Tag Archives: volleyball

The State of Volleyball

December 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For generations, football gave Nebraska a statewide identity. But with Husker gridiron fortunes flagging, volleyball is the new signature sport with booming participation and success.

Here and nationally, more girls now play volleyball than basketball (according to the National Federation of State High School Associations).

“It’s the main or premier sport for women right now,” Doane University coach Gwen Egbert says.

Omaha has become a volleyball showcase. The city hosted NCAA Division I Finals in 2006, 2008, and 2015, with the Cornhuskers competing on all three occasions (winning the national title in 2006 and 2015).

Packed crowds at the CenturyLink Center will once again welcome the nation’s top teams when Omaha hosts the championships in 2020. Meanwhile, Creighton University is emerging as another major volleyball powerhouse, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha has made strides in the Mavericks’ first two years of full Division I eligibility since joining the Summit Conference.

In the 2017 NCAA tournament, Creighton advanced to the second round (but fell to Michigan State). As this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press, the Cornhuskers headed to regionals in hopeful pursuit of a fifth national championship.

“The fact Nebraska has done and drawn so well, and that kids are seeing the sport at a high level at a young age, gets people excited to play,” says Husker legend Karen Dahlgren Schonewise, who coaches for Nebraska Elite club volleyball and Duchesne Academy in Omaha.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln first reached a national title game with Schonewise in 1986. The dominant defensive player set Nebraska’s career record for solo blocks (132)—a record that still stands—before going on to play professionally. (The Cornhuskers didn’t win the national championship until 1995.)

Skutt freshman and future Husker Lindsay Krause and current Creighton standout Brittany Witt (a Marian grad)

“I think the amount of kids that play in Nebraska is No. 1, per capita, in the country. I think the level of play is far higher than many states in the country,” says Omaha Skutt Catholic coach Renee Saunders, whose star freshman, 6-foot-3 Lindsay Krause, is a UNL verbal commit.

Volleyball’s attraction starts with plentiful scholarships, top-flight coaching, TV coverage, and professional playing opportunities.

Few states match the fan support found here.

“We have probably the most educated fans in the nation,” Saunders says. “They’re a great fan base. They know how to support their teams, and they’re very embracing of volleyball in general.”

The lack of physical contact appeals to some girls. The frequent team huddles after rallies draw others.

Omaha Northwest High School coach Shannon Walker says “the camaraderie” is huge. You really have to work together as a unit, communicate, and be six people moving within a tiny space.”

Volleyball’s hold is rural and urban in a state that has produced All-Americans, national champions, and Olympians.

The Husker program has been elite since the 1980s. Its architect, former UNL coach Terry Pettit, planted the seeds that grew this second-to-none volleyball culture.

“He really spearheaded a grassroots effort to build the sport,” says Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth. “Besides winning, he also worked diligently to train our high school coaches.”

“It’s important to realize this goes back many years,” former Husker (2009-2012) Gina Mancuso says, “and I think a lot of credit goes to Terry Pettit. He created such an awesome program with high standards and expectations.”

Pettit products like Gwen Egbert have carried those winning ways to coaching successful club and high school programs and working area camps. Egbert built a dynasty at Papillion-LaVista South before going to Doane. Several Papio South players have excelled as Huskers (the Rolzen twins, Kelly Hunter, etc.).

Their paths inspired future Husker Lindsay Krause.

“Seeing the success is a big motivation to want to play,” Krause says. “Just watching all the success everyone has in this state makes you feel like it’s all the more possible for you to be able to do that.”

Many top former players go on to coach here, and most remain even after they achieve great success.

Walker says quality coaches don’t leave because “it’s the hotbed of volleyball—they’re staying here and growing home talent now.”

“It’s us colleges that reap the benefits,” Bernthal Booth says.

Pettit says it’s a matter of “success breeds success.”

Schonewise agrees, saying, “Once you see success, others want to try it and do it and more programs become successful.”

“The standard is high and people want to be at that high level. They don’t want to be mediocre,” UNO coach Rose Shires says.

Wayne State, Kearney, Hastings, and Bellevue all boast top small college programs. In 2017, Doane was the first Nebraska National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program to record 1,000 wins.

“We’ve got great Division I, Division II, NAIA, and junior college volleyball programs,” says Bernthal Booth, who took the Creighton job in part due to the area’s rich talent base. She feels CU’s breakout success coincided with the 2008 opening of D.J. Sokol Arena, which she considers among the nation’s best volleyball facilities.

“All these colleges in Nebraska are in the top 25 in their respective divisions,” Saunders says. “It’s crazy how high the level of play has gone, and I think it’s going to keep going that way.”

“It’s really built a great fan base of support,” Mancuso says, “and I think the reason the state produces a lot of great volleyball players is the fact we have great high school coaches, great college programs, and great club programs.”

Club programs are talent pipelines. There are far more today than even a decade ago. Their explosion has meant youth getting involved at younger ages and training/playing year-round. Nebraska Elite is building a new facility to accommodate all the action.

“The athleticism found in the state has always been pretty high, but the level of play has definitely improved. The kids playing today are more skilled. The game is faster,” Egbert says. “When I started out, you’d maybe have one or two really good players, and now you could have a whole team of really good players.”

“You have your pick of dozens of clubs, and a lot of those clubs compete at the USA national qualifiers and get their players that exposure,” says Shannon Walker, the Northwest High School coach who is also the director of the Omaha Starlings volleyball club.

“Volleyball is such a joy to be a part of in this state,” Mancuso says.

Gina Mancuso

“It’s cool to be a part of everything going on in Nebraska and watching it grow and develop,” Skutt freshman phenom Krause says.

“My goal is to make Lindsay ready to play top-level Division I volleyball by the time she graduates here,” Saunders says. “She already has the physicality, the competitive edge, the smarts. Now it’s just getting her to play to her full potential, which she hasn’t had to yet because she’s always been bigger than everybody. She’s definitely not shy of challenges. I feel like every time I give her a challenge, she steps up and delivers.”

Krause values that Saunders “gives great feedback on things I have to fix.”

Native Nebraskans dot the rosters of in-state and out-of-state programs. Along with Krause, Elkhorn South freshman Rylee Gray—who holds scholarship offers from Nebraska and Creighton—may emerge as another next big name from the Omaha metro. But they are both still a few years from the collegiate level.

UNO’s Shires says “impassioned” coaches like Saunders are why volleyball is rooted and embraced here. Shires came to Omaha from Texas to join the dominant program Janice Kruger built for the Mavericks at the Division II level. Kruger, now head coach at the University of Maryland, was previously captain of the Cornhuskers’ team (1977).

Further enhancing the volleyball culture, Shires says, is having former Olympian Jordan Larson and current pro Gina Mancuso come back and work with local players. Mancuso’s pro career has taken her around the world. She wants the players she works with at UNO, where she’s an assistant, to “see where it can take them.”

As volleyball has taken off, it’s grown more diverse. Most clubs are suburban-based and priced beyond the means of many inner-city families. The Omaha Starlings provide an alternative option. “Our fees are significantly lower than everybody else’s,” says Walker, the club’s director and Northwestern’s coach. “Anybody that can’t afford to pay, we scholarship.”

Broadening volleyball’s reach, she says, “is so necessary. As a result, we do have a pretty diverse group of kids. I’ve had so many really talented athletes and great kids who would have never been able to afford other clubs. We’re trying to even the scale and offer that same experience to kids who have the interest and the ability but just can’t afford it.”

“It’s very exciting to see diversity in the sport—it’s been a long time coming,” Schonewise says.

Forty-five Starlings have earned scholarships, some to historically black colleges and universities. Star grad Samara West (Omaha North) ended up at Iowa State.

Starlings have figured prominently in Omaha Northwest’s rise from also-ran to contender. Eight of nine varsity players in 2017 played for the club.

Walker knew volleyball had big potential, yet it’s exceeded her expectations. She says while competition is fierce among Nebraska coaches and players, they share a love that finds them, when not competing against each other, cheering on their fellows in this ever-growing volleyball family/community.

“It’s awesome,” Walker says. “But I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to reaching our peak yet.”

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Huskers’ Winning Tradition

December 18, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Bruhn

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln volleyball team entered 2017 with tempered expectations after losing three All-Americans and two assistant coaches from the previous season. But what began as a rebuilding year became a 32-4 national championship campaign for the overachieving Huskers, who capped an unexpected return to the pinnacle of their sport by defeating Florida in four sets in the NCAA title match on Dec. 16.

Thousands of Big Red fans made the trip to Kansas City for the Final Four, where a record crowd of 18,000-plus viewed the deciding contest.

Coach John Cook celebrates with his team and their trophy.

While tradition-rich Husker football has been in the doldrums for two decades, the equally tradition-rich volleyball program has carried the school’s elite athletic banner. NU volleyball and its gridiron brothers have now won five NCAA titles apiece. This was NU’s second volleyball crown in three years and the fourth under head coach John Cook since succeeding program architect Terry Pettit in 2000.

Cook was an assistant under Pettit, whose stellar work at Nebraska—including one NCAA title (along with his overall contributions to the sport)—landed him in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame back in 2009. The current Huskers volleyball coach joined his predecessor as an inductee in the fall of 2017. Cook’s formal induction came only hours before facing the No. 1 seed Penn State in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Cook has said the 2017 Huskers, led by Papillion native and setter extraordinaire Kelly Hunter, were a joy to coach because they actually lived out their season slogan: “with each other, for each other.” That mantra got tested early when the young, inexperienced squad opened the season without an injured Hunter on the court and promptly suffered two losses—one against future NCAA finals opponent Florida. But the Huskers stayed the course and with Hunter back at setter the rest of the way, they rallied to finish the non-conference schedule with a 7-3 mark. The team really found its groove in tough Big Ten play, going 19-1 to share the league championship with arch-rival Penn State, and finished the regular season 26-4. 

Kelly Hunter, from Papillion, helped to lead the Huskers to clinch a fifth NCAA volleyball title.

Hunter and fellow seniors Briana Holman (middle blocker) and Annika Albrecht (outside hitter) led the way with junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and junior libero Kenzie Maloney. Two dynamic freshmen—middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and outside hitter Jazz Sweet—rounded out the balanced team volleyball approach that became NU’s trademark. No superstars. Just solid players executing their roles and having each other’s backs, whether at the net or in the back-row.

Hunter, Albrecht, and Foecke did earn All-America honors.

Months before seeing Penn State in the semifinals, on Sept. 22, NU dealt the No. 1-ranked and star-studded Nittany Lions their only regular-season loss by sweeping them at Happy Valley. The Huskers earned the right to host a first-round NCAA Tournament playoff in Lincoln, where fans jammed the Devaney Center. Fifth-seeded NU swept both its foes to advance to regionals in Lexington, Kentucky, where NU downed Colorado and host Kentucky, dropping only one set in the process.

For their national semifinal match in K.C., the Huskers drew Big Ten nemesis and No. 1 overall seed Penn State. In an epic classic, the Big Red prevailed in five sets. Then, in the ensuing final against Florida, NU avenged that early season loss to the Gators in capturing collegiate volleyball’s top prize. Hunter and Foecke were named co-outstanding players of the tournament.  

In 2018, NU loses Hunter, Holman, and Albrecht—look for at least one to be the latest Husker to make the U.S. national team—but the team otherwise returns with the core stable of their 2017 championship team. NU will add four top recruits to the mix, too. As defending champs, no one will underestimate the Huskers this time. A key to the season will be finding a setter to replace Hunter, the team’s on-court quarterback. Incoming freshman Nicklin Hames may just be the heir apparent in that key role. 

But you can bet that Cook & Co. will stress the benefits of playing team volleyball in search of another title.

The 2017 Huskers squad poses with their trophy.

To learn more about how volleyball has become the top sport in Nebraska (and how Omaha plays an important role in the talent pipeline) be sure to pick up the January/February edition of Omaha Magazine featuring Leo Adam Biga’s cover story.

Laura Kirschenbaum

January 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laura Kirshenbaum is a straight-A student, but it is not good grades that her mother talks about first when describing her daughter’s scholarly accomplishments.

“It’s comments that teachers make. It’s wonderful hearing about how she treats others and how she is respectful to teachers. They say that she’s an active listener in class, that she’s kind and courteous. That’s what I’m proud about,” Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum says. “You may have it in your DNA that these things are easier than for other people, or you learn at a faster pace. That may be a gift with you, but what do you do with it? Some people may have an ego with it, but Laura doesn’t. She’s grateful for what she has and is highly motivated.”

Kirshenbaum, an eighth-grader at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in the Omaha Public School District, admits to being a fast learner but says her excellent grades in her honors classes don’t come effortlessly. “I work hard for that,” she says.

And she definitely prefers some subjects over others. “My top subject would definitely be math,” she says. “But I love science, too: chemistry, physics, and astronomy.”

Kirshenbaum has no shortcuts to academic success to share, she says. Being a good student means being diligent: finishing the assignments, completing the reading, following directions. It also helps to have good organizational skills that ensure she’s always prepared. “I turn homework in on time and I try to stay on top of things,” she explains. “I’m proud of that.”

She even enjoys learning outside of the classroom, watching informational YouTube channels in her spare time, and competing in multiple academic events like Quiz Bowl, Science Bowl, Math Counts, Academic Pentathlon, and Book Blasters. She has an artistic side, too, that brings some balance to student life—Kirshenbaum is active in dance (ballet, modern, and jazz) and plays the violin, even performing in the orchestra pit for Omaha Public Schools’ summer musical Peter Pan in 2016.

“I also do a lot of acting,” she adds. “I’ve been in a lot of the school plays, and I’ve done some community theater as well.”

She’s even managed to make time for volleyball and local volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter. Two summers ago, she was a classroom helper at Jackson Elementary School. Because she’s an honors student, she is also eligible to tutor fellow students. “I like being able to help others,” she says.

Kirshenbaum says her future plans absolutely include college, which her mother and father (Matt Kirshenbaum) like to hear. It may be a little early to start choosing a particular institution, but judging by the scholarly aptitude she’s demonstrated so far, it’s clear that she’s going to be able to take her pick of schools—and programs of study—upon graduation four years from now.

“I see myself becoming a chemist,” she says. “Or a college professor in math or science.”

This article was printed in the Winter 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Life’s a Beach

May 13, 2015 by
Photography by John Gawley

This article was published in Omaha Magazine’s May/June 2015 issue.

A day at the beach has a different meaning for Lauren Sieckmann than it does for most folks. For the majority it conjures images of sun, sand, and fun; vibes of recreation and relaxation. But for 21-year-old Sieckmann—college student, sports and fitness model, and pro volleyball player-in-training—the beach means all work and all play.

“Everything I do with school, training, and modeling, is fun for me,” says Sieckmann. It doesn’t feel like a job. It’s just what I do. It’s a way of life.”

Sieckmann, a University of Southern California junior, grew up in Elkhorn and began playing volleyball around age 12, late for those who aspire to greatness in the sport. She quickly drew many accolades, including a national title with the Nebraska Elite 121s club team and being named Nebraska High School Gatorade Player of the Year after leading Marian High to a 2009 Class A state title. Sieckmann transferred to Elkhorn South to graduate a semester early and kickstart her career at UNL. But after a semester in Lincoln playing indoor volleyball, she decided that what had been her dream wasn’t the right fit.

“I really wanted to try beach volleyball and venture out, so I decided to come to California,” says Sieckmann, who’s embraced the transition.

“It’s more ‘me’ than indoor and I love it,” she says. “You do it all in sand volleyball. It’s 2-on-2; you’re covering the whole court. I like the competitive nature, the atmosphere and environment and to practice at the beach all day…I can’t complain about that!”

Sieckmann played for USC last semester but now trains professionally in lieu of the school squad.

“Now I practice at the beach and train with Misty May,” she says.

That would be Misty May-Treanor, the retired pro beach volleyball player, three-time Olympic gold medalist, one of the most successful female players of all time, former volunteer assistant coach at USC, idol of volleyball girls everywhere—and now mentor to Sieckmann.

During offseason Sieckmann trains about twice weekly each with May-Treanor and other pro players with whom she scrimmages—which means hitting the beach four times weekly, in addition to school and her budding modeling career. Sieckmann recently signed with Sports Lifestyle Unlimited and had her first booking and shoot in February. Most recently she signed with modeling giant Wilhelmina International.

“[SLU] does lots of sports and fitness, lifestyle, and some fashion. It’s a bit of everything, and seemed like a good fit for me,” says Sieckmann, whose mother, Deb, was a fashion model.

In addition to volleyball aspirations, Sieckmann dreams of following in her mother’s footsteps.

“I always thought I’d get into [modeling] eventually,” she says. “One of my biggest goals with it is to represent being strong, fit, healthy, and beautiful—not just excessively thin.”

Sieckmann says she’s witnessed negative effects of body image issues and hopes that her work promotes a healthier body image among young girls.

“I want to make an impact with my modeling,” she says. “That’s why I’m going in the direction of sports and lifestyle work—to show girls that being strong and healthy is beautiful.”

LaurenSieckmann1

Get Your Game On!

June 20, 2013 by

Staying fit can be a real challenge for a busy mom, particularly when she spends a good chunk of her day behind a desk at work or playing chauffeur to active kids. So, too, can finding time for socializing with friends, who often have similarly hectic schedules that make planning a get-together nearly impossible.

Committing to play in a weekly beach volleyball league is an ideal way busy moms can ensure they get regular, quality exercise time in the outdoors, while at the same time enjoying a few hours socializing with teammates. It’s scheduled “me time” with physical fitness built in!

The Digz, a beach volleyball facility at 4428 S. 140th St. in Omaha, is a popular destination for many who enjoy the bump, set, spike sport. The sports arena features eight outdoor sand volleyball courts and, beginning this summer, four indoor/outdoor sand courts that can be enclosed during the colder months.

The Digz offers sand volleyball leagues year-round. New sessions of six-on-six recreational co-ed leagues, and four-on-four competitive leagues start every eight to nine weeks. Games are scheduled Sunday through Friday from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Courts are lit for nighttime play, and the facility also features a sports bar and grill, so players can catch a bite before or after a game or spend a bit more adult time catching up over a beverage.

Manager Mary Nabity says Digz sees about 400-600 players each night for league play during its summer session, which runs through Aug. 11. “We’ve been open now about eight years,” she says. “People really enjoy it. It can get crazy-busy here some nights, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Sempeck’s Bowling and Entertainment Center, at 20902 Cumberland Rd. in Elkhorn, offers its Sandbaggers Beach Volleyball in three sessions: spring leagues run April 21-June 20; summer leagues run June 21-Aug. 20; and fall leagues run Aug. 21-Oct. 15. Recreational, intermediate, and power play leagues are all offered, as are women-only and co-ed team play. Games run Monday through Friday from 6:30 p.m. on, and on Sundays beginning at 4:30 p.m.

The Sandbaggers’ facility, which opened in spring 2012, features six outdoor courts, all with nighttime lighting and automated scoring. A nearby playground allows older kids to enjoy some outdoor playtime during Mom’s matches (though it’s unsupervised). A horseshoe court and beanbag games are nearby as well. After games, Sempeck’s large, outdoor patio offers guests full-menu service and features live entertainment on Friday nights in the summer.

Owner Steve Sempeck says more than 180 teams were registered to play in the center’s spring leagues this year—that’s double last year’s team count. “We anticipate our summer leagues will fill to capacity with 275 teams,” he adds. “That’s about 1,500 players.”

Sempeck says Sandbaggers attracts a wide array of players. “Everyone from young singles just out of college to old guys like me in their 50s,” he jokes. “The majority are here for the recreational leagues and the social aspects of play. But we do have a power league—two on two, just like in the Olympics—and they’re in it competitively. They’re great to watch.”

This spring, Omahan Vicki Voet joined a beach volleyball league after a long absence from the game. “I just started back in April,” she says. “I had been in a league about 20 years ago with my husband, Perry, at the Ranch Bowl—before kids.”

Now an empty nester, Voet says she was looking for a way to reconnect with her interests and friends.

“I have been trying to find myself since the kids left for college,” Voet shares. “Volleyball is something I’ve always enjoyed…it’s very competitive and requires endurance, and exercise is very important to me. It’s great because [playing again] allows me to be with my friends and socialize at the same time. And I enjoy playing as a team.”

Since joining the spring league, Voet says she’s thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “The weather is usually good, and I love being outdoors. And it’s something I look forward to each week. We all just get out there to have fun!”

The Digz
4428 S. 140th St.
402-896-2775
thedigz.com

Sempeck’s Bowling & Entertainment Center
20902 Cumberland Dr.
402-289-4614
sempecks.com

Mary Wadja

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mary Wajda enjoys the hunt for fun fashions and accessories in unexpected places. Harbor Farm Chick Market, Voila! and House of J are some of her local go-to shops for whimsical, affordable pieces.

“I have an eclectic style,” says the 25-year veteran in advertising and media, now with Morningfire, Inc. “I’m fortunate that I work in an industry that allows me to express my personal style.”

“I love classic pieces—a great leather coat, a structured jacket, pearls—and mixing them with something feminine or unexpected—lace, sparkle, and anything girlie! And I love, love, love jeans! LA Idol is my favorite brand.”

“I have an eclectic style…I love classic pieces…And I love, love, love jeans!”

The mother of two teen girls, Wajda jokes, “I had my daughters late in life, so I try to dress so I look young and not like their grandma, yet age-appropriate. I don’t want to be a 51-year-old woman trying to look 25…I would take 45! And I refuse to wear old ladies’ shoes. I love my heels!”

A long-time cancer survivor, Wajda has always made caring for her health a priority. The former USVBA volleyball player (“My husband [Rich Wajda] and I met playing volleyball.”) used to be a dedicated runner, but has moved on to less-jarring cardio and weights. “I try to work out three to four times a week…I take Strike, strictly strength, spinning, and total conditioning classes at Lifetime Fitness whenever my schedule allows. Push-ups and sit-ups are a daily must, too,” she adds.

Wajda attributes her good health in part to drinking 100oz. of water daily, taking vitamins and supplements, and using skin products with retin A, sunscreen, and moisturizer. “I try to avoid the sun…and never sleep in my makeup.”

All your work has paid off, Mary Wajda. You look fabulous!