By Lincoln Arneal
Hitting errors were plentiful, serving was a bit erratic and the match resulted in a lopsided sweep.
None of it mattered in the end. After No. 4 Nebraska earned a 25-14, 25-14, 25-13 victory over Nebraska-Omaha Wednesday evening at Memorial Stadium, the only thing that mattered was one number.
The attendance for the first volleyball match played outdoors in a football stadium established a new world record for a women’s sporting event. It bettered the mark of 91,648 set last year in a Women’s Champion League soccer match between Barcelona and Wolfsburg. The crowd also established a record for Memorial Stadium, eclipsing the previous record of 91,585 for a football game against Miami in 2014.
Oh, and it obliterated the record for a crowd to watch an NCAA volleyball match, bettering the old mark five times over.
Nebraska coach John Cook credited the leadership of Athletic Director Trev Alberts for believing in the possibility of the event and the crowd for proving NU president Ted Carter correct when he predicted a sellout in February when the event was announced.
“There is a lot of satisfaction to know it’s not me, it’s a celebration of Nebraska volleyball, all the levels in the state,” Cook said. “We took a chance by playing in Memorial Stadium and to go for the record and break it. Now we make a statement to everybody else on how important volleyball is here and we want the record. We did it to the world. I don’t think anybody ever could have envisioned that when this whole thing started. It feels like a great accomplishment for this sport called volleyball, played by the women in Nebraska. It’s a state treasure, and we just proved it.”
The scene was set up earlier in the day when more than a thousand people showed up for a rally at the NU Coliseum, the former home of the volleyball program. Cook got emotional reading a note from junior setter Kennedi Orr to the crowd about how much the event meant to her.
Cook said he probably cried five times during the day as he was caught up in the spectacle. He got emotional seeing Briana Holman, who he said he hadn’t seen since she left campus after the 2017 national championship.
The crowd began to fill the stadium for the warm-up match, an exhibition between Wayne State and Nebraska-Kearney. The sun warmed up the court and drove fans to long lines for beer and water.
By the time the Huskers came out of the locker room and performed their own version of the Tunnel Walk, nearly every seat was packed, and people were standing 10 deep around the court. NU captains Merritt Beason and Lexi Rodriguez flanked Cook, walking on the red carpet. Beason had a straight face, focusing on the task at hand. Rodriguez, however, was grinning from ear to ear.
“I was really trying to stay like in the moment, stay present and soak it all in. I was super excited,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn’t just hold a serious face. I wanted to show everyone how happy I was and how excited I was.”
Nebraska-Omaha struggled to adapt to the wind and the scrappy Nebraska defense. The Mavericks committed 25 hitting errors to 18 kills and chalked up 11 service errors.
However, despite the sloppy play, Nebraska-Omaha setter Olivia Curry said she was glad to be part of such a momentous night.
“I think that that is the first game I’ve lost where I still left with a smile on my face because that experience was just truly amazing,” she said.
The Huskers hit .262 for the night, with just 29 kills, five fewer than any total from the 2022 season. However, a wind out of the south impacted nearly every facet of the game. When the teams practiced on the court Tuesday evening, it came from the opposite direction.
Cook said the Huskers’ beach volleyball experience helped them adjust to the conditions.
“It was pretty windy out there and it was really tough,” he said. “Understanding how to play beach probably gave us an advantage tonight.”
Freshman middle blocker Andi Jackson might have benefitted from the wind. With passing a struggle, setter Bergen Reilly used short, quick sets to connect with Jackson as she recorded eight kills on just 12 attacks.
After the match, Cook thanked the crowd for coming out and said only three things can shut down the Nebraska campus.
“One, snow. Two, Covid. Three, Nebraska volleyball in Memorial Stadium,” he said. “So, students, you’re welcome.”
As music blared for a drone light show in the stadium’s northeast corner and fireworks went off, the Huskers began hosting an impromptu dance party.
The party was topped off by Laney Choboy doing a gymnastics tumbling run and Rodriguez busting out a solid Worm dance display.
“I have some hidden talents, you know?” Rodriguez said. “I always wanted to do that in front of a crowd, so I thought it was time.”
Jackson said the dancing was a release after a long day of activities and trying to live up to the expectations of a big-time event.
“We were telling each other to just soak it up but also lock-in,” Jackson said. “After we were locked in for three sets, we played our game, all the emotions came out, and we got to have our dance party.”