Reflecting on 2023 with Reporter Aaron Bonderson: Volleyball Day in Nebraska

Dec. 21, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

UNL and UNO get ready for the first serve of its game at volleyball day.
UNL and UNO get ready for the first serve of its game at Volleyball Day as more than 90,000 people look on from Memorial Stadium bleachers and standing room. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

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This holiday season, Nebraska Public Media is reflecting on stories and topics our newsroom has covered over the past year.

Headshot photo of Aaron Bonderson in a blue polo.
Aaron Bonderson started at Nebraska Public Media as an intern in 2021 and has been on the full-time staff since 2022.

Reporter Aaron Bonderson joined Nebraska Public Media in 2021 as an intern and started full-time in 2022. He is a Report for America corps member - the first at Nebraska Public Media. Aaron's job includes giving voice to underserved communities and people around the state. He also has a passion for sports. In 2023, one of the most memorable stories for Bonderson was Volleyball Day in Nebraska. Bonderson sat down with Dale Johnson to reflect.

DALE JOHNSON, NEBRASKA PUBLIC MEDIA: Aaron is from Hoskins, Nebraska — population 269 — about 300 times fewer than the people who were inside Memorial Stadium for Volleyball Day in Nebraska: 92,003. You were there so start by sharing a few of your memories.

AARON BONDERSON, NEBRASKA PUBLIC MEDIA: I got there right as the UNK-Wayne State game was about to start. That was an exhibition game between the D-II programs here in Nebraska. It was already about half full, but it really started to fill up toward the end of that game. When Wayne State won, the crowd was pretty full. And a lot of people were cheering them on as Wayne State left the court. You could tell that that was a pretty special moment for them. Even UNK, even though they didn't come out on top, they were pretty excited to be playing in front of — probably at the time there were at least 50,000, maybe already 70,000 people in the stadium at that point.

Watch a time lapse of Memorial Stadium filling up for Volleyball Day in Nebraska:

And then by the time the Nebraska game started against Omaha, it was plum full, just like any Husker football game. But even more people because they had so many — a lot of students on the field right next to the court. And they were pretty loud. I was sitting right in front of them and they were pretty loud and vocal and they wanted their picture taken. And you could tell they wanted to be a part of the day and be remembered.

JOHNSON: They knew it was history.

BONDERSON: Yeah, they knew it was history.

Two women cheer on Nebraska Volleyball in their black Husker shirts
Fans were amped up and passionate about prior to the start of Nebraska vs. Omaha at Volleyball Day in Nebraska. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

JOHNSON: The Huskers played UNO. University of Nebraska–Kearney took on Wayne State. You talked to players ahead of Volleyball Day in Nebraska. What did they tell you?

BONDERSON: Yeah, I wanted to talk to players at UNK, Wayne State and Omaha because they have pretty successful volleyball programs. And not a lot of people know about it. And so I kind of wanted to give them a chance to talk about their program and that sort of stuff. They were pretty excited about Volleyball Day. A lot of them weren't exactly sure how to feel about it. They were kind of just like, ‘well, I'm just going to stay in the moment. I know we have a game to play. I know it's going to be exciting, and we're going to be nervous.’ But, you know, try and soak in the memories and the moment the best they could. So that was sort of their mindset going into the game.

Maggie Brahmer of Wayne State smiles following her team's win at Volleyball Day in Nebraska.
Maggie Brahmer of Wayne State smiles following her team's win against UNK at Volleyball Day in Nebraska. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

JOHNSON: And you also talk to fans. I'm curious about what they told you. Did they talk about history? Did they talk about the event? Why were they there?

BONDERSON: I'm not even sure they could grasp the history itself that they were going to be a part of a world record. I asked a few people about it. And they were like, ‘yeah, I think we might be able to do it. We're not sure.’ But I did talk to a mom who has a daughter, she was about 10- to 12-years-old. She plays volleyball. And so she was just saying, you know, this was a big deal to bring her daughter to this event and just see, look, this is the future. This is what you could be a part of, if you stick to it and work hard. And you know, develop your skills and eventually get a scholarship somewhere.

Volleyball Day_finals_one-2.jpg
Lexi Rodriguez of UNL poses for a photo with a fan before her team's match with UNO at Volleyball Day in Nebraska (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

JOHNSON: Which is what I wanted to ask you, Aaron. The trajectory of that day, that historic day — Volleyball Day in Nebraska. How do you think it's going to have its impact on the future of sports? Female athletic sports?

BONDERSON: After that day and after that story, we did a story where we talked to high school female athletes in Nebraska and asked them, ‘do you feel this momentum? What do you think about Volleyball Day? Were you there? That sort of thing — where do you see sports going, female sports going? And I talked to a couple of golfers in Omaha, they were pretty excited just about how that large of a crowd could turnout for a women's sporting event. I'm not even sure they could fully grasp the trajectory of it. And I'm not sure everyone's sure about where it could go from here because there's just so many possibilities that this game opened up for women's sports. The mood was generally that they're excited. And they hope to see more events like that in the future.

JOHNSON: So ripples beyond just volleyball — female athletics in general.

BONDERSON: Yeah.

JOHNSON: You have interests way beyond sports. So let's look into the new year. What's on your to-do list for 2024?

BONDERSON: I covered the housing market a little bit already in 2023. I'm looking at some of the housing issues in rural Nebraska, just because of the lack of population growth. So a lot of these companies that build houses are hesitant because they know there's not going to be as many people to fill those houses. So I'm looking forward to a few stories hopefully on that.

JOHNSON: And you can listen again, read again, Aaron's recap of Volleyball Day in Nebraska, on Nebraska Public Media.org. And by the way, props, your piece made it onto NPR which is a big deal around here.

BONDERSON: That was my first story on NPR. So there is an audio version that's clipped that's on the NPR site. The digital story is on our site.

JOHNSON: Thank you very much. Aaron Bonderson joining me from the Nebraska Public Media Newsroom. I'm Dale Johnson, Nebraska Public Media News.