|All Points West: Wait, did you say volleyball?|
|December 24, 2015 Frank Marquez|
I’ve never really watched volleyball, not until this season when I began going to some of the Gering High School volleyball matches. In fact, I didn’t know what a Libero was until I Googled it. In short (no pun), a Libero is a defensive specialist, and seemingly vertically challenged, like me, at about a foot shorter than the other players. Husker Libero Justine Wong-Orantes would be the only player I would meet eye to eye. The rest of the team ranging from 5-8 to 6-3 would tower above me.
A few weeks before the B-8 District tournament, I talked to five Gering Bulldog seniors, three of them who have signed with community colleges in Nebraska, all within the past few months. It occurred to me, volleyball in Nebraska is bigger than I thought.
The Gering Bulldogs fell short in the district tourney and did not earn a bid to state, due to some eligibility technicality, but played competitively, with a lot of heart. As a result, I kept my eye on volleyball, partly for our paper’s coverage with due respect to the sport – my hat’s always off to all fierce competitors – but mostly, because the girls in this state are that good.
Little did I know we had a powerhouse sitting in our backyard. The Huskers volleyball team was in my peripheral view as the squad representing Big Red made its way through the NCAA tourney. Then, the Huskers made it to the Final Four. In pairings, they met old Big 12 foes the Kansas Jayhawks and eventually the Texas Longhorns.
Unfortunately, I did not catch the match against the Rock Chalk, Jayhawks, in which the Huskers made quick work, knocking them off in four sets, 3-1.
Then on Dec. 19 in the finals, they swept the Longhorns in three sets.
The Huskers ended the season 32-4 overall. Remarkable. In front of a sold-out CenturyLink Center in Omaha – virtually a home stand.
How big was this for the Huskers? Well, this is the fourth title for the volleyball team, three under Head Coach John Cook, who started his tenure at Lincoln in 2000. Cook has four more seasons to go on his contract with a boatload of talent on the way. Some publications have gone so far as to call John a legend, and on par with retired Husker Head Football Coach Tom Osborne who won his third national title after 24 years.
Cook’s first National Championship came in 2000, when he guided the Huskers to a perfect 34-0 record. He was also named the AVCA National Coach of the Year.
His second title came in 2006. His teams finished as runner-up in 2005, and have made 6 Final Four appearances. During his tenure, his teams have never failed to make the tourney.
Nebraska’s first national title was won in 1995 under the tutelage of legendary coach Terry Pettit, who held the reins at Nebraska from 1977-1999, won 694 matches and took the Huskers to 18 consecutive NCAA tourney appearances.
Pettit was preceded by Pat Sullivan who compiled a 83-21 record in the Huskers’ first two seasons. She built the foundation for the powerhouse you see today.
Yes, volleyball is bigger than I thought. In fact, three players hail from Papillion, Nebraska, which I heard mentioned several times during the ESPN2 telecast of the finals.
They are twins Amber and Kadie Rolfzen, and Kelly Hunter. All three players are Papillion-La Vista South alums. Amber is a middle blocker, while her sister is a powerful ride side hitter. Hunter is a setter. Consider this: Four other players hail from towns scattered across Nebraska – Sydney Townsend (Lincoln), Alicia Ostrander (Gordon), Tiani Reeves (Gothenburg) and Olivia Boender (Waverly).
This says a lot about how tough the competition is becoming in such a small state – population wise. Get this, the majority of this team stays intact after this season. Ostrander, along with Cecilia Hall, Meghan Haggerty and Kelsey Fien, will graduate this year. On the other end of the spectrum, freshman Mikaela Foecke was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and for good reason. Foecke recorded 19 kills, hitting .385. The rest of the team, Brooke Smith, Kenzie Maloney, and Annika Albrecht will all be returning – and none of them would be considered second team on any other team.
According to Cook’s biography, his vision is for the Huskers to remain at the forefront of college volleyball to enhance the sport at both the local and national levels. Nebraska entered the 2015 with an NCAA-record 188 regular-season consecutive sellouts, not including this season – the longest sellout streak in NCAA women’s athletics. Since the move to the Devaney Center in 2013, the Huskers have led the nation in attendance in every season. How’s that for you Husker football? Could volleyball outshine the gridiron?
Want to know the full impact of the Huskers volleyball team? Technically, Nebraska is a worldwide sensation.
Gary Brown, of Avoca Beach, in Sydney, Australia, raved on the Nebraska Facebook page: “O... M... G... You have just scored a fan in Sydney Australia. Escaping our 38C or 100F day, crawled into our local sports bar, and caught the whole Finals match!!! I educated the pub, beer soaking people around me to what was going on, and the power of the Volleyball game and soon there were four, I repeat four avid fans.
Amazing athleticism, skill, strategy, and just that NEVER-EVER-GIVE-UP attitude ... While others watched the cricket (yeah that really is a dull game, don’t believe any English person who says otherwise!). We whooped with each spike, cringed with each miss, held our heads in our hands, and rode the roller coaster of that match!!! ... I HAVE NEVER EVER enjoyed a game more.
So merry christmas from down under.”
P.S. If No. 5 (Amber Rolfzen) ever ran at me in the street, leaped in the air, raised her hand in a strike, with that face of absolute competitive killer instinct, I would be saying my prayers hoping it would be a quick death!!!
My sentiments Mr. Brown. My sentiments.