturday night, she will be Harper, the little sister, daughter and hometown girl. On the other side of the net will be her older sister, Kendall, an outside hitter for the Wolverines, and the stands will be filled with dozens – if not hundreds – of other relatives and friends.
While everyone in the gym will see Harper as a powerful attacker and an essential piece of NU’s team, Kendall said she sees a person who has seen the good and the bad. She knows her better than herself and thinks about the warm, soft side of Harper.
“I see that little girl inside of her that was just always next to me and grew up next to me doing everything together,” Kendall said. “Now she is older, she’s more mature, and she’s grown into her own person, but I’ll always see the side of her when I get to call her after the game when no one’s around and when she comes home, that’s the part that warms my heart.”
Before the sister showdown on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., the Huskers play at Michigan State on Friday at 6 p.m.
The Murrays grew up in Ann Arbor playing nearly every organized sport available. After Kendall realized she was too tall for gymnastics, she found her calling through volleyball. Harper wasn’t far behind.
“She’s the reason why I’m in volleyball now. I wouldn’t have been in the sport without her,” Harper told the Lincoln Journal Star.
They played together in their sand court in the backyard. She would tag along to Kendall’s tournaments and often get in trouble for playing pepper on the sidelines in convention centers. After trying her hand at volleyball, soccer and gymnastics, Harper realized her future was following the same path as her sister.
“She was a really fun, energetic, feisty kid,” Kendall said. “It was kind of cool just to see her passion for the game develop and turn into something from on the sidelines of her watching my games to her actually going on the court and actually playing and like being a part of her own team.”
Kendall and Harper played one year together at Skyline High School, which opened in 2008. The Eagles didn’t have much of a volleyball legacy, but they reached the state semifinals in 2019 behind the Murray sisters. When Kendall graduated, she held the school record for kills and digs.
That year tested their relationship in new ways. Having a sister relationship is different from a teammate relationship. Kendall said they didn’t cherish it as much as they should have. They were at different points in their lives. One was a senior, the other a freshman with different objectives for the season. While they did butt heads a few times, sharing was an enjoyable experience. They blasted music after school while getting ready for practice, went to open gyms and dressed up for themed days.
“Looking back, it’s a really fun memory knowing that we created something super special at that school,” Kendall said. “Because the program, when I came in, was an awful disaster. To be able to go from that to leaving in the state semis is a huge accomplishment.”
Kendall continued the family legacy and chose to continue her volleyball career at Michigan. She wore the No. 27 to honor her father, Vada, who donned the same number when he played football for the Wolverines. He died in 2011 from lung cancer when both sisters were in elementary school. Now, Harper wears the same number for the Huskers.
While Kendall built her career with the hometown school, Harper was busy creating a national profile. Elite college programs recruited Harper as an eighth-grader. She went to camps, had the attention of some of the most prominent schools in the country and trained with the junior national team. Kendall knew from early on that Harper would be extraordinary.
“As soon as she stepped on that court when she was 12, 13, she was dominating and I think we all knew she was gonna be great,” she said. “Not only her skill, but also … her passion and her thump that she brings on the court, you just kind of know and she has that vibe to her.”
Soon after she could be officially recruited, Harper gave her pledge to the Huskers.
“Obviously, I love Michigan. I grew up in Ann Arbor and I love our community here,” Harper said when she committed. “But my sister was really happy for me and Nebraska was a better fit for me. That’s where I want to be, and my sister supported it completely.”
When the Big Ten schedules were released earlier this summer, one of the first things Kendall did was look to see when Michigan played Nebraska. She was excited that they would be part of a home-and-home series.
As Harper navigates her first college season, the pair text regularly, and FaceTime several times a week. Even though their schedules are busy, they try to find time on Mondays to debrief from the previous weekend.
Their relationship has continued to evolve now that they are no longer in the same town. Kendall has helped Harper navigate some of the difficulties of being a college freshman and feel at home in a different time zone.
After last year, Michigan’s program went through an overhaul. The Wolverines’ top three scorers all left via the transfer portal. Kendall said she never really considered leaving and is glad she stuck it out with new coach Erin Virtue, who she called “amazing.”
While Michigan’s season hasn’t gone as well as hoped – the Wolverines are 2-11 – Kendall said she’s happy to be at the start of building something great again.
“This coaching change has been absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “The coach that came in has brought in an amazing staff, and the program has never been in a better place.”
While this weekend is the first of their two meetings this season, Kendall can return next year. But she’s holding off on a decision on her future until later this year.
“It’s really cool that I’m gonna get to play against her,” Harper said on the Husker Radio Network. “It’s something I’m looking forward to, but I know there will probably be a lot of hype around it, but it’s gonna be a fun day.”
Kendall doesn’t fully know what to expect come Saturday night.
Emotions will be high. Kendall might give Harper a souvenir volleyball during the starting lineup introductions. Their mother, Sarah, will probably cry. Kendall might cry. She hopes the Michigan crowd will welcome her sister home. Regardless it will be an exciting memory for all of their friends and family in attendance.
“I’m excited for all the family to come in,” Kendall said. “I’ve talked to Harper, and I think we’re just so excited to be home together in our hometown and have all our family and friends there to watch and experience that together. I think that’ll be like the biggest part.”