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Photo Credit: Eric Francis

One Husker, One Bluejay, Malcolm in the Middle

September 05, 2018

Just to the north and west of Lincoln sits the village of Malcolm with an estimated population of around 400. On Thursday, most of that community will relocate to CHI Health Center Omaha, the site of this year’s volleyball showdown between No. 7 Nebraska (4-1) and No. 14 Creighton (4-2).

Malcolm High School, with a ninth-through-12th grade enrollment of around 200, has produced two high-level volleyball players in the past two years — Hayley Densberger and Jaela Zimmerman — and on Thursday, those two will line up on opposite sides of the net for the the first time, with most of Malcolm in the stands cheering them on.

Densberger, a sophomore at Nebraska, is a Malcolm native whose mother works at the school. Like many young girls in the state, she grew up dreaming of one day being a Husker, but it wasn’t until her junior season, thanks to some encouragement from her coaches, that she really started to think she could make that dream a reality.

Dan Mader, a grad assistant at Nebraska from 2013 to 2015 who was also the master coach for VCNebraska (Densberger’s club program), put her on Coach John Cook’s radar. 

“He just said ‘Hey, you guys need to check her out. I think she wants to come to Nebraska,’” Cook said. “So we did, and here we are.”

She committed to walk on at Nebraska prior to her senior year. The decision wasn’t easy, though. Densberger was an outside hitter in high school, but at 5-foot-9, that wasn’t an option for her at the next level if she wanted to play at Nebraska. She turned down scholarship offers and the chance to hit at lower levels to stay home and play in the back row for the Huskers.

She saw the court in 30 matches during her freshman year as a serving specialist, and this season she’s playing three rotations as a defensive specialist. She has 25 digs on the season and is coming off one of the best serving weekends he’s seen.

“It’s been such an awesome learning experience with everything,” Densebrger said. “Just being open to new positions has been awesome for me. All the coaches and my teammates, they’ve been amazing along the way of just helping me transition to each new role, and I think that’s so awesome. When I was trying to decide what college to go to, I didn’t know, do I want to give up hitting? Do I want to make that jump to be a DS or a serving specialist? I’m so glad I did because I love being a DS, I love being in the back row.”

Zimmerman was a different story. She grew up in Lincoln but followed in her older siblings' footsteps and attended Malcolm for school. Her parents went to a small school themselves and wanted their children to have a similar experience.

Listed at 6-foot-2, height wasn’t ever going to hold her back like it might have Densberger. She blew up into a highly-touted recruit, twice earning All-America honors from PrepVolleyball.com and landing inside the site’s top 50 prospects in the 2018 class. The Huskers showed interest in her early; in fact, Nebraska was the second school from which she received a letter. However, she fell in love with the school 60 miles away.

“As a Nebraska kid, that’s like your dream of playing [for the Huskers],” Zimmerman said. “But then you realize that there’s this awesome university right down the road and it changed.”

She committed to Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth a few months before Densberger committed to Nebraska, despite being a year younger.

Zimmerman and her younger brother, Clayton, watched a lot of volleyball together growing up, and last season that meant she got a chance to see her former teammate play on the big stage a number of times, including in the 2017 national championship. Zimmerman and the Clippers had a basketball game the day of the match, so she and her teammates watched the Huskers take down Florida from the school commons.

“It was really fun,” Zimmerman said. “The whole community of Malcolm was really excited for her.”

Now it’s Zimmerman’s turn. This season, she has played in five of Creighton’s six matches so far and has 16 kills with just five errors.

“I think she’s done a great job,” Booth said. “I think the fun part with watching freshmen is they improve a lot of times at such a quick pace, getting comfortable. One thing with Jaela is she’s such a low-error kid that sometimes she puts balls in play that we want her to go after a little bit more, so that transition. I think she did a really good job this past weekend, kind of for the first, playing right side. It’s not her home position.”

On Thursday, Zimmerman is going to share the court with Densberger once again. At Malcolm, they formed a dynamic duo that led the Clippers to an 82-11 record over the three seasons they played together.

“It was so fun” Densberger said. “We had such a fun atmosphere in practice and in games. We obviously knew when to be serious and when to take each other seriously but we just had a blast doing everything. In the tough drills, we made it easier for each other and in the tough games, we knew we had each other’s backs. It was just fun to play freely and know the people you were by had your back.”

Amber Dolliver, the volleyball coach at Malcolm, recognized the potential to play at the highest level in both players “early on.”

“Both of those two started all four years and the biggest thing with both of them is they’re just going to outwork everybody,” Dolliver said. “Obviously there’s some talent and some ability there, but the time and effort they put into the game is just amazing. So way early on. With Hayley’s height, they thought that would hinder her a little bit but she’s found her spot and she loves the role that she’s got on the team, so she’s not going to complain at all.”

Densberger and Zimmerman have become rock stars and role models for the girls currently on the Malcolm volleyball team, and for the community as a whole as well.

“It’s just brought the community and even the team to a whole different level,” Dolliver said. “It’s just fun to watch them and know that they came from Malcolm and they’re the girls that have been here forever and are going to work hard. When they come back to the games or just even school, the girls look up to them. It’s funny even to hear, ‘Oh, I want to be like Jaela’ or ‘I want to be like Hayley,’ but you hear it. My high school girls even say it, the girls down in the elementary, they’re saying it. Being so close to Lincoln and only an hour from Omaha, we have a ton of fans that continue to follow them now. Everybody gets to the college games.”

Dolliver can’t help but beam with pride any time she gets a chance to see either of her former players on the big screen.

“It’s amazing,” Dolliver said. “Every little girl dreams to play volleyball at a collegiate level, at that level. You hope for your players they get that opportunity and some of them do and some of them don’t. It’s just amazing because the time and effort they put into the game is remarkable. Those two were the first two in the gym and the last two to leave. Any off day, they were still in here or offseason, they’d still be doing stuff. It’s just amazing what they’ve provided for the program and the community. It kind of just brings everybody together a little bit.”

Densberger is just as proud of where she came from, so much so that she struggled to find the words to do it justice.

“Malcolm is just … I don’t now how to explain it,” Densberger said. “It’s just such a family atmosphere and it’s such a close-knit community and everyone supports everyone and you all know each other because it’s so small. It’s just so special to have such a special place in my heart because being able to put Jaela and me and all the rest of the great athletes that have come out of Malcolm on to the next level, at the level we’re playing at now, it’s just surreal.”

For a school and community with such a small population to send players to the highest level of college sports in back-to-back years seems almost unheard of, but Cook had a different perspective.

“In a lot of states, I think it would be very unique,” Cook said. “In Nebraska, I don’t think it is. We’ve got three first-team All-Americans from Papillion-La Vista South and more coming and more that were in front of them. It’s just crazy, I think, the talent here.”

Nebraska has made it to the NCAA Championship each of the last three seasons, capturing national titles in 2015 and 2017 and falling in the semifinals in 2016. Creighton has made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last six seasons with two Sweet 16 appearances and a trip to the Elite Eight in 2016. Nebraska has long been a part of volleyball’s elite class, but in recent years Creighton has made a strong push to join the party as well under Booth’s guidance.

“I always look at the Nebraska match as a showcase of how awesome volleyball is in this state, that we can be such a small state and have, right now, two top-15 teams in the country going at each other is a testament to our high school coaches, our club coaches and the development,” Booth said. “Both teams have a a lot of Nebraska kids, midwestern kids. I think it’s neat to be a part of.”

This season, Creighton has four in-state players plus another from across the river in Council Bluffs. However, Densberger is the only Nebraska native for the Huskers right now and that is something she said she takes immense pride in.

“It means so much to me,” Densberger said. “It’s so cool to be able to represent not only Malcolm and the small town that I grew up in and love so dearly, but Nebraska as an athlete and a person. We have so many great athletes at Nebraska and in the Nebraska area for volleyball, so to be the only one on the team right now is pretty special.”

As of Tuesday, ticket sales had surpassed 11,000. Unfortunately, Dolliver won’t be among the thousands in the stands, as much as she might want to.

“I was so disappointed when that date came out,” Dolliver said. “We have a 10-team tournament here Thursday and Saturday and we can’t even find workers to work our tournament because they’re all going to the Creighton-Huskers volleyball game. I can’t complain; I can’t even get mad at them because I’d be there, too.”

Densberger said to expect the “whole village” to show up based on what she’s heard from family and friends back home.

“A lot of people have texted me and told me that they’ll be there, wearing blue and red because they can’t decide,” Zimmerman said as well.

No matter which side comes out on top, expect a standing ovation for both teams — and two players in particular — from one segment of the crowd. 

Thursday’s match, which is set to begin at 7 p.m. and will be televised on NET, will be a celebration of the sport of volleyball in Nebraska, and the guest of honor will be a small village to the north and west of Lincoln.

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