By TYLER ELLYSON
LINCOLN – University of Nebraska at Kearney coach Rick Squiers looked at the record-breaking crowd inside Memorial Stadium and just shook his head.
Even he was amazed by the historic Volleyball Day in Nebraska event.
“What a day,” he said. “Unbelievable. This is something our players are going to remember for a long time.”
An astounding 92,003 people packed the iconic venue on Wednesday, setting a record for the most-attended women’s sporting event ever and sending a clear message to the sports world – Nebraska is THE volleyball state.
UNK middle blocker Abby Rose called the celebration “surreal.”
“Coming here, we didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “And then we showed up and there’s just like parades of people everywhere. It felt like all of downtown Lincoln was just taken over by volleyball. It was crazy.”
A sophomore from Lindsborg, Kansas, Rose learned about Nebraska’s affinity for volleyball when she committed to UNK, but this was a completely different level of fandom.
“I think it’s amazing how much support Nebraska provides for volleyball,” she said. “It was super cool to be a part of this and help make history.”
Ranked No. 16 in NCAA Division II, UNK lost a three-set exhibition match to No. 4 Wayne State College to open the event, but the final score wasn’t nearly as important as the bigger message.
In his 25th year at UNK and 32nd as a collegiate volleyball coach, Squiers appreciated the buzz, energy and enthusiasm Volleyball Day in Nebraska brought to the game. Before his 900-plus career victories, two national runner-up finishes and 23 straight NCAA Division II Tournament appearances, there was a time when few people respected women’s sports.
“You think about the gyms you played in, the equipment you used and what the game used to look like, even during my time at UNK,” Squiers said. “And now something like this can happen.”
“Volleyball has just kind of made its way into the mainstream and just blown up,” he added. “Now you look at something like this and just kind of shake your head. You never would have thought it could happen.”
The fourth-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers defeated Nebraska-Omaha in the second match of the Volleyball Day event, which also included a flyover, fireworks, drone show and postgame concert featuring country star Scotty McCreery.
Jessica (Walter) Weil made the trip from Topeka, Kansas, to meet a group of former UNK teammates in Lincoln. The Shickley native started her collegiate volleyball career at UNL before transferring to UNK, where she was part of the 1994 team that earned the school’s first-ever berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament.
Now a PE teacher and dean of physical education for the Auburn-Washburn school district, Weil wasn’t going to miss this momentous occasion.
“What an amazing night for volleyball in the state of Nebraska and for women’s sports,” she said. “To get to play in front of 90,000 people, who gets to do that? It’s just so great to be a part of something like this.”
A Husker offensive lineman from 1989-93, Ken Mehlin knows exactly how it feels to play in front of a capacity crowd at Memorial Stadium. He used to walk through the stadium when it was empty and “think about how much this place changes on game day when the crowd is crazy.”
“It’s quite an experience,” said Mehlin, who met his wife Cindy at UNL.
On Wednesday, the Kearney couple was seated in the west stands as their daughter Elli had the same opportunity. She’s a freshman setter/defensive specialist on the UNK volleyball team.
“It’s really cool for her to be able to experience the crowd and the stadium like I did,” Mehlin said.
Cindy called it a “dream come true” for her daughter and a full-circle moment for mom and dad.
“Oh my gosh, we were so excited when they announced the event,” she said. “It was like, you gotta be kidding. I don’t know how they’re going to do it, but it will be really cool.”
The Fisher family had the same reaction.
“Without question, we were going,” said Christine Fisher, an assistant professor in the UNK Department of Teacher Education. “Next to watching UNK play in the national championship match, this is pretty special.”
Christine was hanging out at the alumni pregame party with her parents Judy and Steve Fisher of Kearney and uncle Roger Fisher of Lincoln. Roger and Steve are former UNK athletes and all four family members are UNK graduates. They’ve been attending Loper volleyball matches for decades.
“To have this huge event showcasing female athletes is just amazing,” Christine said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to watch.”
“It’s amazing what this state’s done with volleyball, so it’s no wonder so many people are here,” Roger added.
Rose, the UNK middle blocker, hopes the momentum continues well beyond one night.
“The impact this event can have not just on volleyball but women’s sports in general is exciting,” she said. “Years ago, my grandma couldn’t even play in women’s sports, and now I’m here and there are 90,000 people watching me play a game. That’s pretty wild to me.”
— Hurrdat Sports (@HurrdatSports) August 31, 2023
PHOTOS BY TODD GOTTULA, UNK COMMUNICATIONS