LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s fight song begins, “There is no place like Nebraska.” When it comes to volleyball, those words never rang more true than Wednesday night.
The Cornhuskers laid claim to the world record for largest attendance at a women’s sporting event with 92,003 filling Memorial Stadium for their volleyball match against Omaha.
The university took aim at the record last spring when it announced it would hold a daylong celebration of a sport that enjoys immense popularity in this state of fewer than 2 million.
“We took a chance by playing in Memorial Stadium, and to go for the record and break it. … I don’t think anybody could have envisioned that when this whole thing started,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “It feels like a great accomplishment for this sport called volleyball played by women. It’s a state treasure. We proved it.”
The event began with an exhibition between in-state Division II powers Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State and was followed by the Huskers’ three-set sweep of Omaha in a regular-season match. Country artist Scotty McCreery performed afterward.
Memorial Stadium’s official capacity is just over 85,000 for football, but that number was higher for this event because there were seats and standing room on the field.
Fans in red and white started their tailgate parties outside the stadium hours before first serve of an exhibition Wayne State won in three sets. The stadium was one-quarter full at the start of that match and gradually filled to capacity as players for Omaha and Nebraska were warming up.
There was a flyover during the national anthem and, minutes before first serve, Cook led his Huskers into the stadium to the Tunnel Walk, the longtime tradition of the football team. Synchronized chants of “Go Big Red!” were heard all around.
Conditions were 83 degrees, clear skies and a south wind listed at 4-mph at court level with gusts that sometimes moved the ball in unpredictable ways.
The American record attendance for a women’s sporting event had been 90,185 for the 1999 World Cup soccer final between the United States and China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California — the game where Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt after scoring the decisive penalty shot for the U.S. win.
Nebraska has sold out 306 consecutive regular-season matches. (Wednesday’s event won’t count toward the streak because it is not being held on the team’s Devaney Center court.) The Huskers have led the nation in attendance every season since 2013, and eight of the top nine crowds in NCAA volleyball history are matches that have involved Nebraska.
Nebraska has won five national championships in volleyball, and its program is one of the few in Division I women’s sports that turns a profit — $1 million last year, according to athletic department CFO Doug Ewald.
“This is a statement on Title IX, and having two daughters of my own, what Title IX has done for women’s sports is huge,” fan Troy Pfannenstiel of Omaha said before the matches.
Chancellor Rodney Bennett canceled classes for the day. NCAA President Charlie Baker, Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti were on hand, as was Gov. Jim Pillen. So were Husker volleyball players who were part of iconic coach Terry Pettit’s teams over four decades. High school teams from across a state stretching 430 miles border to border were excused from classes to attend.
There are 75 women from the state of Nebraska who are on Division I volleyball rosters this season. At 44 players per million in population, the state trails only Hawaii (67 per million) in Division I players produced per capita, according to volleyball statistician and historian Rich Kern of RichKern.com.
“You don’t think you’re going to be part of a world record event, and seeing how much everyone supports volleyball and wanted to be part of that record is awesome to see,” Omaha’s Shayla McCormick said.
Volleyball has surpassed basketball as the No. 1 girls high school team sport in the United States. It’s long been No. 1 in Nebraska.
About 7,000 girls play high school volleyball in the state. Volleyball has been played in varying forms in Nebraska since the early 1900s. For many years, girls volleyball matches were warmup acts for boys basketball games. Volleyball became a sanctioned sport in 1972 and took off in the late 1970s when Pettit invited many of the state’s high school coaches to work at his camps in Lincoln.
Pettit also conducted so-called “satellite” clinics in small towns across the state. In a place where boys grow up dreaming of becoming Cornhusker football players, many girls are equally passionate about some day playing volleyball for a Nebraska team that annually ranks among the nation’s elite.
Ella Beck, 10, came with a group from tiny Pierce to see her first college volleyball match and root for her favorite player, setter Lexi Rodriguez.
Neveah Kehr, 10, came with her mom, Nicki, from Bismarck, North Dakota, to be part of the event. Nicki graduated from Nebraska, and she brought up her daughter watching the Huskers on television.
Neveah wore the No. 5 jersey of middle blocker Bekka Allick at a pep rally before the matches and, with more than 1,000 fans cheering, was invited to walk to where the players stood and was introduced to the woman she called her idol.