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.”
After playing the past three years at the San Diego of the Big Ten, Anni Evans will spend her final two seasons of eligibility at actual San Diego.
The 5-foot-9 setter announced on her Instagram Friday that she would join the Toreros after she earns her undergraduate degree in May.
Gabby Blossom, who transferred from Penn State, guided the Toreros to their most successful season in program history. USD went 31-2, reaching the national semifinals before falling to eventual national champion Texas.
San Diego returns 5-foot-6 senior Alex Hoglund and 6-foot redshirt senior Isadora Tercariol. Hoglund played in 33 matches last season, primarily as a serving specialist and only recorded 2 assists. Tercariol did not appear in a game in 2022.
Evans played in 27 matches as a junior for Nebraska, which used a 6-2 system for most of the season. She averaged 4.37 assists per set as the Huskers’ second setter. The Waverly graduate also added 158 digs.
Her best match came in the second match of the year as she tallied 36 assists against Tulsa, running the offense solo in an NU sweep. Her next best performance came against Creighton with 25 assists. She recorded at least 20 assists in two of the three postseason matches.
As a sophomore, Evans was used as a serving specialist appearing in 23 matches and recording 10 aces. She played 15 sets over nine matches during her freshman campaign.
Evans earned the NCAA Elite 90 award at the 2021 Final Four as the student-athlete with the highest GPA. In addition, she was named to the Academic Big Ten list twice for indoor volleyball and was on the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team in 2021.
It’s been less than two months since Texas defeated Louisville for the national championship in Omaha, but during that time, player movement has happened at a non-stop pace.
Ohio State saw an exodus of talent after its season ended the same way it began – with a loss to Texas. Meanwhile, Penn State remade its team for Katie Schumacher-Cawley’s second season as head coach. The movement is not over as players will continue to find new homes during the second transfer window in May, plus a few key players are still in the portal looking for their next destination.
A month into the spring semester, some of the dust has settled enough to take stock of the portal movement of several teams in the Big Ten and around the nation. These assessments do not consider incoming freshmen or players who have exhausted eligibility. We’ll take a more extensive review of roster changes come summer.
Gained from the portal: Mac Podraza, Gr., S, from Ohio State; Jess Mruzik, Jr., OH, from Michigan; Camryn Hannah, Jr., OH, from Clemson; Ally Van Eekeren, Gr., S, from High Point; Lina Perugini, Gr., L, from Coastal Carolina.
Lost to the portal: Katie Hurta, So., S/OPP, to Clemson; Erika Williams, So., MB/RS, undecided.
The Nittany Lions might be this year’s winner of the portal. They added Podraza, the Big Ten’s top setter from a year ago, who will upgrade the Nittany Lions’ attack. She could have an impact similar to that of former PSU player Gabby Blossom at San Diego. Van Eekeren was the Big South setter for the year, adding solid depth to the position. Mruzik is a two-time all-Big Ten performer and instantly becomes their best attacker. Camryn Hannah earned All-ACC second-team honors, and she should slide in at opposite, while Zoe Weatherington and Anjelina Starck compete for the other outside hitter spot.
Gained: Temi Thomas-Ailara, Gr., OH, from Northwestern; Carter Booth, So., MB, from Minnesota.
Lost: Jade Demps, Jr., OH, to LSU; Liz Gregorski, Jr., OH, to Kansas State; Anna MacDonald, Gr., L/DS, to Dayton.
Is it possible for a team to have too many attackers? Even after losing Demps, the Badgers still have an impressive outside hitter group. All-American Thomas-Ailara joins Sarah Franklin, who transferred from Michigan State a year ago, and Julia Orzol, both juniors. Even after losing Danielle Hart in the middle, UW will be well-stocked. Booth will battle with Caroline Crawford, Anna Smrek and Devyn Robinson for court time, with the latter two also playing opposite. Even if Wisconsin sticks with a 6-2 system, someone will be left out of the regular rotation. But it’s good to be Kelly Sheffield and deal with having too much talent.
Gained: Gabby Gonzales, Gr., OH, from Ohio State; Kara McGhee, Gr., MB, from Baylor; Onye Ofoegbu, Sr., MB, from UC Irvine
Lost: Kiari Robey, Jr., MB, to Florida State
The team that knocked out the Huskers has remade the middle of its lineup. After losing Robey to the portal, the Ducks added a pair of middle blockers in McGhee and Ofoeghbu, who were named all-conference in the Big 12 and Big West, respectively. Those two will compete with senior Karson Bacon for time in the middle. Oregon also found a replacement for Brooke Nuneviller in former Buckeye Gonzales. The Ducks should contend for the Pac-12 title with their other returning pieces.
Gained: Merritt Beason, Jr., OPP, from Florida.
Lost: Anni Evans, Gr., S, undecided
The Huskers hit the portal quickly after its starting opposite hitter Whitney Lauenstein decided to step away from the sport. They found a ready-made replacement in Beason less than a week after the season ended. She will provide plenty of firepower, passing and leadership for the Huskers on the right pin. NU also loses Anni Evans but still has two scholarship setters on the roster. Evans hasn’t yet announced her next school but has been taking visits and will join her new program after she earns her undergrad degree in May.
Gained: Jenna Wenaas, Jr., OH, from Minnesota.
Lost: Melanie Parra, Jr., OH, to TCU; DeAndra Pierce, So., MB, to Georgia Tech.
After going all in on the portal a year ago, the Longhorns took a much more measured approach this season. Wenaas is a solid addition. No one can replicate Logan Eggleston, but she’ll form an excellent attacking duo with Madisen Skinner. With Asjia O’Neal, Bella Bergmark and Molly Phillips returning, UT will put up a strong title defense. Parra provided quality depth last year and had a crucial kill in the national championship match but totaled just 64 kills on the season. Pierce only appeared in one match during two seasons.
Gained: Charitie Luper, Jr., OH, from UCLA.
Lost: Paige Morningstar, So., S, to Cal; Nena Mbonu, Gr., OH, to Houston; Sydni Schetnan, So., OH, to South Dakota State.
The national runners-up lost a lot of firepower from last year, but Luper will try to spark the offense next to Anna DeBeer. She averaged more than three kills per set for the Bruins last season. If Wahoo native Elle Glock can step in and run the offense, the Cardinals will fight for another ACC crown.
Lost: Mac Podraza; Gabby Gonzales; Kylie Murr, Gr., L, to Minnesota; Jenaiysa Moore, Gr., OH, to Tennessee; Adria Powell, Gr., MB, to Clemson
It was a rough off-season for the Buckeyes, who said goodbye to five seniors who elected to use their bonus year of eligibility elsewhere. OSU dealt with a brutal scholarship crunch which it hopes will be offset by PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 5 recruiting class which features five Top 100 prospects.
Gained: Kylle Murr
Lost: Carter Booth, Jenna Wenaas
The Gophers found their replacement for CC McGraw with Murr, the Big Ten defensive player of the year last season. However, the attack took a step back, losing Booth and Wenaas. The latter was shifted to opposite hitter with the emergence of McKenna Wucherer. The good news for new coach Keegan Cook is Taylor Landfair is back.
Lost: Mruzik, Jess Robinson, Gr., MB, to Duke; May Pertofsky, Gr., OPP, undecided
Gained: Julia Sangiacomo, Gr., OH, from Santa Clara.
Lost: Temi Thomas-Ailara, Hanna Lesiak, Gr., OH, to Long Beach State; Desiree Becker, Gr., MB, to UCLA; Grace Reininga, L/DS, undecided; Abryanna Cannon, Gr., OH/OPP, undecided.
It was a rough transfer season for the Wolverines and Wildcats. Michigan will get a hard reset under new coach Erin Virtue as it lost its top three attackers, who also doubled as the top blocker and second-best passer. Likewise, Northwestern will be without three of its top four attackers and best blocker. The path to the top half got a little more challenging for two teams that finished in the middle of the Big Ten pack.
Still in the Portal
The best player left in the portal might be Texas Tech outside hitter Kenna Sauer. After earning All-Big 12 honors twice, she will look for a new home for her final year. Teams looking for help at the pins can look to outside hitter Iman Isanovic from Arizona State and USC opposite Emilia Weske, both of whom are looking for new homes.
At libero, Maryland’s Milan Gomillion and Missori’s Leandra Mangual-Duran could each boost a school’s back row. As mentioned above, Anni Evans and May Pertofsky are also looking for new homes.
The Huskers will play their only spring exhibition match this year in Central City’s new Bison Activity Dome, the first monolithic dome in the state, which also doubles as a EMA-rated tornado shelter.
A few years ago, Central City reached out to the Huskers about visiting its town for highly sought-after spring match. It was in the process of replacing gym, which only had a capacity of 900.
In the place of the gym near the elementary school was a $7.7 million dome, which was built with the help of a federal grant. The dome was completed late last year.
“They reached out about four years ago and said hey, we’re gonna build this facility where you guys come and open it,” NU coach John Cook said. “We said, ‘Sure, if you build it will come.’ They got it built and I think they’ve had a couple of events just to kick it off.”
Ticket information has not been released for the spring match. Last year, the match against Kansas sold out the 8,000-seat Heartland Events Center in Grand Island.
The Huskers have played their spring match around the state including McCook, Kearney, Norfolk, Ogallala and Wayne.
The Husker volleyball team has undergone a mini roster makeover in the 50 days since it was last in action.
Gone are seniors Madi Kubik, Kenzie Knuckles, Kaitlyn Hord and Nicklin Hames since the indoor season ended Dec. 8 in the NCAA regional semifinals. Plus, junior Whitney Lauenstein stepped away from the sport.
In their place are five incoming freshmen ranked as PrepVolleyball.com’s top-ranked recruiting class and Florida transfer Merritt Beason.
After more than a month away from campus, the returning Huskers were back in Lincoln last week and began beach practices on Monday. They will have a sprint to get ready for the beach season, which kicks off in less than four weeks on Feb. 24 against Wayne State.
NU coach John Cook said he’s impressed by the newcomers. The freshmen have arrived in shape coming off their fall seasons and all participated in the Under Armour All-America Game at the end of December. Beason is in her element in the sand having played beach volleyball for three years in high school in Gardendale, Alabama.
“The five freshmen are way ahead of where we thought they would be,” Cook said. “They’re just good volleyball players. They came in in shape. I can tell you this – they’re way ahead of where our junior class was as freshmen; of course, they were coming off COVID stuff. We were pretty impressed with the first week.”
The one notable omission from the beach roster is Kennedi Orr. Cook said the junior setter will not participate in beach volleyball, instead focusing on indoor season training.
Orr suffered a minor knee injury midway through the beach season last year on the same knee in which she tore her ACL in September 2020 as a high school senior.
“We’re just going to keep her out of it. We don’t want to risk it,” Cook said. “She wants to (play), but we’re just doing it as a precaution.”
Orr will also try out for the USA Select Team in May, which includes training sessions and possibly an overseas trip for a tournament.
FOREIGN TRIP UPCOMING – The Nebraska staff is busy planning its quadrennial foreign trip this summer. This will be the Huskers’ sixth foreign trip. The previous five have been to China or Japan.
While they haven’t finalized any details, they are doing more research into taking a trip to Brazil. Cook said they would likely decide on their destination in the next week or so.
“We’re still going back and forth, but we’re a little farther along in Brazil right now,” Cook said. “With China, there’s a lot of ‘ifs’ there. They really want us because they haven’t had anybody, but Brazil right now is a little farther ahead in that progress.”
SPRING MATCH ROADSHOW – Nebraska is also working to finalize details for its spring match. Cook said he has a location and opponent in mind. However, Nebraska is still finalizing contracts and figuring out ticket information. The site should be announced in February.
The solution in Nebraska’s offseason scholarship shuffle revealed itself on Tuesday when junior opposite Whitney Lauenstein announced that she was leaving the Huskers to focus on herself and her family.
Now the Huskers will have to replace their top two attackers with Lauenstein stepping away and Madi Kubik graduating. Help is on the way as all five 2023 signees will be on campus next week as NU begins offseason workouts that will soon give way to beach volleyball practices. With an eye to the fall, here are the implications of Lauenstein’s departure and how the new pieces fit together for the Huskers.
OPPOSITES ATTRACT: Even though Lauenstein started almost every match at the left pin, the Huskers already have a ready replacement in Merritt Beason, who announced her transfer from Florida in December.
Beason actually posted a better-attacking stat line than Lauenstein last year. She averaged 3.35 kills per set on a .261 hitting percentage with 38 aces. Lauenstein put up 2.78 kills at a .238 clip with 28 aces as a sophomore. The Waverly graduate was a better blocker averaging more than a block per set.
Beason should get the first crack at the starting position. She already has a rapport with several Huskers as she played with middle blocker Bekka Allick and libero Lexi Rodrigeuz on the junior national team. Incoming freshman Caroline Jurevicius should provide depth as she adjusts to the college game.
KRAUSE COULD FLIP: Last year, Lindsay Krause played both at the left and right pins with high effectiveness. She has more experience on the left side and looks more comfortable. With Beason’s experience, she could finally settle in on the left pin along with fellow junior Ally Batenhorst. Those two finished third and fourth for the Huskers in kills last season, both averaging more than two per set. Krause flourished late in the season with 62 kills and a .351 hitting percentage.
This is dependent on Nebraska reverting back to a one-setter offense. If junior Kennedi Orr or freshman Bergen Reilly can grab control of the system and perform at a high level, NU can revert back to the offense preferred by NU coach John Cook. The Huskers have enough attackers to run a 6-2, but Cook might want the consistency of playing just one setter.
Batenhorst and Krause should start the spring as the top outside hitters, but don’t count out sophomore Hayden Kubik and freshman Harper Murray. Kubik really only got extensive playing time against Creighton and held her own, while Murray enters the program with a boatload of prep awards and talent.
With Rodriguez and the top libero prospect Laney Choboy, the Huskers have a bit of flexibility with their back-row defense. If Beason continues to play all six rotations, NU only needs one of its two outside hitters to play all the way around. Batenhorst stepped in late after Kenzie Knuckles was injured, but Krause has shown the ability to pass as well. It might lessen the load as they become NU’s featured attackers.
SCHOLARSHIPS STILL FULL: Entering the off-season, Nebraska was at the limit of 12 scholarships. When Beason committed out of the portal, it signaled that some sort of roster movement was likely.
The Huskers now have five scholarship juniors: Krause, Batenhorst, Rodriguez, Beason and Orr. Allick and Kubik are the two sophomores on scholarship as Maggie Mendelson counts toward women’s basketball and Maisie Boesiger is a walk-on. The final five are freshmen: Murray, Choboy, Jurevicius, Reilly and middle blocker Andi Jackson.
Nebraska will have more scholarship numbers to crunch next year as it has no seniors on the roster. Still, three verbal commitments for the Class of 2024 – outside hitter Skylar Pierce, middle blocker Ayden Ames and libero/defensive specialist Olivia Mauch – mean more player movement is probable. The one caveat is sometimes NU only awards two-year scholarships to defensive specialists, so that could create an open scholarship or two. But, that’s an issue for next offseason.
Harper Murray’s trophy case just got a little more crowded.
The Ann Arbor (Mich.) Skyline senior was named the 2022-23 Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year.
To surprise her, Skyline high school athletic director Andre Criswell arranged a ceremony at the school where they filled the trophy case with Gatorade and invited her family and classmates to celebrate. However, as she was about to be presented the award, she took off running when her teammates tried to dump a Gatorade bucket of confetti.
“To have the support of everyone around me makes it a lot more special. It’s so very surreal,” Murray said. “I’ve seen girls I know get this award. I’ve seen a lot of athletes get this award, so it’s a really big honor. I’m very honored.”
Murray, who will enroll at Nebraska next week, is the fifth Husker player to win the award, joining Ally Batenhorst (2020-21), Lexi Sun (2016-17), Mikaela Foecke (2014-15) and Gina Mancuso (2008-09).
The recognition caps off an impressive prep career for the 6-foot-2 outside hitter. She was named Michigan’s Miss Volleyball and earned first-team All-American honors from AVCA and MaxPreps.
In addition, Murray was named the Best Spiker at the U19 Pan Am Cup in Tulsa in August as she led the United States to a gold medal. She also participated in the Under Armour All-America game earlier this month. The No. 2 ranked prospect by PrepVolleyball.com also helped her club team, Legacy, win a national title in 2021.
This season for Skyline, Murray recorded 726 kills (6.1 per set) on a .405 hitting percentage as the Eagles went 39-8 and reached the Division 1 regional semifinals. She also added 409 digs, 86 aces and 40 blocks. Murray finished her career with 2,488 kills and 1,460 digs.
Winners are selected for athletic excellence, academic achievement and exemplary character. Murray graduated with a 3.62 GPA and participated in her school’s Rising Scholars Leadership Program, designed to create access and opportunity for underrepresented yet high-achieving students. She volunteered for the Vada Murray Endowed Fund for Cancer Research, named for her late father. She also served as a lead coach for the Skyline Rising Eagle Volleyball Clinic.
She is one of two incoming freshmen to win Gatorade player of the year honors for her state, joining Bergen Reilly, who won her third-straight South Dakota award.
They will join five previous state winners on the Huskers: Bekka Allick (Nebraska 2020-21), Ally Batenhorst (Texas 2019-20), Lindsay Krause (Nebraska, 2019-20), Kennedi Orr (Minnesota 2017-18, 2018-19), Lexi Rodriguez (Illinois 2019-20),
Whitney Lauenstein announced Tuesday evening that she is stepping away from the Nebraska volleyball team.
The junior opposite hitter announced on her Instagram that she took time between semesters to figure out her future with the sport.
“I have decided to step away from the volleyball team to focus on myself and be with my family and continue to heal due to the passing of my dad,” Lauenstein wrote. “I will miss playing at the (Bob Devaney Center) with my teammates. It will be something I will remember forever, but I think it’s important to put yourself first before you commit to something big!”
NU coach John Cook said he fully supports Lauenstein and her family in the decision and hopes she will find peace and healing.
“There are bigger things in life than volleyball,” he said. “Whit will be missed by everyone involved with our program, especially her Husker teammates and coaches. She will always be a Husker.”
This season, Lauenstein finished the season averaging 2.78 kills and 1.07 blocks per set, both of which were second-best for the Huskers. In addition, she led NU with 28 aces this year.
Lauenstein’s father, Ryan, passed away in early February 2021 during her senior year of high school. She said that also weighed on her decision to put volleyball aside in her final few months of high school at Waverly High.
“Playing volleyball and running track both didn’t give me enough time to really focus on my family,” Lauenstein said to the Lincoln Journal Star that spring. “High school sports, you don’t have to do it 24/7, and with track, there’s not very much on the weekends. It was just too much stress for club volleyball right now to play that on the weekends.
Lauenstein appeared in 27 matches as a freshman, but often only briefly as part of a double-substitute package. She recorded just 67 kills while hitting .130 as she mostly sat behind fellow freshman Lindsay Krause at opposite.
She flashed potential in the spring match against Kansas with 12 kills and eight blocks. During the nonconference schedule, the 6-foot-2 sophomore led Nebraska with 3.60 kills per set with a .325 hitting percentage. The highlight of her season came in the Creighton match when she recorded 25 kills on a .385 hitting percentage leading NU to a five-set victory.
However, opponents started to make kills harder to come by during the second half of the Big Ten season. While she put up big numbers against Northwestern and Iowa, she totaled just 12 kills during the rematch with Iowa and versus Purdue and Wisconsin. She finished the season with 12 kills in NU’s five-set loss to Oregon in the regional semifinals.
Lauenstein’s post said there had been rumors about her status since the end of the season after Florida transfer Merritt Beason announced her commitment to the Huskers on Dec. 23. NU coach John Cook said Nebraska’s roster underwent “adjustments” since the season ended. With Lauenstein’s departure, the Huskers are at the limit of 12 scholarships.
“Thank you everyone for the unconditional love and support,” she wrote. “The Nebraska fan base is unlike any other!”
When Merritt Beason entered the transfer portal a little more than a week ago, she had no idea what to expect.
What she got was a whirlwind.
In the span of a week, the former Florida Gator talked to 10 schools, visited three campuses and then decided to continue her career at Nebraska. Beason called the NU coaches Friday morning to tell them she was committing to the Huskers.
Upon entering the portal, Nebraska was the first call Beason took. After that, things progressed quickly and by 7:30 a.m. the next day, she was on a flight to Lincoln.
“I didn’t necessarily plan to move that fast,” Beason said. “But as soon as I had that first phone call with them, I knew that Nebraska was going to be one of the places that I wanted to visit. So if that meant tomorrow, or the next day, whatever it may have meant, I knew that I wanted to go.”
During her sprint recruitment, Beason also visited Wisconsin and Auburn before pledging to join the Huskers. She said her No. 1 requirement for her new school was a good relationship with the players and coaches. She felt a great connection during her first call with NU coach John Cook and assistant coach Jaylen Reyes.
In a statement about Beason’s commitment, Cook said Nebraska’s roster underwent “adjustments” since the season ended, which allowed them to recruit the 6-foot-3 opposite hitter.
“She will fill a huge need for our team and her personality on and off the court will create an instant connection with Husker Nation,” Cook said. “‘MB3’ is a true six-rotation player and can do it all.”
While on her official visit, Beason said she felt at peace. She grew up in Gardendale, Alabama, just north of Birmingham, and said Lincoln had a lot of similarities to her hometown. She was also impressed with how much the fans support volleyball.
“Being from the South and going to an SEC school, as you can imagine, it’s very much football based. Everything’s all for football,” Beason said. “Volleyball is such a big thing up there and it’s so supported. I wanted to be a part of that.”
She also tried her hand at roping Cook’s practice steer on her visit – and got it on her first try.
“We knew it was meant to be,” Cook said
Beason also toured the facilities and downtown Lincoln. She talked to the support staff, academic advisors as well as several of the players who were still around campus.
Last summer, Beason was a member of the U21 national team with sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick and junior Lexi Rodriguez, who was the captain of the U.S. team. They won the Pan Am Cup with Beason earning tournament MVP honors.
Even though she wasn’t thinking about leaving Florida at the time, Beason was impressed with Allick and Rodriguez and how they represented Nebraska.
“They’re just great people all around, on and off the court,” Beason said. “They’re great teammates. They push you to get better, but they’re gonna have your back and you could tell that within our short two weeks that we had together that they want to win.”
Beason will have two seasons of eligibility remaining. She said she will be on scholarship at Nebraska and will start attending classes in January. In a matter of weeks, she will move to Nebraska and move in with outside hitter Lindsay Krause.
Next season, the Huskers will be without graduating senior Madi Kubik, who played every rotation for NU for the past four years. Sophomore Ally Batenhorst also played back-row after NU lost Kenzie Knuckles to an injury in late November.
At Florida, Beason played all six rotations and was a captain. She averaged 3.35 kills per set with a .261 hitting percentage while adding 1.92 digs and 0.88 blocks per set. Beason also led the Gators with 38 aces. In a five-set win against Wisconsin in September, she recorded 21 kills with eight digs, three aces and a pair of blocks.
In addition, Beason served as a captain for the Gators, which reached the regional semifinal this past year before losing to Pittsburgh in four sets.
Even though she played at a high level, Beason said she still has room for growth.
“There’s multiple areas of my game and multiple things I can improve on and continue getting better at,” she said. “I know I’m not playing at my full capacity and full level of ability yet, and I want to at least continue to get closer and closer to that.”
With her move to Nebraska, Beason is excited to compete in the Big Ten and have a chance to play during the final weekend of the season.
“I want to win a national championship,” she said. “So being at a program where that’s the standard – that’s ultimately the goal for next year.”