University of Nebraska-Lincoln
If you can see it, you can be it: How volleyball in Nebraska created a cycle of greatness
By Abby Barmore
Thirteen-year-old Lindsay Krause stood in awe of thousands of Nebraska fans and the incredible athletes on the court in front of her.
Around her, the sea of red roared to its feet clapping in unison as Nebraska’s band launched into its fight song. The sold-out crowd in the Bob Devaney Sports Center encouraged the No. 3 Huskers. They gathered in a timeout, determination sketched on their faces and ‘Nebraska’ scrolled in cursive on their chests. Huskers Head Coach John Cook plotted to stage a comeback against No. 16 Wisconsin in the fourth set.
The crowd remained on its feet as the serve flew over the net, dug by libero and future Olympic gold medalist, Justine Wong-Orantes. Krause watched Kelly Hunter set Alicia Ostrander behind her on the right pin. Ostrander crushed the ball with such force it bounced in bounds and launched into the stands.
More than 8,500 fans erupted as two native Nebraskans helped boost the 2015 Huskers to a 22-20 deficit against the Badgers. While the Huskers would go on to lose this set and match, they would eventually fight their way to the 2015 National Championship.
Krause, a Papillion native, always knew Nebraska was good at volleyball but after that moment, she knew she wanted to play volleyball for the Huskers one day.
“It had never really dawned on me how big of a state we were in, how much of a tradition it was at this university,” said the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2020 class, according to PrepVolleyball.com.
Nebraska offered Krause a scholarship in the summer before her 2017 freshman season at Omaha Skutt where she would win four consecutive Class B state titles.
Krause said she thought, “Why would I want to go anywhere else? This is my dream.”
Just like Krause, countless young Nebraskan females dream of becoming Huskers volleyball players because they see women, just like them, dominating on the court.
“When you see people do it, it seems all the more possible for you to do it,” Krause said. “There’s a lot of things that seem like they’re impossible to do. But as soon as you see other women that are like my age do it, it seems all the more possible.”
Currently, Krause is one of five Nebraskans on the Huskers volleyball team, along with freshmen Whitney Lauenstein from Waverly, Rylee Gray from Elkhorn and sophomores Anni Evans from Waverly and Kalynn Meyer from Superior.
Since 1995, when the Huskers won its first national championship, the sport became a “state treasure,” Cook said recently.
Native Nebraskans’ presence on successful volleyball teams doesn’t stop with the Huskers. Creighton, another top-ranked Division I volleyball team in the state, has five Nebraskans on its roster and both its Head Coach, Kirsten Bernthal Booth, and Assistant Coach, Angie Oxley Behrens, are Nebraskan.
Because young girls are seeing successful volleyball at every level, Bernthal Booth, who has coached the Bluejays for 19 years, said the sport is growing.
“Volleyball is the most popular sport for young girls in our state,” Bernthal Booth said. “(My kids’) friends are picking volleyball because at every corner, they’re seeing great volleyball from the high school to the college.”
Female role models in society
If you can see it, you can be it.
Having someone who looks like you, by gender, by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or social class can have a “tremendous impact,” said Helen A. Moore, Ph.D., a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor emerita.
“It’s harder when you can’t see a woman or a woman of the same race or ethnicity or even the same age doing the kinds of work that you think you would like to do, whether it’s on the court, on the field, in an office or working in the athletic industry,” said Moore, who has owned Huskers volleyball season tickets for over 20 years.
Females in Nebraska are exposed to volleyball across the state at their high schools, in their communities and on TV.
“If you’re from a small town in Nebraska, and you see somebody who’s also from a small town in the Midwest, and they’re doing something extraordinary, you might think, ‘Wow, I didn’t know people from my town could do that.’ So, it opens up a possible future self,” said UNL sociology professor, Julia McQuillan, Ph.D.
With this exposure comes a higher likelihood that people will have volleyball players as role models. These role models matter, McQuillan said, because if females only see men in leadership positions, their brains might automatically only associate males with leadership.
“One way to change that is to mix up the characteristics of people in those positions,” McQuillan added, “So, having what we’d call “counterstereotypical role models” can be really important for changing our default assumptions about who can do what.”
As role models, volleyball players and female athletes can create counterstereotypes by displaying strength, athleticism and other powerful traits that counter the female stereotype of being fragile or weak.
These counterstereotypes can be productive, Moore said, if the role models are relatable and viewed as humans — not larger-than-life figures.
“If you make the individual athletes either so far removed from the everyday that nobody can be like that, or you force women athletes to abide by some other sets of stereotypes, it’s very hard for those counterstereotypes to be authentic,” Moore said.
Yet, seeing volleyball players isn’t going to make every girl in Nebraska run outside, grab a volleyball and work to become the next Jordan Larson.
“In Nebraska, you’re going to be exposed to certain things,” Moore said. “Can Jordan Larson come from Hooper, Nebraska, and be one of the greatest players internationally? Yes. But not every little girl is going to see that the same way.”
What happens when people can’t see similar people doing what they aspire to do? Moore said they tend to become discouraged from their dreams.
“If you can’t see yourself, and if other people can’t see you in that role, you’re much more likely to be discouraged,” Moore said. “We tend to have lowered expectations from people when we don’t see other people like them being successful.”
These lower expectations, Moore said, can come in the form of a teacher not devoting as much time to that student or parents not providing the emotional or financial support necessary to help their child reach their dreams.
“Maybe not every kid would want to be a Huskers volleyball player,” McQuillan said. “But, I think the better message would be, ‘If you really want to go after something, it’s probably going to take work.’”
Nebraska’s volleyball history
Before volleyball talent exploded across Nebraska, the Huskers were the only in-state ranked volleyball program in the state. Now, it’s a hotbed for volleyball talent at every level.
Here is a list of the 10 top-performing Nebraska colleges, four high schools and three clubs:
Nebraska — No. 10 in AVCA Coaches Poll
Creighton — No. 20 in AVCA Coaches Poll, Big East Champions
Omaha — Summit League Conference Champions
Division II (AVCA Coaches Poll)
Nebraska-Kearney — No. 12, No. 6 in Central Region
Wayne State — No. 8
NAIA (NAIA Coaches Poll Top 25)
College of Saint Mary — No. 5
Midland — No. 9
Bellevue — No. 11
Concordia — No. 19
NJCAA (Junior College Coaches Poll)
Western Nebraska Community College — No. 18
High School (AVCA rankings)
Papillion-LaVista South High School — No. 7 in AVCA Coaches National Super 25, Nebraska Class A State Champion (40-0)
Millard West High School — No. 3 in region
Omaha Skutt High School – No. 6 in region
Norris High School – No. 10 in region
Clubs with nationally-ranked teams
Former Huskers Head Coach Terry Pettit can be credited with beginning the volleyball movement in Nebraska, coaching the Huskers from 1977 to 1999 to a 1995 National Championship, 21 conference titles and six NCAA Semifinal appearances.
In 1972, with the passing of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded educational institutions, Pettit said everything changed and not just in sports. But sports provided one of the most visible stages.
Bernthal Booth took over at Creighton in 2003 and is the program’s winningest coach with a 383-175 record, leading the Bluejays to seven straight Big East tournament championships and in AVCA’s top 25 for nine of the last 10 seasons.
Bernthal Booth, who graduated from Lincoln East High School in the 1990s, said the Huskers were the only major program in the state, so teams like Kansas State and Missouri, both top 20 programs at the time, recruited many Nebraskans.
Meanwhile, Omaha and Creighton developed and other schools started winning, more Nebraskans started staying in-state, she said.
“I’m not saying we still don’t lose some, but our goal is that we keep them here in Nebraska,” Bernthal Booth said. “Creighton wants to keep them, I know Matt (Buttermore) at UNO wants to keep them and then obviously there are so many other Division II and NAIA schools (in Nebraska).”
With a spike in successful Nebraska volleyball teams in the last decade, Cook said there has always been talent in Nebraska. He had four native Nebraskan starters on his undefeated 2000 team.
“I think the best athletes in this state want to play volleyball because they’ve seen it,” Cook said.
Volleyball programs like Creighton and the University of Nebraska Omaha are blossoming, too.
In 2021, seven Nebraskans earned a spot on PrepVolleyball.com’s Top 150 prospects. Three, including No. 2-ranked Krause, are now Huskers. No. 28-ranked Norah Sis is a starting outside hitter for Creighton as a freshman and the Big East Freshman of the Year. Three others went to Division I programs — Arizona State, USC and Iowa State. Phyona Schrader, now at Notre Dame, traveled from Ankeny, Iowa to join the Premier Nebraska club.
Seven Nebraskans are also in 2022’s Top 150 and four are on 2024’s watchlist. In addition to the Top 150, eleven of UNO’s 15 players are Nebraskan.
Of Nebraska’s top-ranked Division II teams (Wayne State and Nebraska-Kearney) and its four ranked NAIA schools (Midland, Bellevue, College of Saint Mary and Concordia), 109 of 145 players on all combined rosters are Nebraskan.
“What makes Nebraska so special is the fact that we produce so many high-quality players,” Bernthal Booth said. “The other thing is, we have such good fan support in the state. There are other places that are also volleyball strongholds, but Nebraska is definitely in that top group.”
Seeing female role models in sports
Children are most impressionable in adolescence, which begins roughly at age 12. The Nebraskans on this year’s Huskers volleyball team were 13 or 14 years old in 2015 and grew up watching one of the most dominant eras in history. Cook won two National Championships (2015 and 2017) within a three-year span and took his team to four consecutive Final Four matches.
Seven players on the 2015 National Championship team would be named All-Americans: sisters Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, Justine Wong-Orantes, Kelly Hunter, Annika Albrecht, Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke.
Six would go on to win another national title in 2017.
Not only did Krause grow up watching championship volleyball players, but every single person she looked up to was female. Role models like former Huskers outside hitter and Olympic gold medalist, Kelsey Robinson, two-time Huskers national champion, Mikaela Foecke and Minnesota’s Hannah and Paige Tapp, who both played on Team USA.
“It’s super important to have women that you can look up to, especially in a skill or maybe a profession that you want to accomplish in your life,” Krause said.
She looked to them because they were “exemplary” players, and they were good people.
“I need to look at these women in powerful positions, doing what they can and they’re rocking the game,” she said. “And Jordan Larson, obviously, but she doesn’t even seem like she needs to be named.”
Larson, a Nebraska player from 2005 to 2008, led the Huskers to its 2006 National Championship, was named the 2008 Big Ten Player of the Year and a two-time First-Team AVCA All-American. Her jersey was retired in 2017, and she was inducted into the Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame in 2020.
Now, the 6-foot-2 outside hitter plays professional volleyball in Shanghai, China, has three Olympic medals, including USA’s first gold in indoor volleyball in 2020, and an estimated net worth of over $1 million.
As a young girl growing up in Hooper, a town of less than a thousand residents, Larson said Michael Jordan was her role model.
“I think to have female athletes in a place where (young girls) can actually see tangibly is really important,” Larson said. “I think we’re starting to make some headway in that, but I think there’s still a long way to go.”
Getting females to play sports isn’t the only goal, Pettit said.
“You want them to inspire to do whatever they want,” he said. “It isn’t just inspiring them to be volleyball players, you want to inspire them to take risks.”
Literally seeing it
Huskers volleyball is one of the most televised Division I volleyball teams in the country. In the 2021 regular season, 20 of 30 matches were televised. Nebraskans watch more volleyball on TV than any other college volleyball program.
“What really changed was when we started televising matches on any team in the state,” Cook said. “That gave a lot of girls like the Jordan Larsons, Lindsay Krauses to the Kelly Hunters, Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, just a great visual of examples and role models for them to aspire to be.”
They also watch volleyball in-person more than any other state and lead the country in attendance for seven consecutive years, according to NCAA’s attendance records. In 2019, the Huskers averaged 8,186 people per set with 155,531 attendees across 19 matches. The Bob Devaney Sports Center, with 7,907 seats and 300 standing room only, has sold out every volleyball match since 2001.
Huskers volleyball also holds the attendance record for a single match with 18,516 during the 2017 NCAA Finals against Florida in Kansas City, Mo.
The attendance records don’t stop there.
Creighton Volleyball ranked No. 22 in Division I volleyball attendance with 15,615 attending 13 matches in 2019 and an average of 1,970 per match, leading the Big East Conference. Marquette is No. 2 in the conference with an average of 1,050.
In Division II, Nebraska-Kearney recorded the most attendance in 2019 with 21,986 total tickets in 23 matches, averaging 956 people per game. UNK has led Division II schools 15 times, including a 10-year streak from 2001 to 2010. The Lopers hold five of the six single-game Division II attendance records.
Wayne State College was sixth in attendance in 2019 (5,458) with an average of 682 fans per game.
Because Huskers volleyball’s home matches are always sold out, Cook and his Huskers play the spring game in different towns across the state to share Nebraska volleyball. It’s a huge deal, he said, for the girls in the state to have role models and see high-level volleyball often.
“We get in trouble because there are not enough tickets because we’re playing in a smaller gym,” he added. “But again, I think this helps build the statement about Nebraska being a state treasure that we share it with everywhere in the state and not just in Lincoln.”
The Huskers and Creighton try to play each other once or every other season. In Omaha, the teams play in the CHI Health Center, which seats 17,500. At a press conference days before the 2021 match, Cook called the Nebraska-Creighton game “a celebration” and “the heartbeat of volleyball in this country.”
No. 3 Nebraska swept the No. 22-ranked Bluejays in front of 11,279 fans, the 10th-largest regular-season volleyball crowd in NCAA history.
“It just makes me proud to be a part of Nebraska Volleyball in this state from YMCA all the way up to Division I colleges,” Cook said at the press conference.
At club and high school levels
Volleyball is the No. 1 team sport for high schoolers in Nebraska and the US. Over 450,000 females in high school participate in volleyball nationwide. In Nebraska, 6,600 girls in 300 schools play volleyball, according to a 2018-19 National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) survey.
Twenty percent of Nebraska’s female athletes play volleyball, according to the survey, with 23 percent participating in track and field and 18 percent playing basketball.
The programs across the state are growing at both ends, Pettit said.
“It has to happen at the university end to motivate younger people,” he added. “But the real key is having people in junior high and high school that are working hard on it, and we’ve been fortunate to always have that.”
Many successful high school volleyball coaches in Nebraska played at a high level, too.
“It’s a trickle-down of how many youths play at the college level,” Bernthal Booth said. “If we can keep a small subsection of those guys coaching high school, coaching club, we’re growing the sport.”
Omaha Skutt Head Coach Renee Saunders recently won her seventh consecutive Nebraska Class B State Championship and was named AVCA’s co-national volleyball coach of the year. After setting several basketball and volleyball records at Marian High School in Omaha, Saunders played both sports at UNL in the late ‘90s.
Terri Neujahr, formerly Killion, head coach at Waverly High School, will have three alumna on the Huskers volleyball team in 2022. She coached at Nebraska from 1988 to 1989 before Cook took over as an assistant coach in ’89.
Elkhorn South Head Coach Chelsea Potter was named the Storm’s head coach in 2019 after playing volleyball at Hastings College. She led Elkhorn South to a Class A State Championship in 2020 with current Husker Rylee Gray at middle blocker.
The list of successful high school volleyball head coaches who played college volleyball in Nebraska goes on and on.
“One of the reasons we have such good players is we have such phenomenal coaches,” said Bernthal Booth, whose daughter, Reese Booth, is the starting setter for Elkhorn North. “You go to small-town Nebraska, and you’ve got coaches that know the game. That is not always the case in a lot of places.”
Bernthal Booth said club programs, too, have grown tremendously since she played volleyball in high school.
“They’re starting much, much younger than my generation did,” she said. “The quantity of kids playing, I have to guess, has increased and the intensity at which they are playing has increased, which leads to higher level volleyball.”
Cook agreed the biggest growth he has seen is the expansion of club programs.
Premier Nebraska, one of the state’s most successful clubs, has several nationally-ranked club teams.
The 18 Gold team, ranked No. 3 in 2021 by PrepVolleyball.com, had Krause and Sis as a few of its stars. Ostrander is one of the coaches for the 18 Gold team.
One of the most prominent Nebraskan head coaches is Dani Busboom Kelly, a UNL setter and libero from 2003 to 2006 and an assistant coach from 2012 to 2016. Busboom Kelly, now the head coach of Louisville, the No. 1 seed in the 2021 NCAA tournament, was named the 2020 and 2021 ACC Coach of the Year.
Former Huskers assistant coach and Huskers volleyball’s first AVCA All-American, Cathy Noth’s Train Like an Olympian business offers private lessons, training and camps in Madison, Wis.
Noth said her volleyball role models were Mary Jo Peppler, an Olympic volleyball player in the ‘60s, who also played in the Women’s Professional Basketball League, and Karch Kiraly, a former American volleyball player, coach and broadcast announcer.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Noth’s major volleyball role models were two national figures, and one of them was a male.
Now, young Nebraskans and girls everywhere see an endless supply of in-state examples.
“They’re in their home, they’re watching them and they’re a Nebraska girl and there’s a small-town Nebraska girl playing. It’s like, ‘Wow, I can be that,’” Noth said.
Nineteen-year-old Krause is now setting her own example for 13-year-old girls in the stands to work hard and dream big.
“It’s making them want to play volleyball all the more,” Krause said. “It pushes everybody further to be the best they can be.”
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