The Thriving State of Volleyball

Nebraska Continues to Lead the Way

Story by Michael Kelly

Every team starts its season aiming for the top, hoping to win a title. But this is a year for every fan, player and coach of women’s and girls sports to celebrate another kind of title – Title IX.

Laura Kelly Brus, left, was UNO's starting right side hitter in the early '90s. She and daughters Bridget, Addison and Jenna attended the NCAA volleyball final four in Columbus, Ohio, in December.
Laura Kelly Brus, left, was UNO’s starting right side hitter in the early ’90s. She and daughters Bridget, Addison and Jenna attended the NCAA volleyball final four in Columbus, Ohio, in December.

That occurred to me as I sat with my four favorite volleyball players – my daughter and three teenage granddaughters – Dec. 16 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, cheering for the Huskers during the semifinals of the NCAA volleyball tournament.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a section of a 1972 federal education law that changed the trajectory of girls and women’s sports in America. It required that institutions receiving federal funds not discriminate on the basis of gender.

Maybe that’s old news. But now in my autumn years, it was satisfying to be with my seatmates – all wearing Nebraska shirts, though the granddaughters have grown up in Ohio – and reflect on how things have changed. And to enjoy Husker volleyball, an exemplar of excellence in women’s athletics.

Amid a traveling Husker Nation contingent of thousands (after driving 100 miles from Cincinnati), we watched two matches and five hours of top-flight athleticism on semifinal night, with Nebraska and Wisconsin emerging to battle two nights later in the finals.

Former Nebraska volleyball player Renee Saunders now coaches in Omaha.
Former Nebraska volleyball player Renee Saunders now coaches in Omaha.

Though the Huskers lost in five sets (by a mere three points) in the championship match, the Big Red will reload and hope to make another run at a national title this fall – at the CHI Health Center arena in Omaha. If NU were to win, that would be (pardon the Roman numerals) Title VI for Nebraska.

Final Four weekend includes a national convention of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), and among those in Columbus this year were two widely known coaches from Nebraska. Deb Grafentin, who grew up mostly before Title IX, and Renee Saunders, who came of age afterward, provided long perspectives of the state of Nebraska as a hotbed for volleyball.

Deb Grafentin, director of The Volleyball Academy in La Vista.
Deb Grafentin, director of The Volleyball Academy in La Vista.

In 1974, Nebraska announced it would create an intercollegiate athletics program for women under the old AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women), and a volleyball team started up the next year. As most fans know, Terry Pettit, who coached Nebraska from 1977 to 1999, became the godfather who created the Husker volleyball phenomenon – at first, though, he had to set up a couple of rows of folding chairs for fans.

Grafentin, a 1975 graduate of Omaha Northwest High School, was a competitive runner and swimmer in state meets and didn’t play volleyball until college at the University of Miami in Florida. Pettit’s greatest gift, she said, was conducting clinics for coaches and players around the state.

“So many of us coaches benefited from the education Terry gave us,” said Grafentin, longtime director of the River City Juniors volleyball club in Omaha and former state champion coach at Millard North. “He constantly sparked our passion, and he has such a great insight for the mental part of the game.”

The Coliseum was home to Husker volleyball from 1975-2013.
The Coliseum was home to Husker volleyball from 1975-2013.

Saunders, the state’s high school girl athlete of the year at Omaha Marian, was a freshman on Nebraska’s 1995 national champion team under Pettit. After graduation, she got into coaching, and her Omaha Skutt Catholic team just won its seventh straight Class B state championship, a record string.

Beyond the University of Nebraska, she noted, volleyball in the state exploded in popularity years ago – in high schools, club volleyball and at other colleges and universities.

“A lot of it traces to Terry Pettit,” Saunders said. “It goes back to the grassroots work he did in clinics and in getting fans interested, too.”

The history of volleyball in Nebraska would make a good book, but a few highlights are also fun to recall:

  • Julie Vollertsen of Palmyra, Nebraska, didn’t play for the Huskers but went west to a junior college and became a starter for the 1984 silver medal U.S. Olympic team – the team’s only player not from California or Texas. (She later played professionally in Italy, married and lived there; a son played briefly in the NBA.).
  • In 1986, Pettit was named the NCAA Division I coach of the year, and Janice Kruger of the University of Nebraska at Omaha was the NCAA Division II coach of the year.
  • In 1987, UNO set a Division II regular-season one-match attendance record of 3,004. The 1996 Maverick team won the Division II national title, and Rose Shires was named national coach of the year.
  • Nebraska renovated the old Nebraska Coliseum in 1990, setting up a cozy, always-packed 4,000-seat arena for volleyball, with the pep band adding to the excitement. Under Coach John Cook, who took over from Pettit in 2000, the team moved to the Bob Devaney Sports Center in 2013, where 8,000-seat sellouts have continued.
  • Nebraska and Hawaii are the only volleyball programs in the country that take in more revenue than they spend. Fan popularity and extensive news media coverage have helped attract many All-Americans – including Olympians like Lori Endicott, Allison Weston, Kayla Banwarth, Justine Wong-Orantes and Jordan Larson, who has traveled the world for volleyball after growing up in Hooper, Nebraska, population 775.
  • In 2018, the Huskers and Creighton Bluejays set the regular-season one-game national attendance record of 14,003 at the CHI Health Center. The Jays won the first two sets and NU the next three.
  • Creighton has won eight consecutive Big East championships under Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, and last fall the Bluejays defeated reigning national champion and No. 3-ranked Kentucky. The other now-Division I team from Omaha, UNO, went 16-2 in winning the Summit Conference championship under Coach Matt Buttermore.
  • Dani Busboom Kelly, a former Husker and now head coach at the University of Louisville, was named the national coach of the year and signed a multiyear contract extension – with a provision that she could leave early if Nebraska called. (When Louisville played the Huskers in Lincoln last fall, she took her team to her farm home near Cortland, Nebraska, where players sat around a bonfire and enjoyed hamburgers from the cattle her family raised.)
  • In 2021, the AVCA named libero Lexi Rodriguez of Nebraska as the national freshman of the year. VolleyballMag.com gave that title to Creighton hitter Norah Sis, out of Papillion-La Vista.

It was an unusual year, with the delayed 2020 national tournament played in the spring of 2021 in – where else? – Nebraska. Under pandemic protocols that restricted fan attendance, all 48 teams came to the CHI Health Center in Omaha. In a large convention space, they played on portable courts that had been moved in, including three emblazoned with the names Nebraska, Creighton and Omaha (UNO).

Pettit told the World-Herald that Omaha’s enthusiasm and its reputation for presenting major sporting events made it a natural site. “If Omaha ran the world dominoes tournament,” he said, “it would be the best dominoes tournament that anybody ever went to.”

Saunders returns a hit for the Huskers. She went on to coach at Omaha Skutt.
Saunders returns a hit for the Huskers. She went on to coach at Omaha Skutt.

It’s not just the NCAA Division I teams that do well in Nebraska. Division II, NAIA and junior college volleyball teams around the state also have excelled, including Nebraska-Kearney, Wayne State, Midland, College of Saint Mary and Bellevue University.

Volleyball clubs, too, contribute greatly to the sport’s level of play. Even 5- and 6-year-olds can learn the game, in a category called “Li’l Diggers.” Girls grow up playing volleyball almost year around, gaining skills early.

More venues have been built, especially in Lincoln and Omaha, as well as across the river at Iowa West Field House in Council Bluffs, run by the Omaha Sports Academy. Grafentin, who has coached for 41 years, is director of the Volleyball Academy in the Omaha suburb of La Vista, near 120th Street and Giles Road, just off Interstate 80.

The $4.2 million, 50,000-square-foot academy sits near the developing Nebraska Multisports Complex. That’s a reminder that multiple girls and women’s sports have benefited from Title IX. The Husker women’s basketball team this year drew more than 8,000 fans for a game at Pinnacle Bank Arena against Iowa.

Some breakthroughs are a long time coming. Rachel Balkovec, 34, who played softball at Skutt Catholic and Creighton, recently was named the first female manager in minor league baseball – for the New York Yankees’ Class A Tampa Tarpons.

Girls wrestling has arrived! In January, Papillon-La Vista won the sport’s first-ever Metro Conference tournament. The state tournament will be held in Omaha Feb. 18-19 in conjunction with the boys. Other girls sports are doing well, too, but high school and college volleyball is the state’s franchise.

The sport certainly has grown nationally. The National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis said volleyball passed basketball in participants in 2013. That happened in Nebraska more than a decade earlier. Last year, the state’s high schools registered 6,536 players for volleyball and 5,325 for basketball.

Players, too, seemingly have grown. Husker volleyball rosters from the 1970s and ’80s included few over 6-foot-1. In the early ’90s, NU’s powerful Stephanie Thater, 6-2, hit so hard that her kills were said to leave “Thater Craters.” Lisa Reitsma, 6-4, made All-America for the Huskers a few years later.

Saunders played at Nebraska from 1995 through 1999.
Saunders played at Nebraska from 1995 through 1999.

By contrast, in the fall of 2021, the Husker roster listed nine players at 6-2 or taller, including 6-4 and 6-5. Wisconsin also had nine of at least 6-2; one was 6-9 and another 6-8 – AVCA national player of the year Dana Rettke.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s,” Grafentin said, “I don’t remember players at 6-5. Now you see taller ones all the time.”

“In general,” Skutt coach Saunders said, “players have gotten bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic. And they jump higher. They exercise more and put a lot into performance.”

Though usually not as tall, back-row defenders and passers are just as important. Said Grafentin: “Volleyball at its most competitive level is wonderful. The long rallies create more intensity, and the crowd gets into it more and more. As hard as college women hit the ball, it amazes me how the liberos and other defensive players not only handle the ball but direct it to the setter.”

Sports for girls and women have come a long way since Title IX a half-century ago. Of course, it’s not without occasional controversy or lawsuits. In some cases, colleges have eliminated men’s programs to make the overall totals of male and female athletes closer to equal. In others, schools have added a number of lesser female athletes to teams, like cross country or swimming, seeking overall numerical balance.

Like thousands of other volleyball dads and granddads, as well as moms and grandmas and other fans, I appreciate that girls and women receive every opportunity to excel in sports – knowing that the lessons of persistence, focus and hard work will extend to other parts of their lives. Grafentin and Saunders said they want to help their amazing players become amazing women.

At the semifinals in December, by the way, my Ohio granddaughters didn’t just don Husker gear purchased that day. Their mom played for UNO and they have followed Husker volleyball on the Big Ten Network for years; they know the names and positions of all the NU players – as do many other girls of Husker Nation who love the game.

A lot happens on that court, just 30 by 60 feet, with nets at 7-feet-4. It’s a game of speed, power and artistry, where players jump and dive and block and slam – a game of many dimensions played high in the air and low on the floor, you dig?

In the years since Title IX, volleyball and other sports for girls and women surely have grown in leaps and bounds.

Mike Kelly retired in 2018 after 48 years at the Omaha World-Herald, including 1981-91 as sports editor and sports columnist.

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