It hasn’t always been the way it is now for the Nebraska volleyball program.
Nancy Wilkinson Nielsen was on the first Nebraska volleyball team in 1975, and says that some people looked down on female athletes. Now, Nebraska volleyball players are some of the most admired athletes in the state, with fans watching to see the athleticism of the athletes and the emotion they play the game with.
The NU Coliseum has been home to Nebraska volleyball from the beginning, but that changes next year with the team’s move to the Devaney Sports Center. On Friday, the program will honor former players and coaches from the 38 seasons of Nebraska volleyball during an extended ceremony following its match against Ohio State.
The ceremony will allow some of the players from the program’s infancy an opportunity to feel the appreciation of a large crowd that wasn’t there in the beginning. There have been about 185 players and coaches who helped create a tradition for Nebraska volleyball, and worked to continue it. Here are four of their stories.
Nancy Wilkinson Nielsen (1975-77)
The first Nebraska volleyball team
Nancy Wilkinson Nielsen’s granddaughter will join her at Friday’s Nebraska match.
Wilkinson Nielsen will be able to tell her how she played on the first official Nebraska volleyball team in 1975.
“I’m very proud of that,” she said.
The program is much different now. Initially, the only time the weight room was available for the volleyball players was from midnight to 6 a.m. (a new weight room that opened last year was designed for the volleyball team, and a few other sports).
When the team played in a national tournament, the players had to help raise funds for its airplane tickets (the volleyball team now travels in a charter airplane to many matches).
The volleyball team got hand-me-down warmups from the tennis team, which only fit the team’s setters, so the team raised money for new ones by taking pledges and jogging from Lincoln to Omaha the day following a match.
Wilkinson was from Fremont, and a few weeks before the season began, she was one of the 43 players who attended a tryout for 17 spots on the NU varsity and junior varsity teams. She started on the JV, but within three weeks was a starting outside hitter on the varsity.
The players had fun, but were sometimes looked down on by people who felt that female teams “took money” away from men’s teams.
“I'm so glad the women don't have to work as hard as we did, or get called the names we did,” Wilkinson Nielsen said. “I tended to block out the disrespect because I loved playing so much. We didn't get any perks, but we didn't have the outrageous pressure of the spotlight that they have now to be great every year. We just played because of the love we had for the game.”
Wilkinson Nielsen is a speech-language pathologist in Elkhorn.
Allison Weston (1992-95)
The first national championship team
The opportunity to win a program’s first national championship only occurs once, and can have a lasting impact on a program.
Allison Weston played on Nebraska’s first national championship team in 1995, paving the way for titles that followed in 2000 and ’06.
The 1995 team had a 32-1 record and beat Texas in the championship match.
“It was pretty special to win the first championships,” Weston said. “Everybody was committed to it and made a lot of goals and a lot of promises to ourselves. Coach Terry Pettit oversaw it all and was the mastermind. So many players in the past had paved the way to where the program was to that point.”
Weston was another homegrown Husker from Papillion. She shared national player of the year honors in ‘95 and was Nebraska’s first three-time first-team All-American, later followed by Nancy Metcalf and Sarah Pavan.
Following her Nebraska career, Weston was captain for the United States national team and played in the 2000 Olympics.
She was an assistant coach at the University of Montana in Missoula, Mont., for five years. Weston enjoyed living in Missoula, but wanted to try a career outside athletics. She became an EMT and still lives there.
Weston will be at the reunion Friday, along with a few other players from Nebraska’s first national championship team
“It’s kind of a monumental event,” Weston said. “It’s neat to come back and see the fan support. If this really is the last year they’re playing at the Coliseum, I better take advantage of getting to see it.”
Coach Terry Pettit (1977-99)
The program builder
Terry Pettit was the head coach for Nebraska volleyball for all but two years of the program’s first 25 years.
Pat Sullivan was the first coach and had a record of 83-21 in two seasons of competition sponsored by the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
Pettit took over in 1977 and led Nebraska to six NCAA semifinals and the 1995 national title, before handing the program off to John Cook in 2000. Along the way, Pettit grew the sport throughout the state and made volleyball into the top women’s program at Nebraska.
Some of the Pettit’s most memorable moments at the Coliseum were matches that determined if Nebraska reached the Final Four, but also the many practices held there.
“It was a good environment to work in,” Pettit said. “It’s a beautiful building and everything is in proportion. You don’t feel like the building overwhelms you. The Coliseum is like a theater, it really highlights whatever is under the lights, so it’s a great place to practice.”
Pettit watched the program grow from one where he had to work overtime to get fans to attend matches to now, where every match has been sold out the past 10 years. The fan support got better each year, Pettit said.
“There were several bookmarks to that, one being when college volleyball became a NCAA sponsored sport in 1982 and we hosted an NCAA event,” he said. “Nothing changes the perception of the sport like an NCAA event. Then the Coliseum was remodeled into the present configuration, and that really changed things. That created a really neat environment. We began having sellout crowds, and that’s continued with the support of NET, people watching and the continued success.”
Pettit lives in Fort Collins, Colo., where he is an author and mentors coaches and athletic directors across the country.
Terri Kanouse (1978-81)
The first full-scholarship player
Terri Kanouse and Shandi Pettine were the first Nebraska volleyball players to be recruited with full scholarships in 1978.
Prior to that, Nebraska offered a limited number of partial scholarships. By 1981, Pettit could award 12 scholarships, which was ahead of some schools.
Kanouse was from St. Paul, Ind., and attended a volleyball “audition” in Crown Point, Ind. Pettit offered her a scholarship to come to Nebraska, and those were rare at the time.
“My goal was to play, but I’m thinking, ‘I’m I good enough, what sports, how would I do that?” Kanouse said. “And then the idea that somebody would help pay for my education to do that was outstanding.”
Kanouse, 52, lives in Dayton, Ohio. She has a daughter who is a freshman in high school and is already beginning to see some interest from college basketball programs. That was unheard of 30 years ago.
Kanouse earned the program’s first national honor in 1980. She’ll be at the NU Coliseum on Friday, where it will be a much different scene from her playing days.
“Coach Pettit had to frequently chase out guys that wanted to play basketball so we could have practice,” she said. “When you’d have a game or tournament, you’d see about 25 people in the stands. A few boyfriends, maybe, or a group of parents. It’s crazy to go back now and see how well supported the program is.”
-- Brent C. Wagner