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Original Issue


Volleyball might be the only sport in which a coach from
Nebraska could show up courtside in Amherst, Mass., wearing a
lei and not cause much of a stir. Terry Pettit wasn't questioned
about his choice of neckwear until near the end of his postmatch
press conference at the NCAA championships last Saturday, which
was fitting because it was the one piece of attire to which he
had given no thought.

Pettit at first considered wearing a suit for his team's
championship match against Texas. After all, a victory would be
the biggest of his 19-year career at Nebraska. Then he had
second thoughts. Terry, he finally said to himself, you just
need to be comfortable, because the most important thing is for
you to be relaxed for the players. So he went with an off-white
sweater, navy slacks and brown loafers.

Sunita Nepo, the mother of Nebraska freshman backup setter Fiona
Nepo, helped him accessorize. She had made several leis from
fresh flowers during the trip from the family's home in Honolulu
to Amherst, and she put a purple one around Pettit's neck before
the title match, which his team won 3-1. "It just really relaxed
me," he said. Which stands to reason. How can a man be uptight
if he's wearing a flower necklace?

But that look hardly typified the Nebraska team. The Cornhuskers
are the antithesis of the stereotypically tanned, beach-bred
West Coast volleyball teams. Their star, senior middle blocker
Allison Weston of Papillion, Neb., is an avid fisherman (that's
pond fishing, not deep-sea) and has a 3.7 grade point average in
her major of forestry, fisheries and wildlife. Outside hitter
Billie Winsett, also a senior, grew up on the family farm in
Indiana and sews her own clothes, and she fishes with Weston
when they can find the time. Setter Christy Johnson, the team's
only other senior, refuses to join them. "I'm not an outdoorsy,
make-my-own-clothes kind of person," she says. But Johnson, who
grew up in Omaha, is a big fan of folksiness. "There's
definitely a Midwest personality," she says. "I've been around
girls from California, and there's definitely a difference. To
me, people in the Midwest are a little more low-key, more down
to earth."

While a handful of schools like Nebraska have become volleyball
powers in the last decade, the top level of play has still been
dominated by teams from the West Coast. This year's tournament
final was the second without a California team since the NCAA
started holding volleyball championships in 1981. Also, Nebraska
is only the second team without a view of the Pacific to win the
title, the other being Texas in 1988. "Twenty-five years ago the
players from the West Coast [schools] were more highly skilled,"
Pettit says. "Ten years ago the Nebraskas and Texases were at
the same level as those teams, but a lot of the teams we were
playing weren't." Nebraska now plays a tougher schedule against
nationally ranked teams, but still had only two matches during
the regular season that weren't 3-0 wins. The Cornhuskers, who
finished 32-1 after being ranked No. 1 for 14 out of 15 weeks,
were extended to five games by Michigan State in last Thursday's
semifinals before beating Texas 11-15, 15-2, 15-7, 16-14.

All but four of the Cornhuskers are from Nebraska or nearby
states, and none fits the Great Plains mold better than Weston,
who got her first fishing rod for Christmas when she was five.
"Her mother and I weren't athletes, so we've always wondered
where, genetically, Allison got it," says Tom Weston, one of
many fans at the Mullins Center with NU written in bright-red
lipstick on one cheek and #1 on the other. At Papillion-LaVista
High, Weston lettered in volleyball, basketball, soccer and
track. In her junior year she decided to concentrate on
volleyball. "She could have played Division I in three or four
sports and been exceptional," Pettit says. This fall Weston
broke the Nebraska career record for kills (1,778, an average of
4.3 per game over four years) and was co-winner of the national
player of the year award with Stanford's Cary Wendell.

As for Winsett, when she isn't making her own clothes, she's
making her own music on the piano. She and her fiance, Greg
Fletcher, who plays the trumpet, occasionally perform duets at
church, but for the last four years volleyball has cut into her
keyboard time. "You don't understand how hard we've worked for
this," she said after the title match.

The Nebraska players who aren't from the Midwest say they were
drawn to the school because of the program's success--the
Cornhuskers also reached the championship match in 1986 and '89,
but lost in three games both times--and the friendliness of the
players. Still, it takes a certain type of person to thrive in
Lincoln when your options include Palo Alto and Honolulu. "We've
had people from Florida and California come on their recruiting
trips, and you can just tell that they feel like they've gone
back in time," Weston says.

The championship match was the second meeting of the season
between Texas and Nebraska, which also won the first match, 3-0
on Nov. 4, and they'll continue to play each other on a regular
basis. Starting next year, when Texas joins the new Big 12
(currently the Big Eight), the schools will be conference
rivals. Pettit thinks the new conference will dispel any
lingering perceptions that the West Coast is dominant. Texas
already did its part, beating '94 champion Stanford twice this
season, the second time in the tournament semifinals.

But the Longhorns were surprised in the final by Nebraska's
junior outside hitter, Kate Crnich, who had 25 kills--nearly
double her previous career best of 13. Crnich scored 15 kills in
the first three games against Texas, one less than Winsett's
team-leading total at that point and five more than Weston. "We
pulled our right-side blockers in to help on Weston," Longhorn
coach Mick Haley said, "and that opened it up for Crnich and

Going into the fourth game, Pettit was concerned about Weston's
lack of involvement--she had 30 attempted kills, compared with 38
at the same point in the semis--and considered telling Johnson to
set up Weston more often. Then he remembered a plaque he had
seen at a friend's house: RIDE THE HORSE IN THE DIRECTION IT'S
GOING. He kept his mouth shut, and Crnich, the team's fifth
offensive option, led the Huskers to victory. "For that to
happen, you have to have a heck of a setter and players whose
egos don't get in the way," Pettit said. "Then you've got to
have a player like Kate, who is willing to step into that role."

When Weston and Johnson teamed for the winning block, Pettit
jumped so high, his lei flew off. But he retrieved it in the
commotion and put it back on to accept the championship trophy.
He was still wearing the lei when he said aloha to the Mullins
Center and walked out into the snow.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER A Spike Jones That's what Nebraska's Billie Winsett, here making one of her 25 kills, had during the Cornhuskers' win over Texas in the final of the NCAA women's volleyball tournament (page 46). [Overhead view--T of C]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DARRELL MIHO (2) Stepping up in the finals, Crnich (opposite, top) was smashing in support of Weston (right). [Kate Crnich; Allison Weston]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAMIAN STROHMEYER (2) Pettit (above) later put the selfless Cornhuskers' winning strategy in lei-man's terms. [Terry Pettit wearing lei; University of Nebraska volleyball players celebrating]