For girls growing up in Nebraska, volleyball isn’t just a sport. It’s a lifestyle.
Tonight at Hearnes Center, 14 girls from the state of Nebraska will display their lifestyle when No. 7 Missouri faces No. 1 Nebraska. Each team has seven players from Nebraska and all of those girls, at one point, played for the Nebraska Juniors club team.
Nebraska is known for its volleyball programs. Most girls start playing around seventh grade.
“It’s the only thing to do in Nebraska,” said Tatum Ailes, who is from Bellevue, Neb. “You are raised to love Nebraska football and raised to love volleyball. You grow up watching (the Nebraska volleyball team) and wanting to be like all of them.”
All of the players on MU said that they followed the Cornhuskers’ volleyball team growing up.
“Basically in Nebraska there aren’t any pro teams, so everyone rallies around the college sports,” said Lindsey Hunter, who is from Papillion, Neb. “Nebraska has been such an elite team for so long that they have really loyal fans and they are a good team.”
Gwen Egbert has coached most of the players on both MU’s and Nebraska’s roster for Nebraska Juniors. She said that former Nebraska coach Terry Pettit is responsible for making volleyball the sport to play in the state.
“He got things started by getting good players, getting fans interested, and getting us in the top 15,” Egbert said. “It got more popular and we got better, then it kind of spread.”
Egbert played for coach Pettit at Nebraska. In Pettit’s 23 years as coach, the Cornhuskers won 21 conference championships, a national championship, two second place finishes in the NCAA tournament and three other Final Four appearances.
Egbert said the Cornhuskers’ program made volleyball what it is in Nebraska and is the reason for the size of girls in the state.
“They host high school coaches clinic, and do a lot to promote instruction,” Egbert said. “Nebraska produces big athletes. They are all big, physical, kids in the state.”
Hunter thinks that the difference between volleyball in Missouri and Nebraska is when players start.
“There aren’t any teams that little kids can play on here,” Hunter said. “We are starting to get elementary leagues going, but there really isn’t anything else. I was on a competitive club team when I was 11 years old.”
The age that MU players started volleyball ranges from six to when they were in seventh grade.
The Tigers are 0-5 all-time against No. 1 teams. The highest-ranked team that they defeated was No. 8 Nebraska on Oct. 8, 2003. Despite those statistics, the team is still hopeful for tonight’s game.
“We have nothing to lose,” said Amanda Hantouli, who is from Omaha, Neb. “We’re technically supposed to lose because we are lower than them.”
MU coach Wayne Kreklow also believes all the pressure is on the Cornhuskers.
“My honest opinion is, if the situation was reversed, I would be feeling a lot of pressure,” Kreklow said. “Coming in as No. 1, you are playing on the road and there are some high expectations surrounding that team. There are a lot of people who expect them to win a national championship this year, so I would think there would be a lot of pressure on that end.”
MU athletic director Mike Alden said he expects a record crowd of 5,000 for the match. The attendance record is currently 2,683.
Large crowds are nothing new for Nebraska though. The team is ranked second in the nation with an average crowd of 4,681 this season.
“We always hear about what a great crowds Nebraska has and that they have the best environment in the nation,” Kreklow said. “What I’d like to do is have them come in here and look around the Hearnes Center and say ‘Wow we aren’t the only ones who can do this.’”
For Ailes, a win against Nebraska would be huge.
“It would mean a lot,” Ailes said. “I’m trying not to get worked up about it. I’m just trying to think of it as another game, but of course in the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘Wow we are going to have 5,000 to 6,000 in attendance, the No. 1 versus No. 7. We have nothing to lose.”
Although Egbert has coached six of the MU players from Nebraska she is still going to cheer for the Huskers.
“I usually cheer for NU, but I always want the girls that I coached to do well,” Egbert said. “It’s hard because I coached girls on both teams.”
Both of Hunter’s parents, like Egbert, played a sport for the Cornhuskers, but Hunter said that their loyalty is with their daughter.
“My parents are loyal Tiger fans now,” Hunter said. “They are Mizzou all the way.”