December 2 - The Inter-Loper
I found out on Monday that I'd be traveling this week to
the NCAA Division II Volleyball Elite Eight in Kearney,
Nebraska, in support of Dowling College, a member
of the NYCAC Conference, for which I serve as an
associate commissioner for media relations. Dowling
won the Northeast Regional last week to earn the trip.
My first thought: where is Kearney, Nebraska? My
second: aha, column fodder!
In his hit song “Turn the Page,” Bob Seger sings of a 'long and lonesome highway/East of Omaha.'
That highway would be Interstate 80, and if Seger had turned left at Omaha instead of right and gone
three hours west, he'd have been in Kearney.
Now, Kearney may well be the place “you'll never forget,” as the University of Nebraska Kearney's
slogan states. But on December 1, with morning temperatures climbing just into double digits and
the wind driving the snow on the ground into foot-plus-high drifts, the NCAA Division II Iditarod might
have been a more appropriate championship to schedule here.
As I watched Dowling fall despite a game effort in the day's first match, I thought about what might
work for the column. Dowling's assigned host, a Kearney native, told us that the school was working
with the community to make the day's fourth match, featuring the host UNK Lopers, the largest-
attended NCAA Division II volleyball match in history. UNK's arena seats around 6,000 fans; the
record was about 3,500. Having watched some college volleyball, mostly played in front of friends
and family, I thought the goal was a bit ambitious.
Clearly, I underestimated the power of “the only game in town.”
Three thousand five hundred fans? Try nearly every one of the 6,000 seats filled in
time to see the end of the very exciting Lock Haven vs. Cal State-Los Angeles match,
a standing ovation for the show put on by the two teams (Cal State rallied to win,
15-13, in the fifth game), and a deafening roar when the homestanding Lopers
galloped in for pregame warmups. T-shirts with the coach's picture on them.
Shirtless dudes with the names and numbers of the players painted on them. A pep
band. Cheerleaders. And an army of volunteers making sure the teams, media and
NCAA officials were well-taken care of.
Having lived all but four years in the New York metro area, the experience of an entire
community revolving around the local college is mostly a foreign one to me. Sure, I
understand that all activity in places like Lincoln, Nebraska and Columbus, Ohio comes to a standstill
when the 'Huskers and Buckeyes are in action. But Kearney? For the Lopers?
The logo on the floor may have said Division II, but the atmosphere was first-rate. Fans of all ages
cheered and chanted as the Lopers took on Truman State, renamed some years back for the 33rd
President and Missouri Native. The visiting Bulldogs “gave them hell, Harry” but were finally worn
down by the relentless UNK attack led by Erin Gudmundson, the National Player of the Year and a
menacing presence in the middle of the front row.
It was the kind of night, the kind of event, that every mid-major Division I school aspires to. Heck,
many pro teams would love to have this kind of support. “Go Lopers” on the marquees of Arby's,
Skeeter Barnes, Joe's Barbecue, and most other local businesses on Second Avenue, the town's
main drag. And fans who came out in support of their team, their school and their community.
And a new attendance record.