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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The humorously humbling early memories of the young UNL program still stay with him. In his first season, the program moved into the Coliseum and the seating capacity was 50 folding chairs that Pettit and his players carried in after setting up the volleyball net. Then there was a spike in revenue from Pettit’s homemade refreshment stand.

“I remember the first match I ever coached, I bought a pan from home to cook hot dogs and another pan to cook popcorn,” Pettit said from his Fort Collins, Colo., home. “There probably weren’t 25 people at the match.”

Pettit drove the team van on away games and then spent a summer traveling about the state to personally sell 1,000 season tickets. He became the Johnny Appleseed of volleyball, spreading the love of the game throughout Nebraska to dedicated coaches from Columbus to Ogallala and beyond. His true joy came from molding raw but talented athletes into volleyball stars.

“It would be the equivalent of a potter finding clay that was just really good,” said Pettit, who recruited eight high jump champions for one of his teams.

When Pettit arrived at the Coliseum for a key match with Hawaii in the early 1980s, the coach knew his program had arrived. He saw fans in a line that stretched down the street and around the corner. In 1995 there was dancing in the streets when Pettit led the Huskers to their first national championship.


be The net rises barely above the height of Shaquille O’Neal, but that is where the battles are won, and where the Nebraska gals become towers of power. The Lady Huskers always take time to reach out to their devoted legions of young female fans.COOK WORKED as an assistant to Pettit from 1988 to 1991 and later went to the University of Wisconsin for a head coaching job. He returned in 2000, and when he did, he was amazed to find out how deep Nebraska’s volleyball roots are planted in the state.

“The roots of volleyball were started in the Sandhills,” Cook said. “I was out in Ole’s (Big Game Steakhouse) in Paxton and ran into these women who were playing volleyball in the ’50s before volleyball was even a sanctioned sport in the U.S., or girls were playing sports in high school.”

Nebraska’s love affair with volleyball is a truly remarkable sports romance. There are tales of sturdy farm girls in the Sandhills like Cook met. They played this sport shortly after World War II, forming their own club teams because there weren’t any for them at school. In the early 1970s, the Runza chain sponsored a women’s team in the Lincoln area.

“Even though we’re a state of 1.8 million people, there’s a lot of good athletes in this state,” Cook said. “They’re hard-working because a lot of them are farm girls. They’ve played multiple sports, so they’ve done everything in these small towns.”

One of them is UNL fourth-year junior Hayley Thramer, who has recovered from shoulder surgery two years ago to become a 6-foot-2 tower of power in blocking shots at the net. Hayley was a sports heroine in Ewing – she was a track star, led her team to three basketball championships and another state title in volleyball. She also was a champ in the classroom as Ewing’s No. 1-ranked student.

“You’re brought up to work hard and earn what you achieve. You never take anything for granted,” Thramer said of life in small-town Nebraska.

Cook traveled all over the world as an assistant coach for the 1992 USA men’s Olympic team, but he soon knew he found his home driving about many of these small towns when he took over for Pettit. His own roots are tied to Southern California, where he graduated from San Diego State, and his future wife, Wendy, was a volleyball star. Their hearts soon fell for the Heartland, but he and Wendy did gasp over an early moment of doubt.

With three national championships, and four Olympic athletes,  Nebraska volleyball’s storied program is hard to match.  Nebraska has hosted the four largest volleyball crowds ever, including the record crowd in Omaha of 17,430 fans for an NCAA semifinal match in 2008 between UNL and Penn State.  This Big  Red Machine has also advanced to 11 Final Four appearances, and it has the most players selected to All-American honors with 66 first- and second-team selections.They were in a U-Haul pickup and spent a night in a southwestern Nebraska town when it was 104 degrees. A pizza oven of a breeze blew in a feedlot aroma that even made the bugs in their motel room dive for cover. Yet within days, they joyously breathed in Nebraska and knew Lincoln would be a fine place to raise their daughter, Lauren, and her brother, Taylor.

“It’s a great place to live,” he said. “It’s safe and friendly. The biggest thing is everybody here calls me Coach. And everybody calls Coach Osborne Coach. There’s a respect that goes with coaching here.”

And now many of her UNL teammates probably call Lauren Cook a coach as well, as the coach’s daughter has grown to become a leader on the court of her father’s team and perhaps the finest setter in the land. The senior star sets up the ferocious UNL front line from her prime spot in the back of the court with passes that rival the fingertip finesse of a concert pianist.

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The volleyball journey for Lauren Cook has had many dramatic twists and turns. It began in 2009, when as a freshman she was on the opposite side against her father, leading UCLA to victory over Nebraska before 13,780 fans at the Devaney Center that not only broke the NCAA attendance record for a regular season volleyball match but also snapped UNL’s home winning streak at 90 matches.

Lauren was named the MVP of that tournament, but the former star at Lincoln’s Pius X regretted every second away from Nebraska. At the end of her stellar freshman season she transferred back home, and three years later helped lead the revenge win against that UCLA team that she once led to victory over her beloved Huskers.

Husker Volleyball's Queens of the Court“When I was at UCLA I was comparing everything to Nebraska,” Lauren said, “and there’s just no way they compare. You’re like rock stars here.”

But the biggest ordeal of her career came late last season off the court, when the Nebraska star landed in court. She was arrested for sideswiping a parked motorcycle in her parents’ SUV that left the driver with a broken leg. The highly publicized case came to a sudden stop when a hit-and-run felony charge was dropped after the prosecution agreed to a plea deal.

“I’ve been through a lot of struggles and I’ve gone through a lot of positive times,” Lauren said. “I’ve grown from all of it and I’ve learned from all it. I’m really happy with the person that I am today.”

Now perhaps the most bittersweet moment of his long coaching journey approaches. Cook soon must bid a final farewell to his senior daughter.

“I think about it every day,” he said. “I just appreciate who she is as a leader on our team and I really appreciate how good a player she is.”

Lauren jokes that while Dad runs the show on the court, she gets a mouthful of volleyball advice at the dinner table from her mom, who was a two-time All-American setter. But beyond the jokes, there will certainly be some tears when she serves that final ball up for her dad.

Perhaps father and daughter will treat each other to a precious Christmas gift by winning UNL’s fourth national title in mid-December in Louisville, Ky.

After all, Santa must be a Big Red fan.

One of the high-energy leaders for UNL is senior Hannah Werth, who holds the 10-yard-dash team record at 1.55 seconds.
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