MINNEAPOLIS — Kristin Fasbender didn’t panic when the hometown Minnesota Gophers were eliminated from the NCAA volleyball tournament before reaching the final four in Minneapolis.
Fasbender, an Omaha native who runs operations for the final four as the NCAA’s director of championships, knew the Twin Cities were getting the next best thing with Nebraska.
Attendance at the volleyball final four has swelled over the past four years, thanks in no small part to four straight appearances by the Huskers. Their two matches at the final four in Omaha in 2015 drew the largest crowds in the sport’s history. That stood until NU’s two matches in Kansas City last year, where an NCAA-record crowd of 18,516, most wearing Husker red, watched Nebraska beat Florida for its fifth national championship. On Saturday night, a crowd of 18,113 at the Target Center watched Nebraska push top-seeded Stanford to five sets before falling in a bid for a repeat title.
“I thought with Nebraska winning that regional in Minnesota, they will travel,” Fasbender said. “And those folks who hadn’t already purchased tickets, there will be a lot of folks who hopped in cars and said ‘We’ll drive up for the weekend and watch some volleyball.’ ”
She was thinking of people like Megan and Daniel Helberg of Taylor, Nebraska, about 80 miles north of Kearney and 475 from Minneapolis. Megan coaches the Burwell High School volleyball team, and she and her husband decided to add a few miles to their drive by swinging through Hastings and picking up a friend for the trip to the Twin Cities.
Leigh and Blake Becher of Lincoln had already planned to travel to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Sunday to watch the NU men’s basketball game against Oklahoma State. But when the Husker volleyball team survived a five-set semifinal with Illinois on Thursday to advance to Saturday’s final, the Bechers decided to start their road trip a day early and try to find tickets when they arrived in Minneapolis.
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For Dani Nelson, the volleyball final four has been as much a part of her college experience as final exams. The UNL senior finished her first semester of college by watching Nebraska win the 2015 title in Omaha and also made the trip to Kansas City last year.
As the Huskers finished off their semifinal win over Illinois on Thursday before a crowd of 17,808, Nelson called a friend who had gone to Minneapolis for the semifinals and urged the friend to find her a ticket.
“Being able to say that I’ve been to all three national championship games while in school here will be really cool,” she said.
Husker fans crowded Lyon’s Pub on Sixth Street on Saturday afternoon and packed the atrium at Minneapolis City Center before migrating to the Target Center for the championship match.
Student-athletes feed off the fans’ energy, said Fasbender, herself a former track athlete at Nebraska. The NCAA’s television partners at ESPN have taken notice of the growth of the volleyball final four, adding a live, on-court studio show to the broadcast for the past two years.
“There’s always that perception that the more people you have in the venue the more popular the sport is,” Fasbender said. “The atmosphere that it brings and the things we’re trying to do in the venue to make it a great experience for our student-athletes, that atmosphere then being shown on ESPN for four hours (Thursday) night, that is huge for the sport to continue to grow.”
Television exposure was key for Nebraska volleyball popularity to bloom in the state, NU coach John Cook explained for a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week. NET televising matches helped expose the sport to fans beyond the program’s birthplace at the NU Coliseum.
The Huskers now play at the Devaney Center, which seats more than 8,000, and have sold out 255 straight home matches.
But recent final fours have demonstrated that their traveling fan base can do more than their share to fill final four arenas twice that large.
Some Husker fans spent their second straight weekend in the Twin Cities after watching the Huskers win their regional 3 miles from the Target Center in the home arena of the Minnesota Gophers.
After the Gophers, the No. 2 national seeds behind Stanford, were upset in the regional semifinals, there were quite a few vacant seats for the Huskers’ regional final matchup with Kentucky, including in the row right in front of John and Mary Kaldahl from Superior, Nebraska. That left room for Michelle and Russ Olson, who had made the drive up from their home in Stuart, Nebraska, and settled in front of the Kaldahls. The couples became fast friends as they bonded watching their Huskers clinch a spot in the final four.
After trading phone numbers, the Olsons and Kaldahls met back up in Minneapolis this weekend, sharing lunch on Friday at Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market, where they discussed the Huskers’ semifinal rally to dispatch Illinois.
“They always can come back and win,” Mary Kaldahl said. “They’re good.”
The Olsons hadn’t been to a Husker volleyball match before seeing one on NET. Now, they’re already eyeing hotel prices in Pittsburgh, the site of next year’s final four.
“We’re going to go next year,” Russ Olson said, “because Nebraska’s going.”