World-class volleyball events are making a home in Nebraska.
The best volleyball players from the United States — including potentially three former Huskers — will compete in January at Pinnacle Bank Arena for a berth in the 2016 Olympics.
The NORCECA women’s Olympic qualification tournament Jan. 7-9 will cap an amazing six-month stretch for volleyball fans locally. The NCAA Tournament semifinals and championship match are in December in Omaha. Last summer, the U.S. team won the FIVB World Grand Prix title in Omaha.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook said Thursday. “I’ve said this before: We’re the epicenter of volleyball in this country. It’s pretty amazing."
USA Volleyball will host the Olympic qualifier, with county officials voting Thursday to spend $275,000 in lodging tax revenue to help cover some of the expenses.
“This would be a showcase event for any city in the United States,” said Derek Bombeck of the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The event will include teams from the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, with the winner qualifying for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Each team will play in one of two round-robin matches each day, with the U.S. matches scheduled for 7 p.m.
The U.S. team, including former Huskers Jordan Larson-Burbach, Kayla Banwarth and Kelsey Robinson, is the reigning world champion and is ranked No. 1 in the world.
Cook said there is a great chance all three former Huskers will be on the U.S. roster. The tournament represents the second chance for the United States to qualify for the Olympics, with maybe only one more chance in May.
“For Jordan Larson, this will probably be her last Olympics; for her to be able to qualify in Lincoln is pretty cool,” Cook said. “This is like a (NCAA Tournament) regional final for USA. They've got to win it. It’s a huge, huge tournament.”
Tickets will go on sale Nov. 12, the day that the state high school volleyball tournament opens in Lincoln.
"We are thrilled to hear that Lincoln will host our zone Olympic qualifier," said Karch Kiraly, coach of the U.S. Women's National Team. "It's truly an honor and a privilege — and a phenomenal opportunity — to play on an American court, in front of thousands of USA fans, with these four teams battling for a ticket to the Rio Olympics. We can't wait to get back there. …"
Cook had hoped to host the Olympic qualifier at the Devaney Sports Center, where the crowd would be closer to the action, but Devaney didn’t meet some of the requirements, he said.
USA Volleyball then looked at hosting the event in California, Cook said, but could not get lined up with an arena and TV partners.
“The city of Lincoln was looking at hosting the junior NORCECA next summer, so I said, ‘Why don’t you guys take this?’” Cook said. “So I called Karch and got everybody talking and they started going from there.”
Bombeck said he hopes a successful event in Lincoln will lead to "long-term business" with USA Volleyball.
Nearly 150 people, including team members, staff, trainers and event organizers, are expected to participate in the event, and organizers expect 1,000 to 2,000 people to fill local hotels each night of the competition.
Having former Huskers on the court should generate plenty of local interest.
The former Huskers spend part of the year playing professional volleyball overseas. Larson-Burbach, who has a home near Lincoln, plays in Turkey, and Robinson in Italy.
Former Husker Sarah Pavan has previously played for Canada, but has shifted to beach volleyball, and could be a medal contender at the Olympics.
The field for the Olympic qualifier includes the top four teams from the recent eight-team NORCECA Continental Championship in Mexico. Team USA captured the title with a four-set win against the Dominican Republic, while Puerto Rico beat Canada in the bronze-medal match.
The U.S. captured the silver medal at the two most-recent Olympics, in Beijing (2008) and London (2012).
The Lancaster County Board approved spending money from the Promotion Fund, which draws from a 2 percent lodging tax. That fund, which now stands at about $800,000, is separate from the Visitors Improvement Fund, from which grants of up to $10,000 are awarded to public or nonprofit groups.