GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jamie Houston and her Rainbow Wahine teammates will see nothing but red when they take on the top-ranked Cornhuskers of Nebraska at the Devaney Sports Center today.
Husker volleyball the hottest ticket in Nebraska
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Hawaii is not the only Division I school that takes its women's volleyball seriously. Nebraska has developed into one of the country's dominant programs in recent years and has drawn quite a following wherever it goes.
Today's match with No. 11-ranked Hawaii will be played in front of the largest regular-season crowd of the year. More than 13,000 are expected at the Devaney Sports Center to see their beloved Cornhuskers, who are 18-0 and No. 1 in the nation.
Hawaii head coach Dave Shoji believes the defending national champions are the team to beat once again, and looks forward to the nonconference meeting. His Rainbow Wahine have won 13 consecutive matches since being swept by UCLA, but they haven't played a team as good as this one. In the minds of the Hawaii players, they have nothing to lose.
Nebraska head coach John Cook was happy Shoji was willing to come all the way to Nebraska to play his team in the middle of the season. He's hopeful more teams will consider doing this in the future.
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LINCOLN, Neb. » It's a Saturday night in the fall, and you're in the middle of a mass of Big Red hysteria.
You'll certainly get to know the people next to you because those Nebraska fans wearing cornheads are almost sitting on your lap. There's not an empty seat in the house. It's been that way for years.
Sounds like fun at a Nebraska football game, huh? Well, not exactly.
Welcome to a typical evening of Husker volleyball, a place where the state's darlings have become arguably the hottest ticket around these parts. That's what happens when you're the defending national champions and ranked No. 1 for a record 25 straight weeks.
"People know who we are, and I think they want to be involved," sophomore setter Rachel Holloway said. "Nebraska is such a huge sports state, so they want to be a part of our success."
So just how huge has Husker volleyball become? With all apologies to Hawaii, Nebraska would likely lead the nation in attendance every year if its home gym -- the NU Coliseum -- seated more than just over 4,000. Head on down to the gym on game night and you'll find dozens of folks with two or four fingers in the air, each hoping to score tickets.
Speaking of tickets, people actually camped out the night before single-match tickets went on sale this season and bought them all in 45 minutes. The Huskers (18-0, 11-0 Big 12) have sold out 100 straight matches at the Coliseum and even jam packed the 17,000-seat Qwest Center in Omaha for last season's final four. Nebraska has also drawn more than 10,000 each time it has played there during the regular season in the past three years.
But coach John Cook was really struck when the school sold 64 courtside seats at the Coliseum at the start of last season. Those cost $1,500 and up.
"We've shown we can do it consecutively; it's not just one night," said Cook, in his eighth year at Nebraska. "Some schools, when they start basketball at Midnight Madness, they'll play a volleyball match before it and say, 'Hey, we got 8,000 people. Well, we're doing it just for volleyball and the fans are paying.
"I think that's another thing that's so unique. These are not promotions. We're not giving away stuff. People are paying to come watch this team play."
The same can be said when the Huskers hit the road.
Sarah Pavan, the 2006 national player of the year, said crowds seem half full of Nebraska fans when the team is on the road in Big 12 Conference play. They even stay to sign autographs on the court for their supporters when the match is over.
"It's like everywhere we go, Nebraska people are there," she said.
One can consider Nebraska volleyball like how Duke is in men's basketball. They're both the top draws in their respective sport, and Cook says the proof is in the game film.
"We see tapes of a lot of these matches and we'll see a match where Missouri has 6,000 against us and they'll have 1,000 the next night," he said. "So it's a big compliment to our team."
The Husker volleyball phenomenon isn't dying anytime soon, either. Especially not with the way this year's team is going.
Nebraska is 18-0 and has lost just one game all season. The Huskers have five All-Americans, including the past two national players of the year in Pavan and Christina Houghtelling, the 2005 winner who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
That group may mean more to Nebraska now than ever.
The school's beloved football team is in turmoil after being smacked for the third week in a row. Nebraska even fired athletic director Steve Pederson on Monday.
But the volleyball Huskers say they don't feel like the weight of the athletic program is on their shoulders. They're too busy focusing on taking a second straight national crown.
Scary thing is the group says they aren't even close to playing to their potential right now.
"Winning 3-0 feels good, but were not satisfied," Houghtelling said. "Maxing out on our side, doing everything we can to be our best team is what we define as successful. That hasn't happened lately."
The Huskers will aim for satisfaction again today against Hawaii (16-3).
The match will be played before more than 13,000 at a sold-out Devaney Center -- Nebraska's basketball arena -- and will set an NCAA attendance record for a regular-season match.
Cook said the contest will no doubt serve as a boost for both teams as they prepare for the NCAA tournament. He also said he has wanted to get a team like Hawaii to come to Lincoln for years to play later in the season, especially on a Sunday night. It creates more potential exposure, not that his team's lacking that.
"We're going to be the only two teams playing Sunday night in the country," Cook said. "It will be the largest crowd ever to watch a match and it's two traditional powers in the past 25 years playing each other. I don't know why more teams aren't doing this.
"This is what can happen if people step out a little bit and start thinking about the sport and trying to create some big events."