LINCOLN — It feels good. No, it feels ... right for Gina Mancuso to end up playing in the CenturyLink Center this weekend.
That is where she watched her older sister Dani win a national championship with the Nebraska volleyball team in 2006. It's where she sat in 2008, as a high school All-American who recently signed to join the Husker program herself, watching her future teammates nearly pull an upset of a Penn State team that hadn't dropped a set all season.
And, starting Friday, it's where Mancuso will try to lead Nebraska back to the Final Four for the first time in the careers of her senior class. No. 10 Nebraska (25-6) will face No. 5 Washington (25-6) at 6 p.m. in a regional semifinal.
“It's cool. It's special,” Mancuso said. “Hopefully, having lots of fans and support there. It being my hometown, it will be cool.”
It has been four years since Mancuso played her first collegiate match at Nebraska, which, appropriately enough, also came in the CenturyLink Center when the Huskers hosted the AVCA College Showcase. To her, it seems like yesterday. But to Mancuso, the line between what it feels like and what it is can go gray.
In 2009, Mancuso felt like she was a candidate for regular playing time in the Husker rotation. Sure, she was a little lean, but she earned national accolades at Papillion-La Vista. She finished second on the state's all-time list in kills. With All-American Tara Mueller as Nebraska's lone returning left-side hitter, Mancuso figured, at worst, she could be the first attacker off the bench.
Coach John Cook wasn't convinced.
“She wasn't ready as a freshman,” Cook said. “They all think they're ready. She was Gatorade (National High School) Player of the Year. I'm sure she thought she was ready.”
Cook, to Mancuso's dismay, wanted her to redshirt. Mancuso balked at the idea. If you want to play, Cook told her, you'll be on the receiving end of big swings, not taking them.
So while Hannah Werth earned a starting spot and led the team in kills as a freshman, Mancuso was used only in the back row as a serving and ball-handling sub for opposite hitter Lindsey Licht.
“Being in that position, it kind of opens your eyes,” Mancuso said. “You have to be a team player. Your time to shine is in practice. Being on the 'B' side is going to make the 'A' side better. You kind of have to change your mind-set and embrace that role.”
It took time to see how valuable those first two years were. The spindly freshman was fourth in the Big 12 in aces in 2009 and became a more polished passer. The girl who thought she was ready fresh out of high school put in two seasons realizing how big the transition to college was. Two years honing her skills in empty practice gyms, two years pumping iron instead of pumping up the crowd.
“I just think she's gotten older, more mature and stronger,” Cook said. “She's worked really hard. Husker Power has really helped her.”
The Gina Mancuso of 2011 didn't just feel ready. She was ready. As Nebraska moved into the Big Ten, Mancuso moved into the national volleyball consciousness to earn All-America honors in her first season as a starter, leading the team with 3.60 kills per set.
This year, Mancuso again is the top Husker attacker and put together one of the finest all-around seasons in the Big Ten. Of the eight left-side hitters on the all-conference team, Mancuso is second in aces (0.28 per set) and has the third-highest attack percentage. Playing all six rotations, Mancuso averages 2.35 digs per set and is often a target of opponents' serves.
She has the most versatile offensive repertoire on the team, executing cross-court shots and attacks down the line with equal ease, keeping Nebraska's opponents off-balance.
“I remember in club she just used to pound it straight down. Now she has all these crazy shots,” said Husker setter Lauren Cook, who also played with Mancuso on the Nebraska Juniors club team.
“We've gone back for a long time, and it's really neat to be able to see how she's grown as a player, and not only as a player but also as a leader.”
That responsibility is motivation enough, Gina said, but once a day this week, her phone has lit up with a text from her sister Dani, who is married to former Husker running back Roy Helu, now with the Washington Redskins.
Simple messages like “Dream like a champion,” or “Breathe like a champion.” The Helus can't make it to Omaha this weekend, but promised to drive to Louisville if the Huskers make the Final Four.
“Just been motivating me every day,” Gina said Thursday. “She's been (there) and I'm glad that she's been in these experiences so she knows how I'm feeling, and she's been a good sister offering advice and motivation as well.”
In her hometown, in her senior year, it's exactly where Gina wants to be. It feels just right.
Contact the writer: