This article originally appeared in The World-Herald on Dec. 17, 2006.
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A state's passion for women's volleyball soared Saturday night at Qwest Center Omaha.
The NCAA record-setting crowd of 17,209, overwhelmingly pro-Nebraska, cheered the Huskers to a 3-1 win over Stanford to claim the women's national volleyball championship.
The gut-churning victory over perennially strong Stanford thrilled new fans and old ones in the raucous arena. Count Megan Leise, a fourth-grader from Omaha, among the new fans.
She crossed her fingers, her arms and her legs as Nebraska pulled out the critical third game. Before Stanford made one final run at Nebraska in the fourth, she was already in line to buy a Husker championship T-shirt.
She is too young to know how quickly leads can disappear, and how sports dreams can turn into heartbreak within minutes. But that did not happen Saturday night.
"And what's great, " her father, Daryl Leise, said of the Huskers, "is that so many of them are from Nebraska."
Seven of 12, to be precise.
When the Huskers jogged off the court after warmups, most in the crowd stood and roared. They clapped in unison as the University of Nebraska pep band belted out, "Dear Old Nebraska U." The fans then boomed, "Go Big Red! Go Big Red!"
They held signs such as "Even Santa Prefers Nebraska" (the first initials were a tribute to ESPN2, which televised the game) and "We Love Pavan, " a tribute to the Huskers' superb Sarah Pavan.
One section of Stanford fans cheered on the Cardinal and had every reason to feel confident. Stanford won the first game and led in the second. Some Stanford fans chirped and screeched when Husker players served, and one held up a sign: "Enjoy Second Place, Nebraska."
One Cardinal fan, Katy Timmers of Cincinnati, wore a gray Stanford T-shirt and smiled before the match began. Timmers' niece is Bryn Kehoe, a fine setter for Stanford. Timmers said she had not been hassled by Nebraska fans and called the atmosphere electric. "Good people, " she said.
Nerves jangled, both on the court and in the stands. Stanford's Cynthia Barboza laughed and stomped her feet as an
AC/DC song rang out over the public-address system.
During introductions, Nebraska's Kori Cooper grinned broadly and hopped. And as they lined up for the opening serve, Pavan stood stone-faced, then looked at teammate Rachel Schwartz and offered the slightest smile.
During the third game, Pat Feilmeier of Hartington, Neb., peered through binoculars down onto the court from the wide hallway.
"Oh, yeah, I'm very nervous, " Feilmeier said. "I think they can do it, though."
As Nebraska began to put away Game 4 and the title, he and thousands of others grew giddy. "Yeah!" he said when the lead grew to 27-20 in the final game. "This game is ours!" He thrust a fist into the air.
Rose Garey and her husband, Gary (yes, Gary Garey), 73 and 75 years old, respectively, remember attending Husker volleyball games at the NU Coliseum some 25 years ago. That was when they could pull down metal folding chairs and sit near the court.
The Gareys hoped there would be no booing of opponents, and there was none Saturday night. "You don't do that in volleyball, " Gary Garey cautioned.
The Gareys, of Syracuse, Neb., drove home euphoric Saturday night. "Wasn't that great?" Rose Garey said. "I hardly have any voice left."
It was a night for Husker volleyball fans to worry, exhort, celebrate and lose their voices. It was a night to claim a title.