Hard to believe it's been nearly five years since Jordan Larson took the floor in the state of Nebraska for a real volleyball match.
It was Dec. 18, 2008, when Larson and her Nebraska teammates nearly pulled the greatest upset in school history. Facing a Penn State team that had won not only 36 straight matches but 109 straight sets, the Huskers rallied to win the third and fourth sets after dropping the first two in their national semifinal at then-Qwest Center Omaha.
Penn State rebounded to win the fifth 15-11, ending Larson's spectacular career.
“I was there,” said Team USA coach Karch Kiraly, who was providing color commentary for ESPN. “That was an amazing night of volleyball. Two semifinal matches that went to the fifth set, and it was the only two sets that Penn State lost (that year). Nebraska almost won the match.”
Now Jordan Larson-Burbach, the Hooper, Neb., native made a triumphant return to her home state Monday, helping Team USA to a 25-9, 25-12, 25-11 win over Mexico in its first Pool B match of the NORCECA Continental Championship before 1,700 fans at Ralston Arena.
The 6-foot-2 Larson-Burbach finished with seven kills, two blocks and two aces Monday as the United States, ranked second in the world, outclassed No. 25 Mexico in 61 minutes of court time.
“It was great to be home and obviously play in front of the home crowd,” the 2012 Olympic silver medalist said. “I'm just glad Team USA got to experience that and actually play in the United States. It's a great opportunity for us. It doesn't happen very often.”
Playing all over the world for the past five years, Larson-Burbach said the experience of playing on American soil is still sinking in.
“We showed up on Saturday, and I was like, 'It's weird. We're in Nebraska. It doesn't seem real,' ” she said. “It's still hitting home for me, but it's great to be back and I just love it here.”
Many in the crowd were dressed in red, and they stood and cheered as Larson-Burbach unleashed her patented jump serve on match point. It led to a Mexico overpass, and Lauren Gibbemeyer eventually smashed one to the floor to end it.
Larson-Burbach took some time away from the sport after the Olympics, and Kiraly said she looks energized and enthusiastic.
“She was with us for little bits and pieces, but now she's truly reintegrating back into the 2013 team and system, and we're excited for her to be able to do that here in Nebraska,” he said.
Opposite-side hitter Kelly Murphy, a 6-2 three-time All-American at Florida from 2009 to 2011, led Team USA with 12 kills.
“She is among other athletes who have very little or zero USA experience until this year,” Kiraly said. “Kelly is one of those who blossomed tremendously over the course of this year. ... One of the hallmarks of our offense is we want to run with a lot of speed, and she allows us to do that.”
Nine countries from North America, Central America and the Caribbean (NORCECA) are represented in the tournament, with the winner advancing to the FIVB Grand Champions Cup in November. Matches will be played here at 4, 6 and 8 p.m. through Saturday. Team USA returns to action at 8 p.m. Wednesday against 15th-ranked Cuba.
Kiraly hopes Midlands fans continue to support the event the rest of the week. He said his players truly relish the chance to play in the United States.
“It is a very challenging life,” he said. “These athletes have a tough life, because it's a dual life. It's a USA life from May to the end of September or so. And right after this tournament, the other half of their volleyball life is that they all disperse around the world to clubs in every country you can think of.
“This is a great way to kind of finish the main USA season, with family and friends and amongst a lot of people who bring great comfort to us, before they have to go away and not see a lot of those faces for many months.”
Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico win easily
The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico volleyball teams posted easy pool-play victories on the opening day of the NORCECA Women's Continental Championship on Monday at Ralston Arena.
The Dominican Republic, ranked eighth in the world, handled No. 26 Costa Rica 25-13, 25-6, 25-20 in a 70-minute Pool A match. Gina Mambru and Yonkaira Pena led the Dominican Republic with nine kills apiece.
In Pool C, Puerto Rico, rated 20th in the world, dispatched No. 63 St. Lucia 25-9, 25-15, 25-12. For Puerto Rico, which enjoyed a 43-15 advantage in kills, Karina Ocasio and Lynda Morales shared the team lead with 10 points.twitter.com/KWhiteOWH