Indoor volleyball players who want to pursue a professional playing career typically have to head overseas after their college days come to an end. Athletes Unlimited is trying to change that.
Athletes Unlimited is a network of professional sports leagues focused on presenting the sports fans love in a new and exciting way built around empowering and promoting individual athletes. The inaugural season of Athletes Unlimited Volleyball, the only professional indoor women’s volleyball league in the United States, just wrapped up this week and it included a few familiar faces for Nebraska fans.
Former Huskers Jordan Larson, Kelly Hunter and Briana Holman all competed in the league, which wrapped up its five-week season in Dallas, Texas, on Monday.
It took some convincing for Hunter to join the league, however. Athletes Unlimited first reached out to her last summer, while she was serving as an interim assistant coach at Nebraska. At the time she said she’d consider it, but she anticipated the Big Ten volleyball season getting pushed back to the spring — when the league was set to take place — and was planning to stay on with Nebraska as a volunteer assistant.
When visa issues popped up for a foreign setter Athletes Unlimited hoped she would fill a spot, Athletes Unlimited went back to Hunter and asked her once again if she’d be an alternate if the issues prevented the other setter from coming to the United States.
“I talked to Coach and he was super, super supportive,” Hunter told Hail Varsity. “I guess all last fall he was talking to the guy who runs it, Chris McGowan, because that’s who coached Jaylen [Reyes] at BYU, and he was just saying ‘Oh, Kelly’s playing really well.’ And Coach would always tell me that, ‘Oh, you’re playing really well.’ I’m like ‘OK, whatever, Coach.’”
Eventually she said yes, however, and with everyone’s blessing, left the Huskers midseason to go play herself—and earn a paycheck.
“I ended up having to go with a day’s notice,” Hunter said. “It was right before the Rutgers trip, I think. So I decided not to go because they said ‘We’re probably going to need you.’ So I signed a contract and got on a plane the next day.”
Athletes Unlimited came up with some unique rules for its league. Rather than team record, each players earns points based on team success and individual performance, and at the end of each week the four players who scored the most were named captains. Those captains redrafted teams each week. The style of play was also a bit different.
“The tempo and everything was super, super fast on offense,” Hunter said. “Just going from college to professional, the opposites aren’t subbed out in the back row the same way they are in college, so there are a lot more back-row attacks too. It was that same way when I played overseas in Turkey, so I remember that offensive stuff. I think with the style of play and changing teams every week, there was a lot of scrappy plays that happen, whether it would have been setter-hitter miscommunication where we have to kind of junk the ball over the net and scramble on the other side trying to play defense. It was kind of just a lot of crazy plays here and there which made it really, really fun.
“It was cool to see the first week compared to the last week; I felt like the level of the last week was ridiculously good and I feel like the rallies doubled in length, the average rally from the first week to the last week just because it got so competitive and the defense was crazy.”
Hunter didn’t play much the first week as a late arrival, and she said it took her a bit of time to get used to the tempo at which they were asking her to set. Before too long, however, she settled in and found her rhythm.
“I went in with the mentality of just like ‘Oh, I’m going to have fun. It could be the last time I ever play volleyball again; this is crazy, so I’m just going to go do it,’” Hunter said. “I just felt like I was so much better than in college or even my first year overseas. Maybe it was mentality because I was just like ‘Screw it.’ It was really cool because it was super high level volleyball and I felt like I adjusted really quickly and was able to get in there and I felt like I didn’t skip a beat being a little bit later than some of the other girls.”
Hunter played well enough (and got enough help from her teammates) to shoot up the leaderboard and earn a captain’s spot for the week four matches, which gave her a chance to draft her own team.
“It was very interesting,” Hunter said. “It was definitely more of a stressful process, but I feel like I was more stressed in the beginning when I was planning out like the order that I wanted to go, what position should I go with, whatever. But once the draft hit, I’m like ‘Oh, I was going to pick that person and they picked them; OK, here’s my next pick.’ It was just kind of fun and was cool getting tagged and stuff on social media. Seeing Team Hunter and stuff like that was really cool and definitely felt like a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Athletes Unlimited provided Hunter with her first chance to play on the same team as Larson, though she also had to compete against the legendary Husker.
“Any time you see a Husker anywhere, whether it’s overseas or they come back for a game, you just kind of naturally have that bond,” Hunter said. “I first really got to know Jordan when we were playing overseas in Turkey, so that was really cool. But then getting to play with her and against her was obviously a really cool experience playing with one of the best volleyball players in the world, but it was cool to get to know her and I feel like now I can call her a friend instead of like ‘Oh, we both played for Nebraska.’ Now we’re friends.”
The third Husker, Holman, won a national championship alongside Hunter. The former Nebraska middle blocker didn’t join the league until week two, but she played the rest of the way and Hunter even drafted her in week four.
“Obviously reuniting with Bri was great,” Hunter said. “She joined late too, and I was kind of like, ‘Hey want to come join us?’ She was like, ‘OK, sure.’ … I got to play with Bri two weekends so I felt like that was really cool to get that chance to play together again.”
Larson ended up taking home the title by nearly 900 points over the second-place finisher, which didn’t surprise Hunter in the slightest.
“She’s a stud and it was really cool to see that she’s a phenomenal volleyball player and she lifted everyone else up to her level and that was really cool to see her raise the level of whatever team she was on and whoever was on it,” Hunter said.
In addition to being a captain the last four weeks and earning the championship, Larson was also part of the Player Executive Community, which gave her extra responsibilities on top of what she was doing on the court. Hunter said Larson’s presence played a big part in the league’s success.
“Jordan’s got fans from all over and obviously a huge following here in Nebraska,” Hunter said. “Just being with the national team, she’s got fans from all over the country and professionally she’s played in a couple different countries, so I’m sure she got viewership from her past countries she played in. I know she played in Russia, I’m sure we had people from there watching. Just to have such a big name for people to follow, and maybe they tuned in for Jordan and saw other people that they have heard of and they’re just seeing professional volleyball in the U.S. which is like the first time that’s ever happened. I’m sure she got us a lot of people tuning in and sticking round.”
Athletes Unlimited provided the athletes a rare opportunity to not only play professionally in the United States, but to do so while the matches were being televised. Athletes Unlimited partnered with CBS Sports Network and FS1/FS2 to televise 22 matches, and the rest were available on digital platforms.
“I think the biggest thing is our families had such an opportunity to be able to watch whereas overseas it’s almost impossible to watch and it’s almost impossible for them to come and be there in person,” Hunter said. “So to have this league in the U.S. that’s so easily accessible is crazy. It was on TV, it was on YouTube, there was always some way you could watch it, and there were ways to watch it for free. That’s crazy that they could watch us at home.
“It was cool to see how people would follow along with certain players. The social media and all of the branding around it was so well done and the color commentators, Kevin [Barnett] and Salima [Rockwell] were so good. I just feel like it was a really top-notch first league.”
Athletes Unlimited announced on Tuesday that the volleyball league will return for a second season in the spring of 2022.
As for Hunter, while she had to leave Lincoln and the Huskers behind in order to play her own season, she was still following along from afar whenever she could.
“Whenever there wasn’t a conflict with my schedule, I was watching them and they were so cute, they were doing the same back to me,” Hunter said. “They were like ‘What time do you play?’ I’m like ‘Why are you worried about me? You have a game tonight.’ They were just being so sweet and I felt like I was able to follow along really well and still have a lot of phone calls with Coach Cook and stuff like that. Not like really consulting, but just helping him stay sane.”
Now she’ll get to do that in person for the Huskers’ NCAA Tournament run. After she undergoes COVID-19 testing and is cleared, she’s planning to rejoin the Huskers for the rest of the season.
“They’re letting me come back,” Hunter said. “I did well enough, Coach said.”
Hunter’s future beyond the tournament is still up in the air, but it won’t include another trip overseas, as much as she enjoyed her playing experience with Athletes Unlimited.
“A lot of people were like ‘Do you want to go play overseas again now?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ Not the overseas life,” Hunter said. “I’m really, really excited to be back with the girls and back with Nebraska because I missed them so much and just missed that program and I was really sad to leave. Just really excited to be back with them to finish out the season and then see what coaching jobs come from there.”
The Huskers will learn their postseason fate on Sunday. The NCAA Tournament Selection Show is scheduled for 3 p.m. CT on ESPNU.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.