Midwest volleyball muscles up with Nebraska Premier

(Here’s a look at one of the high-achieving clubs bringing teams to the 2018 Triple Crown Volleyball NIT)

The single most important thing to appreciate about the Nebraska Premier volleyball program is its ability to handle double duty.

Mind and body; athletics and education; personal growth and an awareness of their responsibility in the community … Nebraska Premier teams attract and keep that unique subset of athletes who hungrily pursue success without losing the taste to be well-rounded individuals.

Founded by Rick Welch in 1997, the club’s 20th anniversary comes as the program celebrates numerous nationwide accomplishments. Over the past five years, 56 teams have qualified for the USAV girls National Championships; in 2017 they saw 13 teams qualify, five in the Open division with the 15 Gold finishing fifth in Open.

The upcoming Triple Crown Volleyball NIT, set for Feb. 17-19, 2018 in Salt Lake City, UT, will feature four Nebraska Premier teams, all built to never flinch when taking on power programs from around the country.

“It has to do with our culture, and that culture over the past 5-10 years has definitely changed. We’ve taken a lot of pride with the development of the athlete as well as the (growth) of work ethic – taking extra practices, getting in the gym,” said 15 Gold coach and director of player development Shannon Smolinski. “If you want to compete with teams who have millions of players to draw from, you can’t settle for twice a week. That drive has come, and culture has come, from the kids. There is a lot of buy-in; you work for what you get. It’s been gradual.

“It’s a family-run club environment. We definitely put the athletes, families and coaches ahead of any success in the club. It sounds a little old-school, but we truly believe the development and what’s best for the kids and their future is what is (prioritized). We try to make them better volleyball players and better people as well. We hold that family feel up to the utmost and hold ourselves accountable to that.”

Nebraska Premier will tackle 2018 with 27 teams and more than 75 coaches, based out of a 13-court facility in Omaha that also provides access to strength and conditioning training and staffers. Student-athletes also take time out of their schedules to give back to the community by working with the Special Olympics of Nebraska Volleyball chapter.

A total of 125 of 144 Premier Nebraska seniors in the past 10 years have received and accepted offers to play at the collegiate level.

“Nebraska is a volleyball state; there’s a ton of schools we’ve been blessed to give our kids an opportunity to call home. It’s been rewarding to have those relationships with the college coaches at all levels,” Smolinski said. “Michelle Lund (college recruiting coordinator) has done a good job of educating families, as recruiting has really taken off over the years.

“The biggest thing is to educate our families about what is out there, and to help players get exposure in national tournaments … we’ve had the means to do that with Michelle, and the connections to help get our athletes and families educated. Kids are getting younger and younger (but desiring competition); we are open to multi-sport athletes.”

One player who seemed to blossom more in each year of her time at Nebraska Premier is Andie Hanus, a sophomore defensive specialist at Missouri. More or less following for fun as her older sister played for the club, Hanus joined the 10u Gold team at age 8 and carved her own way through the system.

“It just seemed like the culture there would draw the right kind of athlete. It’s pretty well known in Nebraska that that’s the culture of this program, and you’ll have athletes coming in who take it that seriously, who come to play,” Hanus said. “When you’re 11, you may not realize that, but as I got older I appreciated how they wanted to win and be the best club in Nebraska, but they want to do it the right way. They foster that from the top down.

“When we were at Nationals as 15 Gold, that was (a memorable time). We had a challenge match to (determine if we) played Gold or Silver. We walked in, not really sure what the other team was about. Everybody was clicking and we won a pretty tight match. Later we found out that was the No. 1 ranked team in the tournament – that was my first time making it to Gold at nationals, and once you have those big successes, it kind of carries through. We made it to Gold in 17s the same kind of way … you have those big tournament wins against your rivals … we had so many special moments in club.”

Another strength of the Nebraska Premier program is tied to giving athletes a ton of choices when it comes to getting better, but making it the task of each individual to own their progress.

“They put it in your corner – ‘we’ll give you these opportunities.’ You can come in on your off-day, you can get involved with the strength program,” Hanus said. “It was an easy transition for me to college with my previous strength program, and it very much helps prevent injuries.

“There were plenty of times where I wasn’t performing, and my teammates had to lift me up. My teammates were some of my best friends, and it wasn’t so much about performance as it was having love for your teammates, telling them you know they will get the next ball. I had to learn how to respond to my teammates, and I learned I can do my job, and I can help my teammates.”

The Triple Crown NIT becomes another exciting, competitive backdrop for Nebraska Premier to display their muscle and mettle.

“We are super excited about the opportunity, our coaches and families … what drew us is continuing to challenge our kids by putting them in different situations and against different teams that they haven’t had the opportunity to play,” Smolinski added. “On the college aspect … what was really appealing to us is how the tournament is making a name for itself in the college side. We wanted to make sure we were doing our due diligence in being there, exposing the athletes to the competition and the college coaches.”