Volleyball Day in Nebraska looks to set records — and set the record straight on women’s sports

Aug. 22, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

Wayne State celebrates at point against Augustana last season.
Wayne State celebrates a point in its win last October over Augustana during the school's "blackout" game. Attendance for Wayne State, UNK and UNO volleyball has been strong in recent years. Volleyball Day in Nebraska will likely build on that. (Photo courtesy of Wayne State Athletics)

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Maggie Brahmer dreamed of playing volleyball at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln when she was a kid. She wanted to wear scarlet and cream. She wanted to walk in the footsteps of one of the greatest volleyball players in Nebraska history, Jordan Larson.

“Those girls were my idols. I mean, Jordan Larson was one of the best ones. Honestly, (she) is the best one,” Brahmer said. “I remember watching her and getting autographs on the back of my T-shirt. And thinking, ‘Man, what would it be like to be one of those girls?’”

Brahmer grew up in Pierce, Nebraska, a town of about 1,800 people.

Through the rolling hills of northeast Nebraska, it’s a 30 minute drive on State Highway 98 to Wayne State College’s campus. That’s where she plays volleyball and majors in physical education.

On Aug. 30, Brahmer will compete in the same event as her dream school, the University of Nebraska--Lincoln, during the first-ever Volleyball Day in Nebraska inside Memorial Stadium.

UNL will face-off against the University of Nebraska–Omaha and the University of Nebraska–Kearney will play Wayne State College.

Tens of thousands of people will pack like sardines into the 100-year-old stadium. Many people will be there to watch their beloved Huskers. But, UNL isn’t the only powerhouse program competing that day.

Maggie Brahmer towers over the net to spike the ball during a Central Region tournament game last season vs. Harding University.
Maggie Brahmer (18) tries to earn a kill vs. Harding University in last year's Central Region tournament. (Photo courtesy of Wayne State Athletics)

The event is an opportunity for smaller programs to gain respect, Brahmer said.

“Our Division II (programs), they may get overlooked. But, hey, we can play ball too. We can play ball just with the best of them,” Brahmer said.

Volleyball is one of the most successful sports at UNO, UNK and Wayne State.

Wayne State closed last season with a 30-3 record and has won no less than 19 games per season since 2004.

At UNK, the volleyball program has two national runner-up finishes and has won more than 80% of its games, over the course of the team’s history.

UNO won a national championship in 1996 during its time in Division II. The team made the jump to Division I about 12 years ago.

Having winning volleyball teams didn’t happen by accident in Nebraska.

Teams spent decades learning from one of the greatest coaches of all time, according to Wayne State head coach Scott Kneifl.

“It all starts at the University of Nebraska with Terry Pettit and the success that he had there. And it trickled down to a lot of the Division II schools in our state as well,” Kneifl said.

Today, the Huskers have five national championships.

Kneifl said many girls, like Brahmer, want to be a part of that tradition.

“Every young girl in the state of Nebraska wants to grow up to be a Husker volleyball player,” Kneifl said. “But unfortunately, that can't happen. I mean, they only have so many spots and so there are other great opportunities out there.”

Opportunities that now include playing in-front of a record breaking crowd.

“If that doesn’t give you goosebumps…”

The United States attendance record for women's sports is 90,185 people. That’s how many attended the 1999 World Cup final between the U.S. and China, according to the Associated Press.

The capacity for the Volleyball Day in Nebraska is 91,000, according to Husker Athletics. Within the first three days they went on sale, 82,900 tickets were purchased.

So, many people expect the record to break.

Wayne State head coach Scott Kneifl talks with his team during a Central Region Tournament game last season.
Wayne State head coach Scott Kneifl has led the Wildcats' volleyball program for 19 years. (Photo courtesy of Wayne State Athletics)

Coach Kneifl puts that all into perspective.

“I mean, our town only has 5,000 people — in Wayne, Nebraska — it's 5,000 people. And we're going to be playing volleyball in front of 91,000 people. And if that doesn't give you goosebumps, nothing will,” Kneifl said.

If Memorial Stadium is at capacity and were its own city, then it would be the third largest city in Nebraska. This will hold true during Volleyball Day in Nebraska.

Jane McManus was a sports reporter at ESPN for a decade. Currently, McManus directs the brand-new Center for Sports Media at Seton Hall University.

Playing volleyball in Memorial Stadium shows the momentum women’s sports have right now, she said.

“For them to recognize it (volleyball), and to put it in the football stadium really says something about the kind of platform and the kind of prominence that they see this sport deserves,” McManus said.

McManus grew up in Lincoln and graduated from Lincoln High School.

Interest in women’s sports, demand for better facilities and exposure have all been present for a long time, she said. But now, institutions and television networks are starting to understand the value in giving more opportunities for women’s sports to shine.

Wisconsin, for example, holds the single-game, regular season college volleyball attendance record after it hosted Florida inside the Badger’s basketball arena last year.

The record stands at 16,833 people … for now.

If Volleyball Day hits capacity, it will draw more than five times the number of people who were at the Wisconsin-Florida game.

None of this should come as a surprise considering the Nebraska's affinity for the sport.

Jaden Ferguson, a senior at UNK, said Volleyball Day in Nebraska will only grow that fandom.

Jaden Ferguson headshot photo.
This year is Jaden Ferguson's first year at UNK after transferring from Northwest Missouri State. (Photo courtesy of UNK Athletics)

“It's going to give girls the opportunity to see that football and basketball aren't the only sports that get to do these special things or get to have these large game coverages,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson went to high school in Lincoln. Her grandparents know the significance of Memorial Stadium well because they have season tickets for football.

She said holding the volleyball games in a football stadium shows her home state’s commitment to the success of women’s sports.

“And it's just really great for Nebraska to, kind of, be the leader in that field,” Ferguson said.

For the smaller schools playing on Aug. 30, attention toward volleyball has been strong in the past.

At UNK, the volleyball program holds 15 annual records for best attendance in Division II. Wayne State is also among the most watched teams at that level.

In 2011, UNO moved into Division I and that was followed by a spike in fan commitment. From 2013 to 2022, UNO volleyball ticket sales shot up from $3,400 annually to $55,600.

McKenna Ruch is a senior from Omaha who graduated from Millard North High School. Much of her family lives in a small, western Iowa town. But they’re all Big Red fanatics who nearly see Memorial Stadium as a house of worship.

That’s part of the reason why this opportunity is so important to her.

“When our coaches told us that it was happening. I actually cried. Like, I couldn't control it. I just had tears,” Ruch said

McKenna Ruch smiles for UNO's team photo day
Senior McKenna Ruch smiles for a photo during team photo day. (Photo by Dave Barry, Nebraska Public Media)

She expects about 24 of her family members to watch her play on Aug. 30.

Overall, Ruch said she couldn’t have imagined playing in Memorial Stadium.

“I never thought I'd get that chance. That's why it was so crazy to hear. Obviously, win or lose — no matter what happens — it's just going to be, like, such a crazy experience,” Ruch said.

Ruch’s teammate, Erica Fava, is entering her junior season. Fava grew up in Piacenza, Italy. It’s a city of about 100,000 people in northern Italy.

She spent part of high school in Wichita, Kansas. Then, Fava was offered a scholarship to play at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff.

This is her first season at UNO, but Fava sees the chance for more schools to offer events like Volleyball Day in Nebraska.

Erica Fava speaks with Nebraska Public Media for a video interview at UNO's team photo day.
Erica Fava speak with Nebraska Public Media in late July about the growth of volleyball and what Volleyball Day in Nebraska means to her. (Photo by Dave Barry, Nebraska Public Media)

“I think that that game will definitely help even if (it's) just breaking the record or whatever. I think a lot of people will pay more attention to volleyball and like support it more,” Fava said.