Deep volleyball roots in Nebraska

By Walter Villa

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. -- After helping Papillion-La Vista South (Papillion, Neb.) to its first state title and a No. 1 national ranking in the final POWERADE FAB 50 poll of 2010, there was one word Kelly Hunter did not want to hear:


“We wanted to show that we didn’t just get lucky,” said Hunter, a 5-11 junior setter. “We’re really proud of how consistent we’ve been the past two years.”

That consistency is evident in Papio South’s 80-match win streak dating to 2010. The Titans improved to 39-0 this season with a 25-12, 25-7, 25-13 win over Millard West (Omaha, Neb.) Thursday night in a Class A state quarterfinal.

Last year, the Titans went 41-0 and became the first Nebraska team to earn a No. 1 national ranking. They were also the state’s first undefeated champ since 1972.

But girls’ volleyball in Nebraska is about more than just Papio South. There are other strong high school programs such as No. 42 Marian (Omaha), which was the last team to beat the Titans and will play Papio South in Friday’s semifinals. Marian advanced by beating Southwest (Lincoln, Neb.) 25-20, 25-19, 27-25.

The third Nebraska team currently in the FAB 50 is Pius X (Lincoln, Neb.), which beat Beatrice, 25-10, 25-6, 25-6, on Thursday. Pius X will play Elkhorn South (Elkhorn, Neb.) in a Class B semifinal on Friday.

Nebraska is also strong in club volleyball. The Nebraska Juniors team – featuring Hunter and other Papio South players such as Amber and Kadie Rolfzen – won the 16-U Junior Olympics national title in 2010. The club, with different players in starring roles, also won Junior Olympics in 2009 (18-U) and 2007 (17-U).

Papio South coach Gwen Egbert said there is a reason for the state’s success on the youth level.

“Sports for girls are encouraged in Nebraska,” she said. “We have a lot of girls who play multiple sports because there is not a lot else to do around here.”

Egbert said the first great player she coached was Allison Weston, who went on to become the University of Nebraska’s first three-time All-American. In 1995, she led the Cornhuskers to their first NCAA title and was the National Co-Player of the Year.

The Huskers, currently second behind UCLA in the AVCA national rankings, have remained a power ever since, winning additional NCAA titles in 2000 and 2006 and making six other Final Fours, most recently in 2008.

But Nebraska isn’t the only local college power. In Division II, the state boats a pair of top-10 teams. Nebraska-Kearney, with 13 home-state players on its roster, is ranked sixth; and Wayne State, with 12 home-grown players, is ranked 10th.

Anyone doubting the popularity of volleyball in Nebraska merely needs to attend a Huskers home match, where the atmosphere is electric. Nebraska finished 2010 ranked second in the nation in attendance, averaging 4,632 fans and trailing only Hawaii.

Creighton, located in Omaha, finished a respectable 34th, averaging 1,101 fans. And Nebraska-Kearney has led NCAA Division II in attendance 14 of the past 15 years.

Briana Ritter, the coach at Elkhorn South (Elkhorn, Neb.), said changes in the sport in recent years have made it more attractive to Nebraska girls.

“When I was in high school, we had side-out scoring, and it was an incredibly slower game,” Ritter said. “But with rally scoring and let serving, they’ve made it a lot more interesting and a faster-paced game. I love the sport’s direction.”

That direction starts with the University of Nebraska and flows down to the youth levels. Unlike states such as California and Florida where collegiate loyalties are divided among numerous schools, it seems everyone in Nebraska is a Cornhusker fan.

When Nebraska became a volleyball power in the late 1980s, it heightened the desire for thousands of girls in the state to want to become the next star.

The Huskers have capitalized on those desires by signing and developing numerous home-grown players over the years.

Of the 15 players on the Huskers’ current roster, eight are from Nebraska, including starters Brooke Delano, Gina Mancuso, Lauren Cook and Hayley Thramer.

Contrast Nebraska’s roster with that of Penn State, winners of the past four NCAA championships. Of the Nittany Lions’ 17 players, only one, Maggie Harding, is from Pennsylvania, and she rarely plays.

That’s not the case with the Huskers’ home-state players. Delano is an All-American. While in high school, Mancuso became the first Nebraska player to win the Gatorade’s National Player of the Year award. And Cook was the 2009 National Freshman of the Year.

More home-grown stars are headed to Nebraska, including Hunter and the Rolfzen twins, who have committed to Nebraska as part of the class of 2013; and 5-11 setter Lauren Sieckmann of Elkhorn South, who has committed to the Huskers for the 2012 class.

Sieckmann seems to be typical of the Nebraska volleyball star in that she has played multiple sports. She was a gymnast until she outgrew that sport, and she was a diver until she hurt her hip and started playing volleyball.

“Gymnastics gave me a good base because you need balance in every sport,” Sieckmann said. “Diving helped me with my overall athleticism and discipline.”

Sieckmann said another common trait among youth-level volleyball players in the state is their desire to play for the Huskers. She sees it as a driving force for many kids, even the ones who don’t end up at Nebraska.

Lauren Poulicek, a libero for Papio South, agrees.

“Nebraska has great high school players all around the state,” said Poulicek, who has yet to pick a college. “It’s really cool that we have three players (at Papio South who are going to the University of Nebraska).

“I’m just happy I’ve gotten the chance to play with them in high school. It’s a really great feeling to know that we have achieved a No. 1 ranking. That’s something we can carry for the rest of our lives.”