Huskers don't disapoint hometown faithful

Updated: December 18, 2006, 7:04 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- The true volleyball fans understand and appreciate all of it: the positioning, the strategy, the passing, the subtle spins on serves, the digs, the sets.

But absolutely everybody understands the beautiful thunder and lightning of this sport: the kills.

Here in Nebraska, where the love of the Cornhuskers stretches passionately from side-to-side and top-to-bottom of the state, you have plenty of both kinds of folks. There are volleyball aficionados who've followed their Big Red Machine as it's plowed over most of its competition for three decades now. And there are people who may not know a whole lot except how cool it is when a Husker loudly puts one on the floor.

Saturday night, they were all packed into the Qwest Center -- 17,209, the largest crowd in collegiate volleyball history. Most were wearing Husker red, and they came to watch their team try to knock off one of the very few volleyball programs that's a little higher on the royalty scale than Nebraska.

That would be six-time NCAA champion Stanford, a school that's won more NCAA matches (82) than any other. But the Huskers are second on that list with 70, including their 3-1 win in the final (27-30, 30-26, 30-28, 30-27) that gave Nebraska its third NCAA title in this sport.

"Just the whole atmosphere, being with my best friends on the court … I'm just ecstatic right now," said Nebraska outside hitter Sarah Pavan, who was named the championship's most outstanding player. "It feels unbelievable to know that we're the best team in the country."

The Canadian superstar Pavan certainly had a strong interest in attending Stanford, and she more than had the grades. But then she visited Nebraska, was very impressed with its biochemistry department and made the move to Lincoln.

Hard to imagine the Huskers would have been here Saturday without her. Pavan, a junior, is just about the perfect genetic model of a volleyball player. It's like somebody said, "So … dream up an amazing outside hitter," and this is what happened.

She's 6-foot-5, has the accompanying impressive wingspan, can leap, instinctively understands the sport and -- for an added twist -- is left-handed. And we're serious about the genetics of this: Pavan's father, Paul, was her high school and club volleyball coach, while her mother, Cindy, played on the Canadian national team in the late 1970s.

Pavan is a 4.0 student in biochemistry -- what is it with this sport and its ludicrous overachievers? -- who this season was named national player of the year and academic All-American of the year. She had taken even more of the weight for the Huskers because teammate Christina Houghtelling was on the sidelines.

Houghtelling was the national player of the year last season, when Nebraska lost the NCAA title match to Washington. But she had a labrum tear in her right shoulder, and after arthroscopic surgery over the summer was forced to redshirt what would have been her senior season.

The Huskers were still preseason No. 1 and lost just one match -- at Colorado -- coming into the NCAA Tournament. And they all lived every day with what was "expected" of them: They were supposed to make it to the Final Four here in Omaha, guaranteeing the place would be sold out.

Yeah, that's a lot to have on your mind when you're fighting your way through a difficult NCAA bracket. It almost got to be too much. In the regional final against Minnesota in Gainesville, Fla., the Huskers were down 2-0.

They were looking at the biggest sports nightmare any of them could imagine: a Final Four in their home state -- less than an hour away from the Lincoln campus -- and them not playing in it. That fear might have overwhelmed them while they sat in the locker room in the break before the third game. It would have overwhelmed a lot of kids.

But Nebraska fought back and won 3-2, thinking only point-to-point-to-point and not the big picture of "How would we live with this if we lost?" Credit coach John Cook for that, but also this group of Huskers, led by their red-haired Canadian giant who keeps a poker face much of the time she's on the court.

Which is not the standard demeanor of volleyball players, most of whom look more excited than triumphant game-show contestants after every winning point. Oh sure, Pavan can celebrate, too, but she typically has a steely look that says, "Set me. Set me. Set me."

Teammate Rachel Holloway did a lot, this season. Including Saturday.

"She was on fire," said Holloway, the Huskers' redshirt freshman setter. "She kept telling me to feed her the ball, and she kept putting it away. So I kept feeding it, and she got the job done."

Pavan said, "Her sets were unbelievable. I was, like, drooling when I was hitting them."

Pavan and fellow first-team All-American Jordan Larson each had 45 attacks in the final and finished with identical .378 hitting percentages. Pavan had 22 kills and Larson 19.

It was all too much for Stanford. Pavan and Larson swinging away. Senior libero Dani Busboom, from the little bitty town of Cortland, Neb., diving for 21 digs. An Omaha native, Dani Mancuso, coming up with 12 kills. The roars of the Nebraska fans.

"It was probably the biggest match ever in NCAA women's volleyball history, in terms of scope," Stanford coach John Dunning said, adding of the crowd, "The red wave is pretty powerful. And to have that behind them was a big thing. But they just played great; it wasn't the crowd that won the match. But you can feel it out there, there's no doubt about it."

After the match, Nebraska coach John Cook talked about what this meant for his program, which will have Houghtelling back next year with Pavan and Larson killing right and left.

"I think this could be one of the biggest impacts on this sport in a long, long time," Cook said of the excitement and enthusiasm that gripped Omaha. "It's still a dream for me. As a coach, when you're down there, you feel like you're floating.

"I think the biggest thing I always want to say is in this state, you always have to dream big. For all the little girls who saw this, and the girls on our team who got a chance to do this -- their lives are changed forever after tonight."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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