By Lincoln Arneal
John Cook’s cry count ended at five.
During the historic Volleyball Day in Nebraska, the Nebraska coach got emotional seeing former players, taking in the crowd, enjoying the moment and reading a note at the pep rally from Kennedi Orr. The junior setter sent handwritten messages to all her teammates and coaches before the match.
“The impossible will be possible,” Cook read through tears to the crowd of more than 1,000 people during a rally at the NU Coliseum.
Emotions were elevated all day during the Huskers’ record-breaking day. The event, featuring Nebraska vs. Nebraska-Omaha with a prelim between Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State, surpassed expectations – and records. Memorial Stadium was packed with 92,003 fans, setting a world record for attendance at a women’s sporting event.
“Several times, I had to bite my lip to hold it together,” Cook said. “It’s been a very emotional day.”
The event was more than just about the volleyball on the court, which saw the Huskers sweep the Mavericks. The most successful high school coaches in state history were recognized. They highlighted members of the Omaha Supernovas, a professional volleyball team that kicks off its inaugural season next year. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Keri Walsh was on hand, and other United States national team members were honored. Charlie Baker, NCAA president, was in attendance, as was Tony Petitti, the Big Ten commissioner.
The atmosphere was electric with fans clad in volleyball T-shirts. Thanks to name, image and likeness, or NIL, deals, many shirts featured the name and number of current Huskers. Many others wore special shirts to celebrate Volleyball Day, while many younger attendees in North Stadium represented their high school squads.
Lexi Rodriguez said the support and excitement around the match proved that women’s athletics are worthy of being supported. She said she realized the impact during the rally when a girl from North Dakota was selected to speak to the crowd and said her goal was to meet sophomore Bekka Allick, whose jersey she wore.
“It’s so huge for little girls to get to see a woman sport and volleyball being played on this big of a stage and having so many people invest into it,” she said. “It’s huge because when you’re little, you have big dreams and goals. I think having this to look up to is something that a lot of little girls will kind of keep in the back of their mind when they’re pursuing the sport of volleyball.”
In one section of Memorial Stadium were almost 100 former Nebraska volleyball players, the largest-ever gathering of Huskers in program history. They mingled at a reunion Tuesday night and brought their families to watch the sport they helped build take center stage in the sporting world for one night.
Andi Jackson said she was proud to be part of the historic event and thanked everyone who helped put it on. The freshman middle blocker was at a loss for words for how to describe her emotions.
“Nebraska volleyball has a huge legacy so we have to give credit to the women who did it before us because we wouldn’t be here without him,” she said. “Just knowing that we hold that record and the amount of work that we have put into this, every girl on this team deserves it and I’m just really proud to be a part of it.”
For those not in the stadium, the match created a cultural touchstone for former athletes. Basketball superstar Magic Johnson tweeted out that the support of women’s athletics blew him away. Two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson called the event “dope.” Even Iowa women’s basketball star Caitlyn Clark said she was speechless.
The match was the top story on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Wednesday night. It was a topic on national debate shows Thursday morning. The Huskers’ main and volleyball social media accounts received almost 29 million impressions. On BTN, 518,000 people tuned in as it was the most-watched match in network history and the second biggest audience on any network for a regular-season match.
Volleyball Day in Nebraska didn’t just set a new standard for volleyball matches. Cook said it raised the bar for all Huskers athletic events. He’s never seen the Memorial Stadium crowd as fired up as it was on Wednesday night.
“I hope we set a new standard at night for football games with our fans, what they can do and the energy they can bring,” Cook said. “The energy down there was unbelievable. It was a magical night.”
After the match, Cook said he remembered watching the 1999 World Cup final between the United States and China, which attracted 90,185 fans in the Rose Bowl. He remembers how that moment was a spark for soccer in the country and fueled growth over the next decade. In Cook’s view, the difference was that they created the same buzz and excitement as that event for a regular season match, not a world championship.
He hopes the match can also be inspirational and launch volleyball into the nation’s psyche. While the videos, event production and famous faces were an excellent addition, the critical part of the night was the action on the court.
“It’s not about who’s throwing hot dogs and T-shirts,” Cook said. “It’s about what is going on on that volleyball court – the level of play, the athleticism, the type of athletes, student-athletes that we have that people can connect with, and they feel a part of. That’s what we’ve tried to do.
“To be honest with you, we just did that in front of 92,000 people tonight. I think we played for the person in the highest seat on that east balcony. We were playing for those people up there, and I think they felt a part of it.”