State of Nebraska becoming a hot spot for college volleyball players
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska's volleyball identity doesn't end with the powerful Cornhuskers.
The program Terry Pettit built into one of the sport's best is just the most visible part of a statewide volleyball culture that rivals any in the nation.
The state produces the most Division I women's players per-capita than any state besides Hawaii and is on track to have its most major-college scholarship recruits in 2013. Seven Nebraska colleges or universities were ranked this week in the top 25 in their respective divisions, with in-state players making up the bulk of the rosters.
Papillion-La Vista South, a suburban Omaha school that features three future Huskers players, was named the top high school program in the country the past two years by ESPN.com and MaxPreps.com.
Pettit is widely credited for developing border-to-border interest in the sport, not just for his work as the Huskers' coach from 1977-99 but for his grassroots efforts to educate high school and club coaches in the area.
Pettit, who won 21 conference titles and the 1995 national championship, is now a coaching mentor and leadership consultant based in Fort Collins, Colo. He still follows the volleyball scene in Nebraska and takes pride in the sport's growth the past 35 years.
He said he gets too much credit for the sport's ascent in the state. He pointed to a number of longtime high school coaches who shared his passion.
"I really do believe it was a collaborative effort," Pettit said. "It wouldn't have worked if the university was only interested in promoting volleyball in the eastern part of the state."
The 4,030-seat Nebraska Coliseum in Lincoln is, to be sure, the state's volleyball hub.
The Huskers have sold out 173 consecutive matches. Next year, the team will move into a refurbished Devaney Sports Center, which will seat more than 7,000 for volleyball. The Huskers have their own radio network and all home matches are shown on public television.
Coach John Cook said the statewide TV coverage of the Huskers and the state high school tournament has helped sustain interest.
"You go to the state tournament, and it's a big, big deal," Cook said. "All the towns come in and NET televises it. We had a kid from a small town visit. She has several other offers, and she's considering walking on here. I asked why, and she said it's every girl's dream to play at Nebraska."
Of course, Cook can't sign all of the elite in-state players.
This year, there are 69 Nebraskans on Division I rosters, according to RichKern.com, a Lincoln-based website that promotes women's volleyball. That's 40.3 players per-million population, which ranks second only to Hawaii's 56.1 players per million.
Five Nebraskans play for the Huskers, second in the Big Ten and ranked No. 4 nationally this week. Six play in Omaha for Creighton, which is three spots out of the Top 25. Eleven are playing for the upstart Division I program at Nebraska-Omaha.
In Division II, Nebraska-Kearney was No. 1 for five straight weeks earlier in the season and is now No. 4 with 12 homegrown players. Wayne State has been as high as No. 12 in Division II and is now No. 18 with 11 Nebraskans.
Four of the state's small colleges are ranked in the NAIA - No. 6 Hastings, No. 19 Doane, No. 22 Midland and No. 24 Bellevue - with all but a handful of players from the state.
Former Huskers player Christy Johnson-Lynch, who grew up in Omaha and coaches No. 22 Iowa State, regularly mines the state for players and has three Nebraskans on this year's roster. No. 16 Kansas State has three Nebraskans and No. 17 Kansas has four.
There are 20 high school seniors known to have verbally committed to signing with Division I schools in 2013. The recruiting class is highlighted by Papillion-La Vista South stars Kadie and Amber Rolfzen and Kelly Hunter, all of whom are going to Nebraska.
Schools as far away as Boston College, Central Florida and Pacific - not to mention Ohio State and Notre Dame - will sign players from the state.
Some Division I schools now pluck away players who used to be destined for Division II programs like UNK and Wayne State.
Omaha Skutt's Jessica Diederich and Omaha Marian's Lexi Elman have pledged to sign with Pacific in Stockton, Calif. Coach Greg Gibbons said recruits from Nebraska can strengthen his program as it prepares for its 2013 entry into the West Coast Conference, which has three top 25 teams this week.
"It's one of the top conferences in the country, so we're looking for the right kind of people to get on the bus for us," Gibbons said.
Gibbons said he finds that Nebraska recruits generally have a stronger work ethic than players from other parts of the country.
"We're just looking for the best student-athletes possible to get in here, whether they're from California, Arizona or the Midwest," Gibbons said. "We've made a humungous push in the Midwest and, more specifically in this next class, in Nebraska."
Volleyball has been played in varying forms in Nebraska since the early 1900s. For many years, girls' volleyball matches were warm-up acts for boys' basketball games.
The Nebraska School Activities Association sanctioned the sport in 1972. The Huskers' program started in 1975, and Pettit took over two years later. The program has produced five Olympians since 1988, including 2012 Team USA player Jordan Larson.
When Pettit conducted camps, he would hire high school coaches from around the state and set aside time to work exclusively with them on concepts and strategy.
Pettit also conducted what he called "satellite" clinics across the state. He remembered that at one clinic in the small town of Dunning, he brought along six clinicians to work with just five participants.
Interest in volleyball blossomed, and now there are more than 80 club programs in the state to go along with the high school teams. Cook and Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said the best female athletes in the state now tend to pursue volleyball over sports such as basketball and track.
So abundant is the talent that women from this state of just 1.8 million can be found playing at the highest level across the nation.
"No matter what the population is," Pacific's Gibbons said, "when you have good teachers of the game and girls who want to play the game as hard as they are in Nebraska, you're going to come up with a pretty good product."
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