Husker Women’s Volleyball: The Early Years

Volleyball has always been important to me. Though I never actually played competitively as part of a team, several of my relatives have, including my cousins, my aunt, and even my mother. Indeed, the joys of watching and playing volleyball are something I have shared with the female members of my family. Yet, I know that such joy of watching our Husker girls compete was not always shared. When my aunt, Nancy Nielsen, then known as Nancy Wilkinson, played for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln women’s first volley team, things were quite different. For Nancy and her fellow teammates, ridicule, lack of privileges, and little support from anybody were some of the hardships they had to face. But there was also the joy of being able to play purely for the love of it.

Though there had been women playing volleyball in campus clubs since the early 20th century, there was never a sponsored team until 1975. What made this possible was through both Title IX, which gave men and women the freedom to pursue entrance into fields that had once been considered unsuitable for their sex, and the efforts of Bob Devaney, UNL’s sports administrator and former football coach. According to Nancy, Devaney worked hard to keep women’s sports afloat, despite controversy of using money that could have gone to mens sports.

Despite having support from UNL’s sport’s administrator and the government to play, Nancy and her teammates had to deal with hardships that many current players could not imagine. The foremost of this was the ridicule. Nancy said that many of the girls were called names and criticized for playing.

“We were told that we should wear skirts over our shorts,” said Nancy, “It was unlady-like to work up a sweat. My boyfriend in high school was astonished that a girl would go down to the floor to dig a ball. It was just unheard of that we would play that hard.”  When the team flew down for a game in Oklahoma, they were mistaken for cheerleaders by a hockey team. Yet, when the people found out that they were actually volleyball players, they corrected themselves, saying they were “too ugly for cheerleaders.”

unl women's volleyball team courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star

UNL women’s volleyball team 1975 courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star. Nancy is the third from the left on the top row.

Of course, the ridicule was not the only hardship Nancy and her teammates had to face. Many of the privileges our modern players take for granted had to be fought for, or were even nonexistent. For example, the first teams were minimally sponsored. Indeed, the girls had to run camps in the summer to raise money for off-season club teams, which they joined as part of spring training, and pay for extra uniforms. The girls also received no bus service when traveling. They had to take vans, which they drove themselves. Then, after un-expectantly qualifying to go to nationals in New Jersey, Bob Devaney had to get donations in order to provide the girls with plane tickets, hotel and food expenses. No one anticipated that girls would be nationally ranked which required more funding.

Training was also no easy feat for these girls. “We had to chase the men practicing basketball out of the Coliseum to practice.” Though they were never allowed near the training table or given access to nutritionists “due to the perception that we’d end up looking like or eating like linebackers,” they were given a chance to use the weight room from midnight to six in the morning.

Advertising their games was also very different. The newspaper didn’t do any advertisements or list their schedules, so they had to make their own posters and sell home tickets themselves.

During preparation for the games, the girls had to put up their own nets, and put out folding chairs because there were no bleachers. And even during the games, things were different. There were no concessions, no cheerleaders, although they sometimes got a pep band, and the crowds were very small. They didn’t have runners, so they had to chase down their own balls and wipe the sweat off the courts before they could continue playing. They also didn’t sign autographs after the game, and had to take everything down afterwards.  It was only in the 80’s that things began to change for Nebraska Girls’ Volleyball.

Despite all the hardships my aunt and her teammates faced, there were upsides. They were constantly learning new things; new tricks and new ways of making things easier for themselves.

“We played for the fun of competition and wanted to be the best; we wanted to win but didn’t have the pressure placed on us by the media,” said Nancy. “But then again, I feel that if the women’s athletic programs had not been competitive and fun to watch, we wouldn’t have gotten support, and the men’s complaint that we were just taking away money from the men’s program may have been justified. But we were successful, and the University, the coaches and support staff have built on that initial success. And it is amazing to see how far we’ve come. I love to watch the women play and compete. We are women – hear us roar and now – we’re here to stay!”

About: Meranda Wellman

Meranda Wellman is a recent graduate with a degree in English and Medieval Renaissance Studies from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Her hobbies include reading, writing, sewing, and participating in Medieval Reenactment events.