The Husker Volleyball Traveling Road Show Is a Must See
By Lincoln Arneal
For Lara Swerczek, not getting tickets wasn’t an option.
When Nebraska volleyball announced it would be playing its spring match in Grand Island in early March, she was given an ultimatum by her teenage son, Bennett, to make sure they were there.
Swerczek, who lives in Cedar Rapids, Nebraska, tries to attend a few matches a year at the Devaney Center, but those are usually weekend-long outings. Now with the Huskers just an hour away, she wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity. So she scheduled a day to work from home, where the internet was more reliable, and set an alarm on her phone so she could log on promptly at 10 a.m. on March 10.
She and her son were among the lucky ones. They got tickets for the spring exhibition match. Tickets for the 6,000-seat Heartland Events Center sold out in less than 10 minutes.
“Our state rallies behind the Huskers, good or bad,” Swerczek said. “To see volleyball come, especially as successful as they’ve been … it’s just really exciting to let them see the rest of the state. They’re gonna get the same support that they would when they are at Devaney.”
The match was the third time in the past 11 years that the Huskers have played a spring match in Grand Island. It has become the most frequent stop in the nine spring matches NU has played outside Lincoln.
Each host city for Nebraska’s most successful high-profile sport has treated the occasion like a mixture of a sporting extravaganza, hometown celebration and traveling red carpet. Tickets sell out in quick fashion and autograph signings after the matches become celebrity encounters.
“Anytime you can get an event of the caliber of Nebraska volleyball, there’s a deep sense of pride that they would choose to come to our community and play this game,” said Brad Mellema, executive director of Grand Island Tourism. “It’s neat to see a big-stage event like that. They feel like it was a big breath of fresh air to have a normal, full house event like this in our community.”
Nebraska’s spring exhibition matches weren’t always the big production they are today. In Terry Pettit’s early days as coach, he took his teams to tour the state. Those exhibitions were more about connecting to the high school programs and building volleyball culture than attracting crowds.
That all changed in 2010 when the NCAA adopted a rule to allow teams only to travel by bus during non-championship segments. Previously, the Huskers would fly to Florida and Hawaii for training and exhibitions.
With the team’s travel limited, NU began to add matches elsewhere in the state, starting with Grand Island in 2011, which attracted a crowd of 5,522.
While teams can schedule up to four spring matches, the Huskers have only scheduled one indoor match since 2015, traveling to cities around the state, including Ogallala, McCook, Kearney and Grand Island.
“For me, we just try to get one match, a big crowd, make it special and not have all these play days,” Nebraska coach John Cook said before this year’s exhibition in Grand Island.
These matches aren’t just about volleyball. Nebraska also takes time to connect with the communities. For example, when NU played in Wayne in 2014, it served as a fundraiser to help the community recover from a recent tornado. In 2019, residents of McCook used the match to raise funds to help Nebraskans impacted by the floods that spring.
For the players, it’s a chance to connect with more parts of the state than they would get to otherwise. Senior Madi Kubik said she had never been to Grand Island before last month and she was blown away by the support they received during the entire weekend.
“People are like, ‘Hey, we love you, we know you,’ for everyone and that’s really special and something you don’t get anywhere else in the country,” the All-American outside hitter said. “We are so thankful for our fans and how loyal they are.”
On the court, Nebraska started the match against Kansas sluggish as they had to rally to win the first set before dropping the second. The Huskers improved as the match progressed when its elite defense took over and Kubik and sophomore Whitney Lauenstein provided the offensive firepower.
Many fans hope they saw a preview of a team that ends its season at another in-state venue as CHI Health Center Arena in Omaha hosts the final four this year. But the events on the court were just as important as everything else that happened at the Heartland Events Center. As Cook said, the event was “a celebration of volleyball in the state.”
In addition, the Huskers often recognize local high school coaches for their success and contributions to the volleyball culture in the state. Cook also meets with donors and other VIPs to provide an inside look at the program and field questions.
Afterward, the Huskers signed autographs for almost two hours as the line initially stretched down two hallways, wrapped around the lobby and back out to the arena floor.
Volleyball is unique in the Nebraska Athletic Department. Currently it is the only sport to play a “home” competition outside Lincoln and Omaha.
Others, such as baseball, offer summer camps around the state, but none play a game during the year. Cook said he hasn’t talked to Athletic Director Trev Alberts about how other programs could duplicate its spring matches, but only a few can do it because of scheduling and facilities issues.
“I don’t know why more teams don’t do it, but I’ll just tell you it sold out in eight minutes,” Cook said about this year’s brisk ticket sales. “So it tells you how fired up people are. … We have cities already lining up for the next couple of years requesting us to come there, so it’s really important.”
Dianne Willey, sales and marketing director at the Heartland Events Center, said her organization had 30,000 hits on its ticketing website the day the spring match tickets went on sale. While the Heartland Events Center has hosted popular events, such as the Beach Boys in 2009 and Meat Loaf in 2016, nothing came close to the popularity of the Huskers.
“They love coming here as much as we love having them,” Willey said. “They are always so well-received in central Nebraska. And if we could have had three games that night, we would have filled the arena all three times.”
When the Huskers played in McCook, fans lined up outside the ticket booth for hours in 28-degree weather to secure their share of the 1,750 tickets available. Then they camped out the night before the match to get the best seats for the general admission seating.
The downside to the sky-high demand is that often people are shut out of getting tickets. The people selling the tickets can go from being the most popular people in town to the most vilified if someone ends up on the wrong side of the sellout.
Steve Morgan, the longtime prep volleyball coach in Ogallala, said after the tickets sold out, he was confronted by a fan in Wal-Mart who didn’t get tickets, even though he had nothing to do with ticket sales.
Despite some people left out because of the smaller venues, the overall mission of the traveling spring show was a success by connecting to new fans and providing opportunities for people who otherwise couldn’t see the Huskers in person.
“A lot of people in western Nebraska especially just don’t get an opportunity to have season tickets or get out to see a game that often,” Morgan said. “I just know it’s just like yesterday to me – just the magic was a whole thing. People still talk about it and will as long as they remember it.”
That same feeling happens everywhere else in the state the team visits.
Bob Elder, who owns the Sports Shoppe in McCook, said people still bring up the Huskers playing in their town often to him. He rallied the town and neighboring communities to help recruit the Huskers to come to their corner of the state. He calls it one of McCook’s biggest events, and they hope the Huskers will return at some point.
“People have told me that that was huge for McCook,” Elder said. “We want to make it right and I hope we did.”
Where NU takes the roadshow next isn’t set yet. It’s a decision that starts every January anew after the championship season concludes. People from all over the state send emails and letters to Lindsay Peterson, NU volleyball’s director of operations, making a case for their community to be the next host of the Huskers.
Cook floated the idea of hosting the spring match inside the 15,500-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena, almost double their usual crowd in the Devaney Center. However, ask someone from a town outside one of the state’s metropolitan areas and they argue to keep the statewide tour intact.
“Nebraska is a big place,” said Mellema, of the Grand Island Tourism office. “Playing that out here is bigger than the sum of its parts in terms of long-term connection to the state and to those girls that are growing up in the small towns. Some of those girls are going to grow up and have that ability to play. Making those connections and coming out here is remembered fondly.”