Oct. 27, 2022
50 years after Title IX, this volleyball tournament is what inspiration looks like
OMAHA — For three hours on a Tuesday night in early September, an arena in Omaha had a population large enough to make it the 13th largest city in the state.
A women’s volleyball matchup between the juggernaut University of Nebraska Huskers and the Creighton University Bluejays, a hometown favorite, drew 15,797 volleyball fans to CHI Health Center Omaha arena.
Women’s volleyball is beloved in Nebraska. The Huskers have sold out every home match since 2001 and have been on the court for all but one of the 10 most packed games in women’s collegiate volleyball history. The team’s players have Instagram pages with thousands of followers. Veteran senior setter Nicklin Hames was one of the first athletes to nab an ambassadorship deal with Adidas under the NCAA’s new endorsement policy.
In Omaha on the day of the game, patrons at The Homy Inn, a dive bar that serves champagne on tap, chatted about the upcoming game over early afternoon Coors Lights and whiskey shots. A group of silver-haired coffee sippers who meet daily outside 13th Street Coffee & Tea Company — “to solve the world’s problems,” as one put it — declared that basically all of Omaha would be watching the game tonight.
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Inside the roaring arena, the two teams put on a show worthy of a record-breaking crowd. Early on, Nebraska seemed poised to sweep Creighton. But then the scrappy team crawled back. One pigtailed girl in the stands sent her soft pretzel and cheese cup flying in a fit of excitement after the Bluejays scored a vital point. An elderly woman in a wheelchair led her section in a call-and-response “Husker Power” chant. A mother passed off her crying 2-month-old to her husband so she could watch the final set distraction-free.
The Husker women ultimately did what they do best: dug deep and pulled out the win, over five thrilling sets. And when the attendance was tallied, a second competition had been won: The 5 p.m. midweek match drew the largest women’s volleyball crowd in NCAA regular-season history.
The crowd inside CHI Health Arena watches and cheers as the Nebraska Huskers score the match-winning point in the fifth set.
That new record didn’t surprise Shannon Smolinski, a club volleyball coach who refereed. Nebraska has been celebrating volleyball and these athletes for years, she said. “It’s a real model for aspiring young girls across the state and nation.”
Although the influence of Nebraska volleyball is enduring, its attendance record didn’t stand for long. Less than two weeks later, 16,833 women’s volleyball fans showed up at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., to see the University of Florida upset the University of Wisconsin.
Learning the news, a University of Nebraska athletics official declared: “Oh, it’s on now.”
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