Volleyball is set to start a new chapter in Nebraska, and at the helm is a woman who quietly helped establish the game’s stronghold in the state.
Few own the imprint on Nebraska volleyball that Diane Mendenhall does. The Ogallala native has held just about every role – player, coach, analyst, administrator. When she was named president of the new Nebraska pro volleyball franchise, it gave the brand-new Omaha Supernovas instant credibility, said former Husker volleyball coach Terry Pettit.
“She’s exceptional,” Pettit said. “If the team plays as well as Diane handles her responsibilities they’ll be a championship team.”
The Supernovas open the inaugural Pro Volleyball Federation season Wednesday at Omaha’s CHI Health Center. Mendenhall’s working to ensure Nebraskans embrace this professional version of the sport the way they do to its amateur counterpart.
The hope: With Mendenhall leading the way, the pro game will also find solid ground in what many consider volleyball’s epicenter. It helps that her deep roots extend across the state, a background she said she is leveraging to sell the Supernovas and pro volleyball.
“I think she’s uniquely qualified,” Pettit said.
Mendenhall’s resume includes playing for legendary coach Steve Morgan in high school and then college volleyball at the University of Kansas. She was the head coach at York College and Concordia University, then the director of operations for volleyball at the University of Nebraska. The Huskers won the national championship during her first year in the role. She also worked as a color analyst for Husker volleyball broadcasts, director of the Nebraska Alumni Association and an associate athletic director.
“That job of Supernovas president is not just volleyball, it’s going out and attracting financial support for players and selling tickets,” said Pettit. “She understands the game, can relate to players and coaches, and is able to talk to CEOs.”
Mendenhall has come a long way, as has the sport, from when she began playing on an outdoor concrete court in Ogallala on the St. Paul Lutheran School campus.
“It was very raw. We were playing in the middle of winter with mittens on so there were lifts and double hits. It was just the opportunity to play,” she said.
For her and her sisters that unforgiving slab was their backyard playground. Their father Lee Schroeder was the school principal and the family lived next door. The unfenced court, she said, “became this community asset.”
“There was always a game going on.”
Her father installed a portable volleyball net suspended from steel poles anchored with concrete-filled tires. There, she, older sister Pam and younger sister Jen learned the game. Pam was among the first cohort of student-athletes to play state-sanctioned sports under Title IX.
“We looked up to them,” Mendenhall said. “They were the pioneers. They were the first high school volleyball players.”
The family’s volleyball heritage actually traces back to Mendenhall’s mother, Doris Schroeder, who played in Waco, Nebraska, in the late 1950s. She and an even earlier generation of women make up what NU Coach John Cook calls the “hidden DNA” of the sport in the state.
Volleyball’s Big Bang in Nebraska, Mendenhall thinks, may have come in 1974, when the then-high school sophomore’s Ogallala squad faced Scottsbluff in the district finals.
“I think they had to turn people away. It was packed, it was hot. It was kind of that ‘Hoosiers’ feeling,” she said. “The town from that point on just fell in love with the sport.”
Morgan, the head coach who led the Indians for 40-plus seasons, learned the game in the U.S. Army. The sport’s roots were already planted when he got to Ogallala, but he nurtured them. Winning helped.
“Things just ignited into a fever pitch. Volleyball put Ogallala on the map,” said Morgan. “The genesis of it was Diane and her teammates. We used to be able to beat most of the Omaha and Lincoln teams. Boy has that changed.”
Morgan was among several coaches who grew the sport in western Nebraska and spread it like Johnny Appleseeds. Others included Jody Rhodes in Paxton and Bill Willburn in Sidney.
Scottsbluff hosted the first state championship.
“I think because it started out there you have these small towns that experienced it from the get-go,” Mendenhall said. “It was a beautiful start for the sport.”
The sport’s popularity grew as it “migrated east” and “more towns and teams enjoyed volleyball success,” she said.
Morgan marvels at how it’s transformed, both in high school and famously at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“People in the stands are from all walks of life. Many have never played volleyball. But the love and passion for it is intense. It’s kind of a Vatican moment as far as the magic that’s been produced. It’s just amazing.”
Mendenhall believes the architecture of volleyball accounts for much of its appeal. It’s fast-paced, she said. Graceful. Powerful. The women’s game features long, thrilling rallies.
Generations of more knowledgeable fans have emerged to enjoy its finer points. Mendenhall helped to educate those fans as Husker radio color analyst for 16 years.
“I really liked being a color analyst on radio because it gave me the opportunity to help teach the sport. … When there’s a kill it isn’t just because the ball was hit hard. It has to do with the position of the block, what defense was being run, what did the attacker see, why did the setter go to her. Those are all decisions made within seconds.”
A pivotal moment, she said, came when Pettit got Nebraska public television to show matches. He worked out the best camera angles with Nebraska Educational Television producer Rod Bates “because nobody knew how to televise it.”
A synergy materialized: more girls tried out, select teams formed, coaches refined their knowledge, dynasties emerged, Division I student-athletes developed, and the fan base grew.
In a state separated by rural-urban divides, volleyball has become a unifying element.
Now “from border to border there’s a united sense of purpose,” she said. “And that’s what Nebraskans do. We rally around a cause. We’re passionate and we truly believe if we come together and rally around something we build champions.”
She hopes that rallying mentality will carry over to the Supernovas.
“This is Nebraska’s professional team.”
Mendenhall acknowledges she stands on the shoulders of pioneers – people like Pettit, Morgan and Barbara Hibner – who laid the state’s volleyball foundation.
Hibner served in various athletic administrator roles at NU, was a fierce champion of women’s sports and helped get volleyball the resources it needed to be competitive.
Morgan started teaching volleyball in his elementary school PE classes and then conducted camps. He said Mendenhall “was a big part of helping” him get the camps going.
Pettit sold the sport “door to door,” said Mendenhall, taking his players outstate for exhibitions, clinics and goodwill tours. “Coach Cook has continued that.”
When Mendenhall coached at Concordia she’d come watch Husker practices. “That’s when I got to know Terry Pettit and John Cook. I was in Seward and 30 miles down the road was the best volleyball program in the country and the best trainer in the country in John Cook.”
Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, UNO coach Matt Buttermore and other coaches have received similar help while developing their programs. Mendenhall credits Pettit and Cook for their open-door policy.
“But as Nebraskans that’s what we do. … We’re not competing against each other, we’re competing with each other to elevate the sport,” she said. “Success breeds success and coaches here understand and embrace that.”
Now Mendenhall is in a spot where she’s consciously connecting the entire state.
“Our team is the Omaha Supernovas but our franchise is Nebraska Pro Volleyball. It was very intentional.” she said.
Supernovas strength and conditioning coach Laura Pilakowski was an All-American volleyball player at Nebraska. She scored the final point to secure NU’s 2000 national championship – after Cook, worried about an underperforming squad, asked Mendenhall to help.
Mendenhall, borrowing form Native culture, had players create a team dreamcatcher they tied strings of yarn to before each match as a fear-releasing ritual. Cook and his players credited the motivational strategy for keying the Huskers’ title-run.
Former Huskers Kenzie Maloney and Kenzie Knuckles and former Creighton Bluejay Jaela Zimmerman serve as “Supernovas ambassadors” for fan engagement.
Mendenhall loves that American players now have the chance to compete professionally in the U.S. The Supernovas’ two franchise players, former Husker Gina Mancuso-Prososki and Olympian Natalia Valentin-Anderson, are Omaha residents who spent years playing overseas before embracing this new opportunity to stay home.
Puerto Rico native Valentin-Anderson is one of several women of color on the Supernovas roster, a reflection of volleyball’s growing diversity in America, where the sport historically struggled with inclusion, said Mendenhall.
“I want volleyball to become more accessible to underserved areas of our community so that everybody that wants to play the sport has the same opportunity.”
The team plans to partner with nonprofits to provide free admission to youth. They also intend to use the off-season in the spring and summer to visit camps and have players engage with kids across Nebraska, Mendenhall said.
“The hope is some Supernova players not already living here year-round will choose to make this their home, which would be another boon to the volleyball community.”
As for how Nebraskans will take to pro volleyball, she points to CHI sell outs for NU-Creighton matches and NCAA finals, the historic “Volleyball Day” in Nebraska and NU volleyball breaking single season attendance records.
“We have proof of concept here that as Nebraskans we love volleyball and will come support it.”
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