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VOLLEYBALL

Why is this state so rich in volleyball talent, success? #volleyballstate provides the answer

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One of the first times this Internet grouping of like topics — #volleyballstate — seemed appropriate last year came in September, and other similar opportunities kept presenting themselves during the 2016 college volleyball season.

On social media sites such as Twitter, a word or phrase preceded by a hashtag is used to identify messages of a similar topic. This topic was volleyball, and specifically college volleyball in Nebraska.

On this particular day in September, Nebraska was the No. 1-ranked team and had a 12-0 record. Just up the road in Fremont, Midland was No. 1 in the NAIA and had a 16-0 record: #volleyballstate.

It’s a digital celebration that remained appropriate in 2016, which was one of the best years ever for college volleyball in the state (the best years were probably the two times Nebraska won national championships in Omaha).

For several programs it was their best year, and four Nebraska teams held the No. 1 ranking in their respective division during the season: Nebraska, Hastings, Midland and Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff.

College volleyball practice starts this week, and for many teams in the state, 2017 should be another very good year.

During another good week last year, Nebraska won the Big Ten Conference championship, Creighton won the Big East Tournament, and Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State were each in the top 10 in Division II.

And in a stretch of a few hours in December, Nebraska advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and Hastings won its first national championship in the NAIA: #volleyballstate.

Creighton made the Elite Eight for the first time, and we were a Creighton upset of Texas away from an all-Nebraska matchup in the national semifinals. The Huskers got back to the Four Four after winning the national championship in 2015.

Last year there were 10 schools in the state that finished ranked: Nebraska, Creighton, Nebraska-Kearney, Wayne State, Hastings, Midland, Doane, Bellevue, Western Nebraska and Central Community College (Columbus).

The 10 ranked teams were tied with California and Texas for the most combined ranked teams across six divisions.

It's a football-first state, but people here care about volleyball also.

What’s happening around the state doesn’t go unnoticed in Lincoln. At least once a year, during a news conference, Nebraska coach John Cook will list off the other colleges in the state he’s noticed in the polls.

"It’s mind-boggling how big, and how good, volleyball is in this state," Cook said.

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So why are there so many good college teams in the state? Several interviews reveal similar themes, such as great high school coaches, and hard-working players. The colleges are also hiring — and retaining — great head coaches.

But the answer may come down to this: At every step along the way, many females in the state got just what they needed, at just the right time.

When they were young they went to Husker matches or watched on TV, and felt the excitement of the sport.

At the next step they had parents who got them into, or coached, their first team. In high school they had qualified coaches, and teammates to push them.

In college, the schools provided the money to make volleyball at their school a big deal.

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Volleyball was a sport before Terry Pettit arrived to be the coach at Nebraska in 1977, but most people agree that he’s one of the first chapters in the book when it comes to the relationship between the sport and this state.

"He built a winner, he promoted it well and it became a culture of its own, which kind of trickled out, and now young student-athletes more often than not want to play volleyball in college," said Hastings coach Matt Buttermore. "Terry did a good job working with coaches, and that has continued to this day, so you have lots of good coaches in the high school and club level interested in the game. It’s all grown from those original efforts."

Nebraska-Kearney coach Rick Squiers recently finished volleyball camps held at the school each summer, and more than 120 high schools had teams there. High school coaches are willing to work year-round, Squiers said, and that goes back to Pettit.

"I think Nebraska got a head start from the high school volleyball standpoint, and then when things took off in Lincoln I think a lot of the other colleges and universities followed suit," Squiers said.

***

Many kids have said they’re going to be the president when they grow up. Only a few do, but the others go on to be successful in other ways.

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The same is true in Nebraska, where lots of young girls have had the dream of playing for the Huskers.

Due to roster limitations, few will make that dream happen. But many of those girls who practiced with that dream become pretty good players. And it’s the other colleges in the state who often benefit.

"They can’t all play in Lincoln, so they want to play somewhere that cares about volleyball, so a lot of the other colleges, universities and junior colleges, they care about volleyball, too," Squiers said.

Volleyball players

Creighton’s Marysa Wilkinson was one of those girls from the state who dreamed of being a Husker while growing up in Lincoln. She marveled at how athletic and humble star player Jordan Larson was. During high school you open yourself up to the numerous other opportunities, Wilkinson said, and she found hers at Creighton.

UNK plays in NCAA Division II, but Squiers knows he’s had players who could have played at a higher level. Some of them didn’t get really good until after many Division I programs had filled their recruiting classes.

"We have players on our roster right now who have Division I offers who I think just didn’t get wrapped up in that," Squiers said. "They wanted to play in front of somebody, and they wanted to play in the postseason. Most of them are from Nebraska, or nearby, so they didn’t want to travel out to the East Coast and never be heard from again."

The year before Kirsten Bernthal Booth became head coach at Creighton, the Bluejays had only two Nebraskans on the roster and had a 3-23 record. Her first full recruiting class had five Nebraskans, and she began to build a winner.

Creighton may not get the No. 1 player in the state, such as Kadie Rolfzen, but there have been enough good players from the state for Creighton to be able to play at a high level.

"I think sometimes we get the student-athlete that is just as good of an athlete, who maybe we just have to put together a little bit more," Bernthal Booth said. "The Rolfzen twins are good examples of great athletes who were really well-trained in high school that were ready to come in as freshmen and start. And sometimes we get those kids, and then other times we take a great athlete, and maybe redshirt them. I think (Lincoln Pius X grad) Lauren Smith is a good example of that kid. We redshirted her a year and then she’s able to start for four years and become one of the best players in the country. There is a lot of talent. Years ago Missouri built their program off of several Nebraska kids, and they jumped into the top 25."

***

Club volleyball has continued to grow in the state, and for a few of the coaches it’s their full-time job. In Omaha, there are about 20 clubs.

During her club volleyball years, Wilkinson’s highly qualified list of coaches included former Husker middle blocker Tonia Tauke, seven-time state champion coach Jake Moore and current Doane coach Gwen Egbert.

"Going into club I was a very terrible player, honestly, and Tonia Tauke was my first coach and she saw the potential in me and took me in, so I basically learned everything," Wilkinson said.

But the players deserve credit also. Ones like KC Heimann, who didn’t play club volleyball while growing up in Howells, but came to Midland, worked at it and became one of the program’s best.

"Just a small-town, multi-sport kid," said Midland coach Paul Giesselmann. "We take a lot of pride in a roster that is just Nebraska girls, basically. You just seem to get players who have great work ethics, high character and they’re competitive."

Hastings' entire starting lineup when it won the championship was players from Nebraska, coming from towns like Schuyler and Ashland and Cairo.

"From a lot of those smaller schools, we get big-time players," said Katie Placke, Hastings' All-America right-side hitter from Grand Island.

***

Kadie Rolfzen, the four-time Husker All-American from Papillion, may have said it best, and also shared one reason why many of the best athletes in the state over the past 25 years have played volleyball in college.

"Volleyball is just a fun sport to play here in Nebraska," she said.

A few years ago, Volleyball Magazine had an article that listed five atmospheres in college volleyball worth checking out.

Nebraska was on the list, of course, as was Hawaii and Texas, but also UNK. The Lopers were right there with the big-time programs.

UNK may get about 2,000 spectators for a really important regular-season match, and had 5,000 on one night in 2005 when it played for the national championship.

Midland averages 1,120 fans per match. That would have ranked in the top 50 in attendance for NCAA Division I schools last season.

"Our home opener is August 23rd, on a Wednesday night, and we’re going to have 2,000 people in the stands, and we’re an NAIA school," said Giesselmann, the Midland coach. "There is a lot of Division I schools that struggle to get 500 people. And I think that says a lot about volleyball in the state of Nebraska."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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