Malcolm has its attention on Omaha as Huskers and Bluejays meet in matchup of top-15 teams
The Malcolm High School volleyball team will be playing in a tournament in Malcolm on Thursday evening, but there will also be many people there checking in on what’s happening about 65 miles up the road in Omaha in a college volleyball match that has some extra-special appeal for the community.
Nebraska and Creighton will be playing at the CHI Health Center Omaha, where a crowd of at least 11,000 is anticipated at the downtown Omaha arena. Thousands more will be watching across the state on NET.
And Malcolm, a Class C-1 school for volleyball that only gets about 25 girls out for the team each year, will have two of its own playing in the match, one each for the two top-15 ranked teams.
Hayley Densberger is a sophomore defensive specialist for the Huskers who in her first two seasons keeps giving coach John Cook more reasons to play her than he may have expected.
Jaela Zimmerman is a 6-foot-2 freshman outside and right-side hitter for Creighton who started her first college match last weekend.
Malcolm is about 10 miles from the northwest edge of Lincoln and has a population of about 400. Amber Dolliver is the volleyball coach and elementary school principal there, and is thrilled that players from Malcolm are playing for the Huskers and Bluejays.
“It’s unheard of just to have two (NCAA) Division I girls come out in back-to-back years, and just the work ethic that they put into it, especially Hayley,” Dolliver said. “They really had to push themselves to get to that next level. With Hayley, her height kind of hindered her, but she found a way, and she’s doing so well.”
Zimmerman is from Lincoln and attended North American Martyrs School in northwest Lincoln before going to Malcolm for high school. She was a top-50 national recruit according to Prepvolleyball.com.
Densberger and Zimmerman played together in high school for three years, including one year when they each had very different roles than they do now. Densberger was a middle blocker and outside hitter, and Zimmerman a setter.
“So you had a 6-2 setter, and like a 5-9 hitter, so it was quite comical,” Dolliver said.
The duo helped the Clippers to a state runner-up finish in 2016. After Densberger won the national championship with the Huskers last season, she visited the school in Malcolm, and both players bring a positive presence to the high school program.
“The girls see what’s possible,” Dolliver said. “So you always refer back to them and say, ‘You know what, if you put the time and effort in, look how far you can go.’”
In a rare occurrence for the Huskers, Densberger is only player from Nebraska on the team this season, while Creighton has four in-state players.
Creighton has never beaten Nebraska, but it has tightened up what once was a big gap between the programs. The Bluejays have made the NCAA Tournament six straight years, reached the NCAA Elite Eight in 2016 and were the No. 9 overall seed in the tournament last season. This season Creighton had the 10th-ranked recruiting class in the country, and like Nebraska, it’s been able to add impact transfer players.
This is the first time in 18 all-time matches that both teams are ranked in the AVCA poll, with Nebraska (4-1) at No. 7 and Creighton (4-2) ranked 14th. The last time the teams played, in 2016, Nebraska won in four sets.
Kirsten Bernthal Booth, the Lincoln East graduate in her 16th season as Creighton coach, says it looks to her that Nebraska has another great team this year. She considers Mikaela Foecke to be one of the best outside hitters in the country. She’s impressed by middle blockers Lauren Stivrins and Callie Schwarzenbach, and right-side hitter Jazz Sweet.
“So they’ve got a formidable attack all over,” Bernthal Booth said.
Nebraska is playing four true freshmen, including setter Nicklin Hames, but that doesn’t have to hold the Huskers back, Bernthal Booth said.
“One thing that Nebraska is fortunate with is they get to reload each year,” she said. “Usually they have one of the top two or three recruiting classes in the country. And that’s the draw to Nebraska volleyball. So those kids come in with a lot of high-level experience, and I think you’re seeing that with their setter. She’s coming in as a young freshman, but she’s playing at a very high level very early in her career.”
In the crowd Thursday will be a mix of Nebraska fans and Creighton fans and probably a few somewhere in between, and that will be just fine for all involved.
“It’s fun to play the sport that you love in front of people, if they’re rooting for you, or against you,” Bernthal Booth said.