Husker Volleyball's Queens of the Court
With three national championships, and four Olympic athletes, Nebraska volleyball’s storied program is hard to match.
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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.
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.
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.