By TYLER ELLYSON
DENVER – The “U-N-K” chants started before the first serve and didn’t stop until the final point was scored.
Fans decked out in blue and gold, some with their chests and faces painted, rose to their feet and clapped along as the pep band played the school fight song.
Saturday evening’s NCAA Division II championship match meant a lot to Loper nation, which showed up in full force to support the University of Nebraska at Kearney volleyball team.
“It almost felt like the Health and Sports Center in here,” junior middle hitter Anna Squiers said of the “awesome” environment.
Approximately 700 UNK fans filled one side of the Auraria Event Center in downtown Denver, hoping to see the Lopers win their first volleyball national title.
Marlynn Hunke and her husband Virgil had front-row seats for the matchup between second-ranked UNK and No. 1 Cal State San Bernardino.
“It’s hard to explain the feeling right now,” Hunke said as the two unbeaten teams warmed up. “You think about the national championship and that blows your mind.
“I get goose pimples thinking about it.”
The Hunkes, who live in Snyder, made the eight-hour drive to Denver with their daughter and son-in-law, Jennifer and Tom Nottlemann of Lincoln. Their granddaughter Lindsay Nottlemann is UNK’s starting libero.
“I’m real proud of this team and I’m real proud of Lindsay,” said Hunke, who was also in attendance at the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) championship tournament in Kansas City and the NCAA Central Regional in Kearney.
“I get a little nervous, but it’s fun,” she said.
UNK fans from across the Midwest flocked to Denver to support the Lopers during their national tournament run.
Saturday’s turnout didn’t surprise Dawn and Jonathan Jackson, the parents of All-American outside hitter and MIAA co-player of the year Julianne Jackson. Nearly 2,700 people watched the epic five-set victory over Concordia-St. Paul that sent the Lopers to the Mile High City for the national quarterfinals.
“That just doesn’t happen at a lot of schools, even Division I schools,” Dawn said of UNK’s attendance numbers.
“There’s a lot of community support in Kearney,” Jonathan added. “That was one of the selling points when Julianne was going through the recruiting process.”
For the Jacksons, who traveled to Denver with their youngest son Jamison, Saturday’s match was the final time they’ll see their daughter play for UNK.
“It’s cool to finish her time playing for the Lopers in the national championship,” Dawn said. “I know how hard she’s worked for this. I’m over the moon for what she’s done.”
“These four years, from the start to now, have been great,” Jonathan said. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s hard to put into words.”
Longtime UNK fan Tom McCoy of Kearney called the national championship appearance a big moment for both the university and community as a whole.
He was in the stands at the Health and Sports Center when the Lopers played for a national title in 2005, and he wasn’t going to miss the team’s second-ever trip to the Division II final.
“Kearney is a community that has really embraced UNK,” the Loper season ticket holder said. “This has a huge impact on the community.”
That support isn’t lost on UNK head coach Rick Squiers.
“To see those stands full from Loper nation driving here to Denver and all the videos and watch parties, that’s amazing,” he said. “That’s just unbelievable. We could not be more appreciative.
“There’s nothing like UNK volleyball. I’m in awe of how we were treated this week by folks back in Kearney.”
Although UNK lost its final match, finishing the season 38-1, those fans are already looking forward to next year.
“I’m thinking this team is going to be back in the national championship,” Hunke said.