LINCOLN — What happened eight years ago could go down as one of those weird coincidences. Or simply really delicious karma.
Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook was in Hooper, Neb., one day in the summer of 2004. He just got the news that former Husker Nancy Metcalf had made the 2004 U.S. Olympic women's volleyball team.
On that day, he just happened to be making a recruiting visit at the home of Jordan Larson.
“I'm sure I mentioned (Metcalf making the team) to her,” Cook said.
Every angle counts. But no way could Cook have known he was passing the Olympic torch from Metcalf to Larson.
The rest is history. Larson was a three-time All-American and national champion for the Huskers.
But the history is just getting started. Turn on your TV today and you'll catch the girl from Hooper and her USA teammates playing in the volleyball semifinals in London. Larson is two wins away from a very historic gold medal.
She's the fourth Nebraska player to compete in Olympic volleyball, joining Lori Endicott (1992-96), Allison Weston (1996) and Metcalf (2004). But since the USA has never won a gold medal in volleyball, Larson would be the first to bring home the gold to the NU Coliseum.
Most decorated volleyball player in Nebraska history? And then some.
Exhaustive records kept by E. A. Kral of Wilber, Neb., of nationally distinguished Nebraskans (his work can be found on the Nebraska State Education Association website), shows nine native Nebraskans who have won Olympic gold medals.
All nine are men.
It's a story that has gripped the scene at the Coliseum. Practice began on Wednesday. The Huskers are back with motivation. The defending Big Ten champs were upset early in the NCAAs last year. Cook is ready to push buttons. On Tuesday he handed out bracelets to the team that read “Unfinished Business.”
Their eye is on the prize. But it's hard not to sneak a peek at London, where one of their own is tearing it up on the most talented women's volleyball team their country has produced. It's another layer of pride at a place where pride oozes through the old brick walls.
“It would be history,” Cook said. “The cool thing for Jordan is here's a kid from Hooper, Neb. Her dream is to be an Olympian. She talked about it a lot. We do goal-setting with these guys and that was always her goal.”
In fact, Larson told NBC recently that her Olympic dream started when she was 12 and starting to hit the club volleyball circuits. The development and exposure at Nebraska helped her achieve that dream.
Sounds like a good pitch the next time Cook is in a hot shot's living room.
“It's huge that she's on the Olympic team and is getting a lot of playing time,” Cook said. “Plus, she's getting a ton of TV time. TV loves her. They're always showing close-up shots of her.”
Some images make Cook cringe. The coach has instant recognition with much of this USA all-star team. Cook says a reason this team is so good is USA officials finally got one group to play together for a few years. But he knows this group all too well.
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“Tayyiba (Haneef-Park) played for Long Beach, knocked us out of the NCAAs in 1998,” Cook said. “Tamari (Miyashiro) played at Washington. Jordan aced her to win the regional there for us to go to the final four in 2008.
“Nicole Davis played for USC and cost us a final four in 2004. Megan (Hodge) played at Penn State along with Christa (Harmotto), they knocked us out in 2008 (final four).
“Logan Tom cost us a national championship in 2001. Courtney Thompson, a setter for Washington, got us in 2005 at the final four. And Destinee Hooker and Texas knocked us out in 2009.
“Most of those kids cost us a final four or national championship. We got them back a couple times. But that's what it takes to be Olympic caliber.”
The story here is that an Olympic-caliber kid grew up next door, in the small town down the highway. She played in our gyms, grew up to be the hero in red, the girl who would jump and serve rockets, who won championships and our hearts.
A Nebraska girl who makes a good living playing pro volleyball in Russia these days, but a girl who will always be a Nebraska girl. Cook says Larson and her husband have plans to build a house near Waverly.
“I told Jordan the first day she was at the Olympics that I want her to come back and be a coach at Nebraska one day,” Cook said. “Her response was, “I can't wait to be back in Nebraska and part of Husker Nation.”
That will be the topic when Cook gathers his team this week and tells them all about this Husker they see on TV.
“The story I'll tell them is here's Jordan, one of the highest-paid (volleyball) players in the world, who has never forgotten where she's from,” Cook said. “For all her success, she's still very humble.
“Here's a story I love to tell. Her senior year, I went to one of her home matches, up in the Logan View dome. And literally the kids on the other team are ducking and putting their hands over their heads because they're scared to get hit.
“Her team crushes them. She's like this giant among midgets. And I waited for 45 minutes after the game to talk to her, while she thanked every person in the gym for being there. She thanked every one of them as they were leaving. It was like a wedding.
“That's the story I want to share with these guys. How to handle success.”
With any luck, we'll find out how she handles a gold medal. First, the girl next door has some unfinished business.
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