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The record crowds are gone, and the lights are off. Penn State left Omaha with another national volleyball championship and a trophy that surely had to be a prime carry-on for the return trip to State College, Pa.
Twenty-six years ago, Tom Osborne flew back to Lincoln from Penn State after the Nittany Lions won a controversial 27-24 decision over the Huskers in football – the only blemish on Nebraska’s 12-1 season in 1982.
Like the Huskers’ spirited five-set loss to Penn State in the NCAA volleyball semifinals, the ‘82 football game was also nationally televised. That meant you could see the emotion of the coaches and the players and how their reactions triggered the raw nerves of everyone who watched that fateful September afternoon.
Bottom line, Osborne knows what a close call feels like in pursuit of a national championship, and here’s his 12-word summation of Nebraska’s heroic volleyball performance last Thursday:
“I was as proud of them as if they would have won,” Nebraska’s athletic director said. “I think every Nebraskan was just as proud of their skill and their effort as I was.”
So often when people think of athletics, they evaluate performance on the final score. “The key thing is how you played and how close you came to your full potential,” Osborne said, “and I think this volleyball team came to realize their full potential as well as any team I’ve ever seen.”
Erstad Calls Match ‘Best Single Husker Sporting Event’
Darin Erstad is in Osborne’s camp on that observation. “That was the best single Husker sporting event I’ve ever been to,” said the ex-Husker who was the punter on Osborne’s first national championship team in 1994 and has been a .284 career hitter in 13 pro baseball seasons since.
“Driving up in an ice storm and seeing a sellout crowd – the biggest in NCAA history – get into it like we did battling back against the best women’s team in college volleyball history . . . those are the types of moments that make you proud to be a Husker,” Erstad said. “The coaches were intense. The players were intense, and the fans were intense. All season long, every team but Nebraska folded after getting down, 2-0, against Penn State. We not only came back, but took it to ‘em. Considering everything this team has been through, I don’t know how anyone could have been prouder of that performance. It went beyond winning and losing.”
The 17,430 fans fortunate enough to be inside the Qwest Center weren’t the only ones living and dying on every point. “Watching that match on TV was worse than watching some of those classic Nebraska-Oklahoma football games,” said “Larry the Cable Guy”, a Nebraska football suite owner who has become a passionate Husker volleyball fan. “That was insane. I was pacing so hard, I kept telling myself I couldn’t watch it, so I’d turn the channel. Two minutes later, I’d be back watching again. When things didn’t go right, I felt like I was jinxing Nebraska, so I’d change the channel yet again.”
It was great theatre, even when you’re pulling for the team that lost.
“Penn State’s women have been the big dogs on the block all year long,” Larry the Cable Guy said. “It was fun watching them react after the third set and especially after the fourth set. When we got up, 10-8, in the fifth, I had to leave the TV on. By then, I knew this team was a Nebraska legend, win or lose. What they did against that great Penn State team was remarkable . . . unbelievable even. As soon as that semifinal match was over, I knew Penn State would sweep Stanford in the championship, and their only setbacks all year would be losing those two sets to us.”
Nebraska’s season-long climb to that kind of respectability wasn’t easy. “They started out the season with a fair amount of inexperience,” Osborne said, pointing out that three “great players” had graduated – Sarah Pavan, Christina Houghtelling and Tracy Stalls.
“Of course, then they had injuries to Kori Cooper and Brooke Delano,” Osborne said. “So what they did against Penn State really epitomizes what they’re all about. I was really proud of their effort and tenacity. I was proud of the way they played together and pulled together. When you’re down two sets to the best team in the country – and maybe the best team to ever play volleyball, according to the experts – it was remarkable to come back and almost win it.
Team Chemistry Every Bit as Important as Talent
“In athletics, the way people interact, and the way they pull for each other is as important as talent on a team,” Osborne said. “This volleyball team is a real testimony to chemistry. The coaches, from John Cook to all his assistants and staff, did a great job. Coming back and taking Penn State to the wall was a great accomplishment. They showed that they belonged at the very top level of volleyball in the country this year. Overall, it was a great season.”
Nebraska’s season included pivotal wins over Big 12 co-champion Texas and national runner-up Stanford.
Osborne attended almost every home volleyball match of the season, including one where he had no choice but to wear a tuxedo as he balanced Senior Night with another important in-town event. “I’m no expert in volleyball, but I thought our defense was exceptional all year,” he said. “Over the past few years, we’ve been a great attacking and hitting team, so we could just outscore people. This year, I thought both sides of the ball played big, and our biggest improvement through the year was defensively.”
Nebraska’s athletic director was particularly impressed that Nebraska “dominated” the third set, 25-15. “That was the first time all season Penn State had lost a set, and then we turned around and won the fourth set as well,” he pointed out. “That gave us a lot of momentum, and when we got up, 10-8, in the fifth set, we were in position to win. In a 15-point set, though, there isn’t much margin for error, and we had three or four problems in a short time period that turned things around. Still, I thought our effort was magnificent. We played well enough that Penn State could have been beaten.”
Through the years, Osborne has seen enough consistency to consider volleyball a statewide treasure – a program that always has high expectations and strives constantly to meet those expectations.
Nebraska, after all, has produced three NCAA titles, three NCAA runner-up finishes and 30 conference titles. The Huskers rank second in NCAA history with 1,062 wins and lead the nation with 65 All-Americans honored by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Nebraska also has four AVCA National Players of the Year and a nation-leading 35 CoSIDA Academic All-Americans. Throw in four NCAA Top Eight Award winners and 120 consecutive sellout crowds at home, and the result is an unparalleled model of consistency and excellence.
“Over the years, the majority of players on the volleyball team have been Nebraskans, and, of course, we’ve had some great players from out-of-state as well,” Osborne said. “I believe you build a foundation when you have excellence over a long period of time. Going back to the 1980s, even the late ‘70s, Nebraska has been consistently excellent in volleyball.”
Little Huskers Grow Up With Big Volleyball Dreams
Not surprisingly, “We’ve developed a group of fans in the state who are very knowledgeable and very loyal,” Osborne said. “John Cook and others have come to realize that girls at age 5, 6 or 7 start dreaming about playing volleyball for Nebraska. That’s not necessarily true in other states. It’s obvious how hard Nebraska has worked to build a tremendous program and a great fan base, and it’s very gratifying to see the kind of effort we gave in the NCAA Tournament.”
Satisfaction is hard to measure, especially when a season ends with a loss like the two that spoiled unbeaten Osborne-coached seasons – Miami’s 31-30 win over the Huskers in the ‘84 Orange Bowl and Florida State’s 18-16 triumph over Nebraska in another Orange Bowl 10 years later.
“I felt like if we played those two teams over and over again, we wouldn’t win every time, but we’d win our share, and maybe more,” Osborne said. “In athletics, there are always random factors you can’t control, such as an official’s call, an injury or the way the ball bounces. So I always tried to take satisfaction from a team that I thought was playing at top level and had a good chance to beat any team in the country. If we did that, I considered the season successful, and that certainly would be true of this volleyball team.”
Erstad agrees. “My wife and I were like thousands of Nebraska fans that night,” he said. “We saw some heartbreak and some tears, but we also saw a team that knew it had given everything it had to give. By the time we scraped the ice off the car and got back to Lincoln, it was 2:30 in the morning, and you know what? None of that mattered because we enjoyed talking about a team that had just stolen our hearts. Even with the loss, we really did go to bed proud to be a Husker.”
It’s been a theme often repeated to Cook since last week. One high-profile Omaha radio personality, who used to “dis” Nebraska volleyball, wrote Cook a personal note and said he had “never been more proud to be a Nebraskan than I was Thursday night.”
Coaches, including Nebraska Women’s Gymnastics Head Coach Dan Kendig, came into Cook’s office Monday, asking him for the secret to this year’s success. Other coaches, including Nebraska Head Football Coach Bo Pelini, used text messaging to congratulate the effort.
Three Seniors’ Leadership Held It All Together
“There are no secrets in coaching,” Cook said. “I’ve never had more fun coaching a team. I think it was because of the dynamic of three seniors (Jordan Larson, Amanda Gates and Rachel Schwartz). They’re all Nebraska kids and showed the leadership it takes to hold it all together to overcome injuries and the off-the-court stuff. They deserve the credit.”
Cook said he’s heard from fans from all over – “people who aren’t even sports fans and some who don’t follow Nebraska. They were moved by the effort we showed against Penn State. For whatever reason, everything lined up, and our team certainly performed to a very high level.
“It was a great stage for volleyball, and Nebraska was a part of it,” Cook said. “I think if I had to narrow it all down to one statement, it would be that people were just very proud to be a Husker because it was a great stage, and not just for our team, but for the sport of volleyball, for the state of Nebraska, for Omaha, for college sports.”
No, Nebraska did not win, but Cook agrees with his athletic director. “I think it was one of the greatest sporting moments in Husker history,” he said.