Shatel: Nebraska state of volleyball bolstered by Creighton's emergence, Huskers' match at UNO – Omaha World-Herald


History dropped in to see us the other day, with a ponytail, knee pads and a mean serve.

At least I’m going to say it was history, when the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll was released and two names stood out.

Have NU and CU ever been ranked in the top 10 together in basketball, baseball or any other sports the two play?

Have two Division I schools in Nebraska been ranked in the top 10 together in any sport? (Yes, this includes NU, CU and recently UNO.)

It’s an amazing thing, this Nebraska state of volleyball, from the clubs to the high schools to the small colleges to the emergence of Creighton. What a season we have upon us.

Two teams capable of hosting a regional. Two teams capable of going to a final four. Two rosters loaded with local girls who grew up on Nebraska’s Game.

Can you imagine if they actually played each other?

This is absolutely the year when you want these two programs playing. But it won’t happen, because NU coach John Cook essentially chose to play at UNO for the first time in place of the annual match with Creighton.

“Nebraska did not have the dates,” said CU coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth. “I was disappointed we’re not playing. I get it. I’m over it.”

It is disappointing, but there are a couple of things for critics — Creighton or otherwise — to consider.

1. Creighton men’s basketball will not play UNO men’s basketball since the Mavs moved up to Division I. It’s probably more about not wanting to validate UNO in Omaha than the fear of losing.

CU coach Greg McDermott has said playing UNO doesn’t benefit Creighton, but the Jays have played teams in UNO’s league. In any case, it would benefit basketball in this region.

2. That’s something Cook recognized a long time ago.

Nebraska certainly has not ducked Creighton, which started its volleyball program in 1994.

The Huskers started playing CU in 2000, Cook’s first season as NU head coach. The year before, the Jays had finished 13-15.

“They didn’t have to play us,” says Booth, who took over the Jays’ program in 2003.

But Cook insisted. The more volleyball in Nebraska, the better.

“One thing (Terry) Pettit instilled in me is part of my responsibility as head coach at Nebraska was to continue to develop volleyball in the state,” Cook said.

“We weren’t worried about RPI. We play in such a hard, tough conference. I felt like this was a way to continue to build the state.

“I’m looking at K-State, Missouri and Kansas recruiting all these Nebraska players and they’re all ranked in the top 25. I’m thinking, ‘OK, these kids want to stay in state, so let them stay in state. Creighton is another option.’

“That’s exactly what happened. Kirsten seized on it.”

Booth and her staff have worked hard to build a Big East champion and NCAA tourney regular. But it certainly didn’t hurt that Cook shined a light on the Jays once a year.

And he wasn’t worried about the program blossoming and coming after NU?

“Doesn’t even cross my mind,” Cook said, though he admitted last year’s close win over CU got the Huskers’ attention.

“That match could have gone either way,” Cook said. “After that game, I told the other coaches who were playing Creighton: Watch out.”

Cook said “it was really cool” to see Creighton ranked in the preseason top 10. He pointed to the success of state programs like Midland and Hastings and Omaha high school programs that have found their way into national rankings.

“From a state of 1.8 million people,” Cook said. “It’s awesome. It’s unbelievable. Who would have ever predicted that?”

Table for three? Next up on Cook’s agenda: UNO.

The NU coach said he’s playing at Baxter Arena to help shine the local light on Mavs volleyball. He says he wants UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts to “be excited” about volleyball. He’s been trying to sell Alberts on starting men’s volleyball.

Nebraska vs. Creighton volleyball will be back next season at the CenturyLink Center — likely before a sold-out crowd.

“I want to play on a Thursday night, showtime with Creighton,” Cook said. “Then Iowa State on Saturday night in Lincoln. Then the following year, Iowa State on Thursday, Creighton on Saturday night.

“I want to get away from playing tournaments. I’m trying to get away from playing in front of nobody, especially in-state. It doesn’t make sense for us to play in a tournament at Creighton, on Saturday morning, and nobody comes there when we could sell out CenturyLink. Selling out, that’s a $100,000 day.”

It’s amazing to think of Creighton volleyball in that equation, and all credit there goes to Booth and her staff. What a transformation. Only in Nebraska, right?

Booth grew up in Lincoln, and calls Pettit, the godfather of volleyball in the state, a mentor.

Now come the expectations. The Jays got to the elite eight last year, and return five starters, with All-America candidates in Lydia Dimke, Taryn Kloth and Jaali Winters. It’s a seasoned, hungry bunch.

They’ll need to be to handle the attention. But that’s what you want, what they hoped to build at Sokol Arena.

“We haven’t discussed rankings at all,” Booth said. “I got blown up (by media requests) the other day when the rankings came out and that’s good. It’s a compliment to not only last year’s team but progress for the program. Great for recruiting. All positives.

“We deserve to be here. Now it’s a matter of handling all the little things in order to be great.”

Meanwhile, Cook will be “reinventing” his program after losing 60 percent of an NCAA title and final four team. The two programs will be like ships in the night, and we’ll track their courses as they wind toward December and a dream scenario.

“There’s always a chance we’ll meet in the NCAA tournament,” Booth said.

In the regional first weekend? Of course.

In a regional final? You bet.

In the final four? Why not?

This is volleyball in Nebraska. Everything is possible.

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