Volleyball state: It’s Nebraska, with 2 teams alive in NCAA

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) Nebraska has made it to another NCAA volleyball regional. Nothing new, it has advanced this far 21 times in the last 22 years.

Creighton, located about 50 miles northeast of Nebraska's Lincoln campus, is in a regional, too. It's the first time for the Bluejays.

This state of 1.8 million produces a bevy of Division I players every year. Having two teams in the final 16 of the national tournament shines a spotlight on the strong volleyball culture that took root here in the 1970s.

If Nebraska and Creighton can win their regionals this weekend – a tall order given the Bluejays play top-seeded Southern California in San Diego on Friday – they would meet in a national semifinal on Dec. 17. That semifinal, by the way, would be in Omaha.

''That would be a dream come true to come back to Omaha and play in the final four,'' Creighton setter Maggie Baumert said. ''We have to take care of the first game first.''

Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth deflects any question about the possibility of an all-Nebraska national semifinal played in Nebraska. She does, however, love that there are a combined 16 Nebraskans on the Huskers' and Bluejays' rosters.

''I go back to our high school coaches, our club coaches. They are developing such phenomenal athletes in this small state,'' Bernthal Booth said. ''We are really, really fortunate.''

Wayne State, in northeast Nebraska, is in the final eight of the Division II tournament, with 12 of its 15 players homegrown. Two other state schools, Hastings College and Midland University, made the final 12 of the NAIA tournament.

Nebraska (28-4) is the No. 4 seed in the Division I tournament and takes a 12-match win streak, its longest since 2011, into a match against BYU on Friday in Lexington, Kentucky. BYU knocked the Huskers out of regionals last year.

''When you get to a regional, there's 16 teams left and everybody's good, so we're going to have to go play great next weekend,'' Nebraska coach John Cook said. ''We don't have any other choice. I think this team has earned the right to feel confident and go in there and know we're going to play our best weekend of the year.''

Creighton (27-8) is the No. 16 seed for its fifth tournament in six years. The Big East champion Bluejays have won 22 of their last 23 matches. Last week they went on the road for the first and second rounds and defeated Coastal Carolina and host North Carolina.

That set up their regional semifinal against USC, which features national player-of-the-year contender Samantha Bricio. The Women of Troy dominated Creighton in a September match in Cedar Falls, Iowa, outscoring the Bluejays 25-8 in the third set to finish a sweep.

Bernthal Booth said she considers that match ancient history.

''We're not going to go in scared or intimidated,'' she said. ''We know we're playing a great team.''

Creighton's roster features nine players from Nebraska, including All-Big East first-team picks in middle blocker Lauren Smith and Baumert, and five others who are starters or played the majority of sets. Bernthal Booth, the Big East coach of the year, and assistant coach Angie Oxley Behrens also are Nebraska natives.

Seven players for the Huskers are from Nebraska, including All-Big Ten outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen, all-conference middle blocker Amber Rolfzen and setter Kelly Hunter. Assistant coach Dani Busboom Kelly, a former Husker, also grew up in the state.

Nebraska, which finished second to Minnesota in the Big Ten, defeated Harvard and Wichita State in Lincoln to reach a regional.

Baumert said she is friends with a few of the Nebraska players and attended Husker matches while growing up in Lincoln. She can only imagine how crazy the atmosphere would be around Omaha and in the stands if Creighton and Nebraska were to play at the CenturyLink Center next week.

''Who would wear red,'' she said, ''and who would wear blue?''