(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 NL issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS, the big volleyball dreams of little girls have grown in Huskerland, and the fans keep growing too.

Inside one of the great sports playhouses in the country, more than 4,000 of them rushed past the towering Roman columns into the University of Nebraska’s beloved Coliseum for an epic clash in women’s college volleyball. It was another night in Lincoln that was just so cool, and yet so red hot.

A powerhouse Nebraska squad was locked in a steel-cage match against defending national champ UCLA. The crowd’s crazed chants seemed to shake the 86-year-old building as these volleyball titans slugged it out in the fifth and deciding game.

Suddenly, inspired by their devoted following, the six Husker players pushed onward and upward all about the court. They punched and pushed the ball above the 7-foot-4-inch net until another willowy Nebraska gal pounded it past the UCLA team for a killer spike. The players pumped fists in a victory salute to their loyal fans and a joyous Big Red wall of sound echoed back in triumph.

The Husker huzzahs began hours earlier with the announcement of the starting lineups. Renowned head coach John Photo by Steve & Bobbi OlsonCook and his University of Nebraska-Lincoln players tossed mini volleyballs into the stands. Then the Coliseum
crowd erupted when senior frontcourt sensation Gina Mancuso of Papillion unleashed sensational slams over the net. They chanted “G Train,” the nickname a cousin gave her as a dominating champion at Papillion-La Vista High School.

“When I serve,” Mancuso said, “the announcer says my name and the crowd goes, ‘choo-choo!’ I have goose bumps because the crowd is roaring.”

The UNL volleyball express has been on a roll for decades with thousands of faithful fans hopping aboard to watch champ players like Mancuso. The combination winning teams and loyal fans has made Nebraska the Grand Central Station for America’s volleyball experience. Every ticket for every Nebraska season gets gobbled up. The sellout streak at the Coliseum has moved past 170 straight matches. Next season, the volleyball program will move a few blocks on campus and take over the revamped, 7,000seat Bob Devaney Sports Center while the UNL basketball teams play in the new downtown Pinnacle Bank Arena. Cook vows a downsized Devaney with its $20 million makeover will recapture the intimacy and acoustic energy of the Coliseum and rival any volleyball facility in the world.

Since the late 1970s, UNL has soared as a volleyball power. Coach John Cook is focused on the national crown.Now in his 13th year at the Husker helm, Cook’s teams have carved out a monument of milestones. UNL was the first college volleyball team to tour China and also got the sport’s first invitation to the White House for an unforgettable informal chat with President George W. Bush.

When the UNL team arrived at the White House to be honored for winning the 2000 national crown in an undefeated 34-0 season, President Bush actually postponed his lunch with an Egyptian dignitary to visit with the players in his own private office. The president seemed to have an instant bond as a father with these student athletes since his own twin daughters also were in college at that time.

Bush welcomed the Lady Huskers back after their third national title in 2006 with a team led by stars like Mancuso’s sister, Dani, and a tall girl from Hooper named Jordan Larson. The 6-foot-2 Larson has followed Cook’s mantra of “Dream Big.” Last summer that dream took her to London where Larson led the USA Olympic team to a silver medal.

Yet there may have never been the Olympic star, record attendance, White House visits or national titles if Terry Pettit hadn’t pulled a Nebraska job ad from a North Carolina wastebasket in 1977.

Pettit was teaching English and coaching volleyball at a North Carolina junior college when a fellow coach fished the UNL coaching job ad out of the trash. Pettit took a look and then quickly took on the challenge of a two-year-old program at UNL. The program had a lot of wins but about as many spectators as a backyard badminton game.

He poured his life into building the program. Pettit left the coaching world 22 years later in 1999, walking away from a lucrative contract to focus on his family, poetry and a new role as a coaching consultant and author. He also left a legacy of 694 wins, with 18 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Pettit built a mountain from a pebble, but to get there took the faith of a prophet.

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