‘Gym Rat’ Seniors Pause for Thanks, Prepare for Home Stretch, Then Life
Seniors Kayla Banwarth, Tara Mueller, Sydney Anderson and Lindsey Licht were honored Wednesday.
Photo Courtesy Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications
Courtesy: NU Athletic Communications
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Randy York's N-Sider 

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Take a quick look at Nebraska's four volleyball seniors - Sydney Anderson from Salt Lake City; Kayla Banwarth from Dubuque, Iowa; Lindsey Licht from Aurora, Colo.; and Tara Mueller from Scottsdale, Ariz.

If you didn't know better, you'd think each just won the lottery instead of their 112th career match. But those animated expressions are an almost daily portrait in the mind of their head coach, John Cook, who couldn't stop chuckling earlier this week when he was describing what drives four highly energetic young women, all of whom, he believes, are certifiable "gym rats".

Anderson, Banworth, Licht and Mueller - all three-year starters - were introduced in alphabetical order following Wednesday's Senior Night sweep of Baylor, and another appreciative sellout crowd stayed to stand up and cheer all four seniors following their final regular-season match in NU's historic Coliseum.

The tribute from P.A. Announcer Steve Johnson became an emotional curtain call for four seniors who walked with their parents to mid-court. The non-stop applause continued as they hugged every coach and teammate. Each even got a hug from Tom Osborne.

Nebraska's athletic director had the privilege to help honor a senior class that won its third Big 12 Championship in four years, and this one is as special as any because it will be the last Big 12 volleyball trophy Nebraska will ever put in a crowded glass case.

Yes, the nation's fifth-ranked volleyball team already has done what Nebraska fans only hope the football team will duplicate - win a championship on the way out the Big 12 door before officially joining the Big Ten Conference next summer.

Huskers Eye A&M and NCAA Tournament

Make no mistake, though. This celebration was for fans every bit as much as it was for seniors. Tears and emotion were appropriate, but no one will breathe easy until the Huskers beat Texas A&M Saturday in College Station and know that they won't have to share the trophy with anyone else.

Big Eight and Big 12 championship banners fly everywhere in the Coliseum, but this team has its eyes on a bigger prize. Since visiting China last spring, the seniors - and everyone else - want to follow one amazing experience with another. Only two other Nebraska teams have competed in Asia, and both ended up winning national championships.

The first happened in 2000, the second in 2006. Now, the 2010 Huskers want to follow suit and use China as the catalyst to achieve the ultimate team dream.

"China taught us that it's okay to get out of your comfort zone," Anderson said. "It's okay to let go and ask people who are around you and care about you for help."

Banwarth, Nebraska's all-time leader in digs, can dig the same philosophy, especially after a match-high 24 digs against Baylor. "China taught us all that it's okay to be vulnerable," she said. "When you don't have phones and just have each other, it brings you together."

Whoever Nebraska plays in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament next weekend in Lincoln will require the Huskers to come together and compete with one heart. "It's time," Licht said, "to lean on each other."

Being Comfortable When You're Uncomfortable

Mueller, who had a match-high 12 kills against Baylor, is ready to take the lessons learned in China and apply them to this all-out, unrelenting stretch drive. "The biggest thing we learned in China," she said, "was how to be comfortable when you're uncomfortable."

Can anyone think of a better way to describe a pressure-packed NCAA Tournament?

"The coolest thing I can remember," Mueller said, "was that team, that moment and that feeling when we came back to beat Washington in Seattle two years ago. Everyone supported each other. Everyone played with each other. Everyone came together at the right time."

The next step beyond that comeback at Washington came close to an escalator ride to the top of the Empire State Building. Only the elevator stopped one floor too early. "My favorite memory was Penn State in the national semifinals ... the crowd, the players, everything clicking at the same time," Banwarth said before stopping short.

Yes, Nebraska took the record-breaking Nittany Lions - the team many call the best in NCAA history - to the wire before coming up short in set five.

That experience helped Nebraska's Fab Four seniors enjoy the journey over the past three years, but this time, they don't want the music to stop until they have national championship medals draped around their necks at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

Confident Seniors Need to 'Show Us the Way'

John Cook would be the last man on earth to guard against such a thought. These seniors, he said, have been real close to winning it all.

"That's why we've talked about how our seniors have to show us the way," he said. "They've been there. They know what it takes. They know how to win in the NCAA Tournament. They've done a great job of putting our team in that position, and they should have every reason to feel confident that they're going to play great down the stretch."

Cook said his seniors have grown and can take on the leadership required to make such a run.

Mueller, in particular, seemed to have extra pop on almost every kill Wednesday night, and she was equally impressive defensively with 11 digs.

"We lost in the regional final last year and didn't make it to the final four," she said. "It's been in our minds for a long time. It's cool that we're getting to the point where we finish the conference and go out there and work on our most important goal."

According to Mueller, it's time to package the hard work and the season-long dedication into a "selfless" pursuit of perfection, so the Huskers can "give everything we have to our program and our teammates."

Celebrating Thanksgiving in a Rented Farmhouse

But first, Mueller will pause and celebrate Thanksgiving with 14 members of her family, including cousins who had never seen her play live in Lincoln. "My entire family came here for Thanksgiving, so my parents rented a farmhouse outside of Lincoln," she said.

After the Big 12 curtain is pulled one last time Saturday at A&M, the Huskers will gather Sunday to hear the road they must navigate to reach Kansas City.

Then, ladies and gentlemen, by no later than Dec. 18, four talented Nebraska seniors will prepare for life after being Cornhuskers.

"It's hard to believe how fast it's gone and how quickly it'll all be over," Anderson said, fighting back a tear. "You never want something like this to end, so talking about it is good."

Thanksgiving is the only time available to reflect on what's ahead in the next few weeks, let alone what comes right after that.

Cook, of course, enjoys describing the future of four seniors who are so devoted to volleyball that he almost has to kick them out of the gym.

Anderson and Banwarth, for example, have their sights set on trying to make the USA National Team. If they don't, both want to play professionally overseas and, perhaps, coach volleyball.

All She's Ever Wanted is to Play Beach Volleyball

Since age 13, all Mueller has ever wanted to do is play beach volleyball, and Cook, a former beach volleyball player himself, sees her succeeding in that endeavor.

Licht has endured the most to get where she is now. "When I had double surgery to fix my left foot and my left elbow, I learned I can persevere through anything," she said. "Even before we went to China, I learned I can't be independent. I can depend on others. I can reach out to them for help."

Licht said she will use Thursday to be thankful for her health, family, team and friends. But unlike the other three Husker seniors, she's not as focused on volleyball remaining an integral part of her life.

"I'll keep things open and sign an overseas contract if it works," she said before delivering nine kills Wednesday night, including set point in the second and third sets. "If that doesn't work out, I'll start my teaching career in elementary education and maybe even coach club volleyball."

Banwarth said if she ever coaches, it would have to be at the Division I level. "I've grown up here," she said. "I've learned you have to do what you say you're going to do. You have to be trustworthy and responsible. When you stay on task, you feel better about yourself. I wasn't always like that. My parents and my coaches helped me grow through my mistakes."

Anderson will be the first among the seniors to move on. Because she graduates in December, she'll be packing her bags about the same time she intends to be pursuing a national title.

Anderson's Tears for Her Teammates, Not Herself

"It's amazing how tight-knit this community is," Anderson said. "There is so much support for this whole university. I'll never forget the personal relationships, the people I've met, the teammates I've had."

Anderson and Banwarth not only have shared a house, but a singular focus to get to Kansas City one match at a time.

"I have a really hard time sharing my true emotions," Anderson admitted. "I like to feel like I'm always strong. But these girls, this team and these last few games ... there's really a lot of meaning to everything we do from here on out. Playing my last conference game in the Coliseum is emotional. The tears aren't for me. They're for the girls I play with. When I leave, I'll be leaving my best friends."

Anderson's goal in this stretch drive is simple, yet complex. "We just want to make sure," she said, "that the last time we play together is memorable."

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