Moving the Needle
Saturday’s national championship match between Wisconsin and Nebraska featured the largest crowd in NCAA volleyball history: 18,755. The TV ratings are in now as well to add further context to how many people were watching that match.
According to ESPN PR, the championship, which was televised on ESPN2, delivered nearly 1.2 million viewers. That is the most-watched women’s college volleyball match ever on the ESPN networks. It also ranked sixth among all shows on cable in the 18–49 demographic that day behind only the NFL pregame, game and postgame plus the Boca Raton Bowl that saw Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe break Joe Burrow’s record for most touchdown passes in a season.
Viewership for this year’s championship was up 71% from the spring 2021 championship and up 119% from the 2019 championship, and this is after YouTube TV subscribers lost access to ESPN2 before the match.
Nebraska being involved certainly played a big part in the viewership numbers, but Huskers fans weren’t the only ones watching. The sport is growing in popularity, and television networks would be wise to capitalize on that and facilitate further growth.
The Big Ten, the best volleyball conference in the country, recognized the value in the sport and televised more matches on its network than ever before this season. I wonder if ESPN might look to draw more of those viewers. I counted 32 matches on the broadcast schedule ESPN released in August, with 31 of those matches on ESPNU and the other two on ESPN2. The more accessible volleyball is the easier it will be for the sport to grow, and nearly every television package comes with access to the two main ESPN channels.
Of course, the teams held up their end of the bargain by putting on a terrific show with five sets of incredibly high-level volleyball.
I was fortunate enough to have been in the building to see it up close, which has been the case for four of the last seven Final Fours. I’ve been to Omaha, Columbus (twice) and Minneapolis in addition to all the matches Nebraska has hosted in Lincoln. In total, I’ve covered 36 NCAA Tournament matches and two national championships.
I’ll never take for granted this opportunity I have to cover one of the elite programs in the country, regardless of sport.
With the Huskers 2021 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead. This is the second season after the first COVID-19 season, which means another round of seniors faces the choice between returning for an extra season or moving on with their lives.
Lauren Stivrins and Lexi Sun have reached the end of their collegiate careers, but the Huskers have three other seniors that face the same choice those two did a handful of months ago: setter Nicklin Hames and middle blockers Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach.
Schwarzenbach appeared in just 17 matches and 52 sets this season. She started alongside Stivrins her first two seasons in Lincoln but Caffey supplanted her after transferring in from Missouri. Schwarzenbach has mostly been an injury/rest fill-in and occasional in-game sub the last two season. She’s been a terrific blocker throughout her career but never found a way to progress far enough offensively to hold onto her starting spot. I’d be surprised to see her return.
Hames and Caffey are a different story. They’re both starters and integral pieces of what Nebraska has done over the past four years in Hames’ case and the past two in Caffey’s.
Caffey just completed her sixth year of college and received her master’s in education last weekend. She capped her senior season with a bang, scoring a career-high 15 kills against the Badgers. Would she really want to return for a seventh year of college?
“I have been a senior so many times,” Caffey said back in mid-November. “I think that definitely does play a small part in my decision. If I were to stay, I would be 25 next season, so that is a big number. But no one’s in a rush to go work.”
Caffey was clearly emotional after the match on Saturday, to the point where she didn’t really have any interest in answering questions at the table.
If Schwarzenbach and Caffey both opt to move on, it leaves Nebraska with almost no experience at the middle blocker position, but certainly a lot of talent. The returners include Kalynn Meyer (ranked No. 21 nationally in the 2020 class by PrepVolleyball.com) and Rylee Gray (ranked 70th in 2021).
As a freshman in the 2020-21 season, Meyer appeared in five sets without recording a stat. This season, she played in six matches and eight sets while recording eight kills on .227 hitting and eight blocks. Gray redshirted last season.
John Cook’s 2022 recruiting class includes arguably the two best middle blockers in the country in Waverly’s Bekka Allick (No. 6 nationally) and Maggie Mendelson, a dual-sport star form North Ogden, Utah, the top-ranked middle in 2023 who reclassified to 2022 and will play volleyball and basketball at Nebraska.
Middle blocker is the biggest wildcard position on the roster right now. Nebraska will return four of its five pins and add the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class in Hayden Kubik to that group. The Huskers should return their whole back row and add another in-state walk-on to the group in Norris product Maisie Boesiger. If Hames doesn’t return, Kennedi Orr, the top-rated recruit in the 2021 class, should slide right into the starting setter spot.
Hames is an interesting case. She’s been the starter since she set foot on campus four years ago and has taken the Huskers to two national runner-up finishes and two Elite Eight appearances. She is an elite defender, but I wonder if she might have bumped up against her ceiling offensively. Coaching might be her long-term future more than playing. On the other hand, perhaps the way this season ended — getting so close and coming up just short — sparked something in her to return for one more go. She saw Wisconsin’s Sydney Hilley return for a super senior year and win a championship; could she do the same?
Nebraska could look very different next season based on Hames’ decision.
Man of the People
The men’s basketball team is mired in a five-game losing streak, and freshman sensation Bryce McGowens is facing his own struggles as he adjusts to facing high-major competition. Even so, it seems like McGowens is looking to get the most out of his experience in Lincoln.
That includes checking out the local high school hoops scene. On Tuesday night, he made the trip with local skills trainer Thomas Viglianco to Ashland to watch a showdown between the top two teams in Class C1: Wahoo and Ashland-Greenwood.
The host Bluejays knocked off the top-ranked Warriors thanks to a dominant effort in the second half. After the game I went over to talk with McGowens, Viglianco and a couple others I knew. In the five or so minutes I was over there, Bryce took pictures with at least five different groups of kids of varying ages.
Tuesday wasn’t the first high school game McGowens has been to this season, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. He seems genuinely interested in being part of the community and giving back to young athletes and fans.
Regardless of how things go on the court, McGowens appears to be the kind of guy that you want to root for as a fan.
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.