Huskers attract die-hard following

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Tara Mueller had seen it on the recruiting trip, of course. But she still wasn't prepared to actually be "in" it. As she stretched on the floor, looking at Nebraska Coliseum fill up, she felt something more than freshman jitters.

She'd grown up in Arizona, and it wasn't like this there. She could feel the anticipation as people took their seats. It was going to be packed and loud, and so many eyes would be on her.

Because now she was wearing a Nebraska uniform.

"Sarah Pavan was stretching right next to me," Mueller recalled of the four-time All-American who was then a Huskers senior. "I had never been so nervous. I was probably literally shaking. And I said to her, 'How do you do this?'

"And she was like, 'You'll be fine. It's just volleyball.' "

But Pavan, the straight-A genius in biochemistry, actually was wrong for once. At Nebraska, it's not "just" volleyball.

Certainly, Huskers football is the official state religion, and nothing challenges that. But volleyball also has its worshippers, some as devout as any fans you'll find anywhere.

Furthermore, there are practically no volleyball agnostics among Nebraskans, let alone outright non-believers. Even among the Huskers faithful who actually never watch volleyball -- not that they're really missed since the arena is always full -- the program's accomplishments are a point of pride.

Three NCAA titles and seven other trips to the Final Four. A vice-like grip on the old Big Eight, and a similar clampdown on the Big 12, which the Huskers are now exiting as league champions again. A perpetually sold-out arena. A list of 32 (and counting) athletes who've earned All-America honors.

Mueller is the veteran senior now, and what she would tell a new Nebraska player who was overwhelmed is to relish and appreciate the love. Should the Huskers get through a very difficult Seattle Regional this weekend, Nebraska red will be the predominant color at the NCAA Final Four in Kansas City -- about three hours south of Lincoln -- the following week.

But if they don't advance -- the Huskers must defeat Washington on its home court and then either Cal or Minnesota -- once the initial disappointment begins to fade, the clock starts ticking toward next season. The fans will be back then, just as strong as ever.

"They're at the highest level in our sport in terms of size of crowds, top teams, the whole environment," Auburn coach Wade Benson said after his Tigers were swept in the NCAA tournament's second round in Lincoln last Friday. "Here at Nebraska, volleyball is a tier-one sport. Hawaii is like that, but I don't know in how many other places it's really considered like that. But you can feel it here."

Not just in Lincoln, but all over the state.

During the second week of November, volleyball fever was red hot about an hour and a half west of Lincoln, because that's where the Nebraska state high school volleyball tournament was being played.

It was somewhat controversial that the event moved out to Grand Island and Hastings (which is the hometown of Tom Osborne, legendary Nebraska football coach and current athletic director). The state tournament had been in Lincoln since 1981, so for many years girls had grown up dreaming of ending their prep seasons/careers in the Huskers' home city.

In fact, Stanford libero Gabi Ailes, who is from Bellevue, Neb., not long ago told her Cardinal teammates that she had a dream that their season ended this year with an NCAA championship won at Nebraska Coliseum. Understandable how her mind would conjure up such a dream, since Lincoln is where Ailes won her four state titles for Bellevue West.

Ailes' Stanford team is the No. 3 seed overall and in this weekend's NCAA regional round. She opted to leave volleyball utopia for a school where volleyball doesn't get quite as much attention -- simply because too many things are competing against it in the Bay Area -- but is NCAA royalty. The Cardinal have won six NCAA titles; Stanford and Nebraska are the only programs that have been ranked in every AVCA poll since the rankings began in 1982.

Ailes jokes she's not exactly sure how she ended up out at Stanford except that … well, it's Stanford. But Huskers setter Lauren Cook knows exactly why she, at first, left Nebraska for California.

"I kind of wanted to show people I don't just get places because of my name and who my dad is," said Cook, whose father is, of course, Nebraska coach John Cook. "I wanted to take my own path. I thought, 'Nebraska volleyball is his thing.' I thought that I wanted to be part of something else when I was deciding where I should go to play in college."

So she went to UCLA, where she was national freshman of the year in 2009. Indeed, she'd proven herself … but at a cost of leaving behind something she really did cherish.

"I realized while I was out at UCLA that there is no place like Nebraska," Lauren said. "I thought, 'I have established my name.' And then I just had to come back. Because I compare everything to Nebraska, and nothing matches up."

Lauren won three state titles for Pius X High in Lincoln. But in 2010, prep volleyball's season-ending celebrations and disappointments took place in Grand Island/Hastings, which won a bidding process for the coveted event.

"The sport has evolved to what it is today, and the University of Nebraska is a big part of that," said Sharon Zavala, who in her 35th season at Grand Island Central Catholic is the winningest coach in Nebraska high school history. "The high school coaches here are very well-educated. We love our volleyball, and the girls watch the college level and emulate those players."

The popularity of the Husker program has fed the development of prep volleyball in Nebraska, and vice versa. So it's a strong state to recruit in, not just for the Huskers but many other Division I programs.

The most desirable place to go for top players for generations, though, is to stay home. That's had a direct result on Nebraska's success on the court: the Huskers have dominated league play. Between the former Big Eight and current Big 12 conferences, Nebraska has won or shared 31 titles, including this last one outright.

Egbert said, "Any kid who grows up playing volleyball here would love to play for Nebraska. So there's a big motivator for kids who have that dream."

You could start quite a debate among Husker faithful with the question of which four players would belong on a Nebraska volleyball Mount Rushmore.

But there shouldn't be much argument about which four non-players would make such a monument. You'd start with Terry Pettit, the Indiana native and philosopher-poet who was teaching English and coaching volleyball in North Carolina when a co-worker suggested he apply for a coaching opening at Nebraska.

Pettit got the job in Lincoln in 1977, and by the time he voluntarily stepped aside in 1999, Nebraska had become one of the pillars in women's college volleyball. The Huskers had owned the Big Eight, and transitioned very well into the Big 12. Along the way, Pettit got 694 victories as Huskers coach and the 1995 NCAA title.

After Pettit, the next face on Husker Rushmore would be that of the late Dr. Barbara Hibner. In three decades as an athletics administrator at Nebraska, she made tremendous contributions to the growth of the women's sports programs.

Hibner passed away at age 65 in the spring of 2007 after battling cancer. But the previous December, she'd seen the best night in Nebraska volleyball history, when the Huskers won the program's third NCAA title in front of more than 17,000 deliriously joyful fans in Omaha's Qwest Center.

Cook, coach of two of the NCAA title teams, would also be carved into that Husker volleyball monument. If Pettit was the "godfather" of the Nebraska program, as Cook refers to him, then Cook has been sort of like … well, Michael Corleone. The replacement godfather.

A San Diego graduate, Cook coached in California before coming to the Midwest as an assistant to Pettit from 1988-91. Then Cook took over as head coach at Wisconsin. By 1999, Pettit realized that Cook was getting very close to being permanently rooted in Badgerland with both the program and his family. So he made the move to bring Cook back to Lincoln as Nebraska's associate head coach in 1999.

After that season, Pettit stepped down, which was essentially like handing the keys to the Lamborghini to Cook, who won the program's second NCAA title in the ensuing season. Against Wisconsin, of all teams.

Pettit willingly stepped aside, saying he was ready to move on to a different creative stage in his life. But there's no doubt he was prioritizing the long-term well-being of Nebraska's program when he did it. Indeed, a monumental decision.

The fourth face to be carved into this Rushmore? Actually … it would have to be an amalgam representing Nebraska's fan base, the adoring force that makes the Coliseum come to life.

With the impending construction of a new basketball arena in Lincoln, plans call for the volleyball team to move from the Coliseum to the Devaney Center, where the Nebraska basketball teams currently play.

Cook has agonized over this the way he does about everything. He is a detail guy to the last possible detail. He doesn't want to give up the special feel of the Coliseum, a building that opened in the 1920s and has distinct character, and the intimidating edge it gives the Huskers to play there.

Nebraska has sold out the coliseum for every match since September 2001. Officially, it holds just 4,030, meaning it is very hard to get tickets. Even for VIPs.

Which is normally a great thing for an athletic program, but Nebraska officials believe it could sell up to 7,000 season tickets in a bigger facility. So it looks like in 2014, the volleyball program will have a new home, refurbished to fit the needs and parameters of that sport.

"It's been a good problem to have," Cook said of the high demand for tickets. "But one of the negatives is that high school kids have a hard time getting in here. If you're a coach and you want to bring your high school team, there are no seats available.

"So with a move, we can expand our fan base. To me, it's still a huge gamble because of what we've had with the atmosphere here. But we've done a survey and feel we can sell more tickets. One of the things we have to do, though, is make it feel like the 'new' Coliseum. We want to take this mystical whatever you want to call it over there with us."

The "mystical" stuff ultimately exists because of the talented players. Good grief, there have been so many beloved stars here going back to the 1970s that trying to pick a consensus four for a Nebraska player Rushmore is nearly impossible.

For some fans, their choice would depend a lot on what generation they've seen the most. But then there are those Husker supporters who've seen them all.

Pavan, a thundering left-handed 6-5 outside hitter from Canada who finished her career in 2007, is one of just five players in Division I women's volleyball history who were named first-team All-American four times. Her former teammate, three-time All-American Jordan Larson from tiny Hooper, would get lot of votes as perhaps the most talented all-around player in Husker history.

Which is saying a lot with the likes of past Olympians Nancy Metcalf, Allison Weston and Lori Endicott also among Husker greats. Karen Dahlgren-Schonewise and Greichaly Cepero, like Pavan and Weston, were Honda Award winners. Pavan, Cepero, Weston and Christina Houghtelling were each named the AVCA national player of the year during their careers.

Cutting it down to four … sheesh. You might need a double Rushmore of players to satisfy fans.

Three current Huskers -- Brooke Delano, Lindsey Light and Hannah Werth -- were recently named all-Central Region and are eligible for All-America honors. The 6-foot-4 Delano, a Nebraska native, was an outstanding basketball player at Bellevue West and could have opted to play that sport in the Big 12 instead, as she was recruited by several league schools. But volleyball won out. Or, more to the point, the culture of Husker volleyball won.

"Basketball is still something I really love," Delano said. "But I came to Nebraska to see the volleyball team, and how do you pass this up? You come to a home game here, and you can't say no to it."

Next year, the Huskers will leave the Big 12 and move to the Big Ten, erasing any lingering arguments -- if they exist -- that the Pac-10 and Big Ten are the nation's top volleyball conferences.

Cook, familiar with the Big Ten after his years in Wisconsin, is looking forward to that new chapter for the Huskers and their fans. It means twice-yearly meetings with another middle-of-the-nation volleyball powerhouse in Penn State, the three-time defending national champion.

Cook thinks the Husker spectators, who really don't need any rejuvenation, will still get it with new Big Ten rivalries to follow. It's a fan base that connects deeply with the players whether they are Nebraska natives or not, that educates itself on the sport, and that wants every recruit to think what Delano did: How can you pass it up?

Of course, some great players certainly will, perhaps having ties to other parts of the country and/or a desire to avoid Nebraska winters. But a lot, like Delano, can't resist.

"Our volleyball players develop a strong skill set beyond volleyball," Cook said. "When they leave here, they know how to handle media, expectations, how to be in the limelight and be good role models and make good decisions. They learn how to be on center stage."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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