By MICHAEL CARNES
For The Herald
LINCOLN — It was ONLY an exhibition match . . . but it was so much more than that.
While the history books will note the final score of the Aug. 30, 2023 exhibition match between Wayne State and Nebraska-Kearney as a 25-17, 25-17, 15-12 win for the Wildcats, those who were part of Volleyball Day in Nebraska will point to one number as the one they will always remember:
That was the announced attendance as the evening’s festivities concluded with a three-game sweep by Nebraska over Nebraska-Omaha, a world record for attendance at a women’s team sporting event.
The stadium, which was built 100 years ago, was about half full when the Wildcats and Lopers squared off in their best-of-three exhibition — not a full house, but still a much bigger audience than both teams were used to playing in front of.
Wayne State coach Scott Kneifl summed it up in one word: “magical.”
“As you go through the starting lineups and you start looking around at the environment out there, there is nothing like that in volleyball,” he said after the match. “You can play in loud gyms and play in great facilities all across the country, but you don’t ever play in a football stadium.”
Kneifl said he didn’t hesitate last December when Nebraska coach John Cook called about the event and asked if Wayne State would be interested. And even as UNK staked a quick five-point lead in the first set, there was still zero hesitation that he and his team were part of something special.
“We called a quick timeout to calm the nerves and I felt better after that,” he said. “I think our kids really adapted well even though we were down early we were still focused on our side of the net.”
The Wildcat team rode a bus from Wayne to Lincoln on Tuesday and got a feel for what they were about to experience with an afternoon practice inside Memorial Stadium, where light-colored flooring was laid over the football turf and a court raised about two feet off the floor in the south end of the stadium greeted the players.
Wednesday morning, the team did another run-through, serving and passing to get a feel for playing the indoor game in an outdoor environment, something that Kneifl said there is no way to prepare for.
“We really didn’t prepare for anything besides coming out yesterday and practicing and then doing some serving and passing this morning,” he said.
When they got back to the team hotel later that morning, they were greeted by an ocean of black and yellow-clad fans, from the marching band to many of the team’s former players. Kneifl chatted with alumni like Mindy Moody and Jennifer Hefner as a throng of Wildcat faithful tailgated in the hotel lobby.
“There were so many Wayne State people there and this is such a special place,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of red in Memorial Stadium, but there was a lot of black and gold there as well and we have a special place. It was neat to see them show up for us.”
The smiles on his players’ faces showed the 19th-year coach how special the moment was going to be, not only for them, but for the sport itself and for women’s athletics.
“That was my favorite part,” he said, smiling. “They got to do something tonight that they’ll never get to do again ever, including me. I never thought the biggest match I’d ever coach in my life would be an exhibition match in a football stadium, but it’s that important for women’s volleyball and women’s athletics in general. The entire country is watching this, and in Nebraska this is the mecca of volleyball.”
Senior Rachel Walker and junior Maggie Brahmer, both Nebraska natives, backed up their coach’s thoughts on the day.
“I have no words to explain it, (I’m) just grateful to be invited to this and live in a state that cherishes this is so cool,” Walker said. “My mom coached me and I’ve always been around volleyball, and to grow up in a state like this is a huge blessing and to be a part of it at this level, it couldn’t have been a better experience.”
“At the end of the day it was just a game of volleyball,” Brahmer added.”Once you subtract the elements and the weather and the sun and all the people, it’s just volleyball and we’re pretty good at it, but it was a whirlwind of emotions.”
Being a part of a historical moment in the history of sports is something Kneifl said he and his team will always remember, which is why he made an effort to have all 17 players compete on the raised platform set up for the historic event.
“It was one of the things that we knew we were going to do and everyone played quite a bit,” Kneifl said. “Twenty years from now, nobody’s going to remember who won the exhibition match, but they’ll remember if they played or not. Everybody on both sides got in and that was special.”
After the match, the team was able to take in the environment with the rest of the fans who filled Memorial Stadium, watching the Huskers take the famed “Tunnel Walk” out to the floor and enjoy the light show, fireworks and a post-match concert that helped fill the night’s agenda.
It was a showcase of some of the best volleyball teams in the country, and also an opportunity to show just how far women’s sports has come over the years and how much Nebraska loves its volleyball.
“The sun was hot on that Taraflex and the wind played with it some, but it was the same on both sides and to see that showcase of talent that we have at WSC and UNK, I don’t know how many players were from Nebraska out there but it shows the talent we have in this state playing at the highest level,” Kneifl said. “It was a special night.”
After it was all over, the team spent the night in Omaha before boarding a plane for California to start the season for real.
“It’s going to be a grind and we need to go out and accept every challenge and try to get better every match,” Kneifl said.
And who knows — a few months from now Wayne State just might make a little history of their own.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here