RALSTON – John Cook still hasn’t forgotten Kayla Banwarth’s senior year on the Nebraska volleyball team.
She set the career record for digs with 1,706, but when the postseason awards came out she was merely an honorable mention selection in the Big 12 Conference. The NU head coach felt like Banwarth was the best libero in the country
Three years later, Banwarth is showing she’s one of the best liberos in the world, and is playing with the United States team this week in the NORCECA Continental Championship.
The United States beat Cuba 25-9, 25-13, 25-12 on Wednesday night in front of about 2,000 fans at Ralston Arena.
Banwarth has been in the USA system since her Husker career ended. She’s also played professionally in Austria and Germany, and has a contract for this season in Azerbaijan, where many of the top players in the world play with the largest contracts.
Banwarth knows her former college coach is still pushing her for a late addition to the All-American team in 2010.
“If I’ve learned anything in my college career, and this career, it’s the individual stuff isn’t as important as the team stuff, because the team stuff is so much more special,” Banwarth said.
Banwarth has been on the roster for five international events over the past two seasons.
The 2012 Summer Olympics was probably out of reach for Banwarth with more veteran players in the system, but Banwarth should have a chance to compete for a spot on the Olympic roster for the 2016 Games.
“The Olympics is the goal. That’s the dream,” Banwarth said. “To watch the last Olympics made me think of the possibilities and, ‘What if I can make it that far and to the Olympics?’ It was a huge boost for me.”
Cook encouraged Banwarth that if she stayed in the system she would have a chance when the next Olympics come around because of the roster turnover. He’s proud of Banwarth for continuing to follow her dream.
“She went out there (to California) and paid her dues, and was out there with only a couple other players waiting for her opportunity,” Cook said. “She got a chance to show herself and went to Grand Prix and played great, and now she’s starting libero.”
U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said Banwarth is one of several liberos that will continue to have a chance to be on the roster.
“(Kayla) like, many of our USA athletes, has worked her tail off this year,” Kiraly said. “One of their biggest jobs is to learn and take risks in our training sessions and stretch our limits. She’s one of those who’s done a really nice job of that, and brought her game to an even stronger international level, and earned a right to go on this trip and to as we say, 'bro for us, which is short for libero. She’s our 'bro and doing a really nice job.”
Banwarth is from Dubuque, Iowa, and many of her family, college friends and former teammates have been able to come watch her this week. Cook and his assistant coaches were in the crowd on Wednesday, even standing to cheer on set point.
Many fans approached Banwarth following the match, telling her it was great to have her back in Nebraska.
“It’s so good to be back,” Banwarth said. “This volleyball community and the whole state feels like home to me. To be able to play in front of truly great volleyball fans and Husker fans is just such a blessing.”
The other teams in the weeklong tournament include Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago.
The second-ranked United States team improved to 2-0 and advanced to Friday’s semifinals. The U.S. team beat Mexico 25-9, 25-12, 25-11 on Monday. The tournament winner advances to the season-ending FIVB Grand Champions Cup in Japan in November.
On Wednesday, Banwarth had nine digs, and former Husker and 2012 Olympian Jordan Larson-Burbach had four ace serves, one kill and two blocks. Former Florida All-American Kelly Murphy led the U.S. with 10 kills.