AtC: Building the Big Red Brand

Photo by Pat Radigan

By Pat Radigan

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the mantra that “There is No Place Like Nebraska” more than most.

But I’m not drinking the Koolaid to the point where I believe the statement absolutely. I know it’s true that there are sports and fans that set the Huskers apart from most. However, having covered the entirety of the Nebraska athletic department for nine years, I’ve learned there are still some Husker programs looking to build a brand and reputation.

And while I’m quick to talk about the unrivaled atmosphere of Husker volleyball, or how the energy inside Memorial Stadium affects your heart rate, it is these ‘unproven’ Nebraska programs that are sometimes the most fun to cover.

Sports aren’t always about the pursuit of championships and being the front runner. Sometimes they are about the simple things, and appreciating the process of improvement and growth.

So while some are getting caught up in ‘bracketology’ breakdowns and the 365-day cycle of overhyping Husker football, we take a second to appreciate those who are building the Big Red brand in ways most Nebraska fans will never realize.

Whole
— Lotta —
Huskers

It’s that time of year where practically every Husker squad is competing in at least some form. What a time to be alive.


What’s Going On

Men’s Basketball

Nebraska76
Penn State – 64

Recap | Photos

Memorial Stadium

Women’s Basketball

Nebraska – 75
No. 14 Maryland – 77

Recap   |   Stats

College Park, Md.

Softball

Nebraska6
No. 6 Texas A&M – 3

Recap

Cathedral City, Calif.

Nebraska – 0
Mississippi St. – 9

Recap

Cathedral City, Calif.

Nebraska – 0
No. 3 UCLA – 5

Recap

Cathedral City, Calif.

No. 10 Nebraska7
St. Johns – 4

Recap

Cathedral City, Calif.

Nebraska – 2
No. 1 Washington – 4

Recap

Cathedral City, Calif.

Baseball

Nebraska – 1
No. 2 Oregon St. – 9

Recap

Surprise, Ariz.

Nebraska4
Utah – 2

Recap

Surprise, Ariz.

Nebraska – 3
No. 2 Oregon St. – 10

Recap

Surprise, Ariz.

Nebraska3
Utah – 0

Recap

Surprise, Ariz.

Women’s Tennis

No. 42 Nebraska4
No. 35 Kansas St – 2

Recap

Manhattan, Kan.

No. 42 Nebraska4
Iowa State – 0

Recap

Dillon Tennis Center

Women’s Golf

Westbrook
Invitational

3rd / 15

Recap

Peoria, Ariz.

Women’s Gymnastics

No. 14 Nebraska196.425
Pittsburgh – 193.600

Recap   |   Photos

Devaney Center

Men’s Gymnastics

No. 5 Nebraska402.800
No. 10 Iowa – 398.850

Recap

Iowa City, Iowa

Track and Field

Big Ten
Championships

Men: 2nd
Women: 9th

Recap

Geneva, Ohio

Soccer

Nebraska – 1
Iowa State – 1

Recap

Hawks Championship Center

Lighting Up the Links

I’ll be honest: In all my time covering Nebraska sports, I’ve only made it to two days of Husker women’s golf action.

I don’t think I’ll be making that mistake moving forward.

Nebraska as a team and sophomore Katie Smith finished third at this weekend’s Westbrook Invitational, a tournament hosted by Wisconsin. And while a third place finish may not seem like a huge deal, when you consider HOW it happened, you’ll see why we’re leading off with women’s golf today.

As a team, Nebraska set a record after 18, 36 and 54 holes. Individually, Smith did the same, thanks to an opening round 67 and a 64 the next day that included six birdies, an eagle and a bogey-free round for Nebraska’s star sophomore. With Smith leading the way, NU beat its previous 54-hole team record by 17 strokes.

And that’s not even the whole story.

The record-setting performance also included happenings like a final-round eagle on a par 4 for Ashley Judd, and freshman Noor Ahmed going from a first round +7 to a final round -2 to allow the Huskers to hold off Wisconsin by a stroke. It was a complete team effort, in both big and small moments, and makes a statement for an NU program looking to break into the Big Ten conversation since joining the conference.

At last year’s Big Ten tournament, Nebraska finished 12th out of 14, and Smith and Judd finished in 47th and a tie for 49th respectively. That left NU’s top two well behind Wisconsin’s Becky Klongland, who finished tied for 8th place with a score 15 shots better than Smith’s. In the team race, Nebraska finished 60 strokes off of the pace of fourth-place Wisconsin.

On Monday, Smith and Judd did just enough to hold off Klongland and the Badgers. Despite a pair of bogeys on the final three holes, Smith stayed under par for her final round to hold on for a third-place finish at 14-under-par, while Judd matched Smith’s 71 in the last round to finish sixth at -7. That left the freshman Ahmed as the low round on Monday, and NU needed it to finish just one stroke ahead of Wisconsin in the team race.

So I get it, it’s just one tournament early in the spring season. But it’s given us plenty of reason to whip our head around and keep an eye on the Husker golf team.

Just Keep Swinging

I hate to admit it, but there’s a part of me that is kind of excited every time Husker softball experiences travel issues. No, I’m not that cynical. It’s just every time the Big Red has issues getting from point A to point B, it leads to wonderful social media #content.

A few years ago, they even made The Today Show by creating a human bicycle at the Denver airport.

Sometimes I watch the video just to hear Kiki Stokes losing it as she calmly walks by stunned airport dwellers to get the shot. It’s probably one of the main reasons I enjoy covering softball so much: This program knows how to have fun AND compete at the national level.

So when Nebraska’s flight got cancelled from Phoenix to Palm Springs, I was just waiting for something to come across Twitter. Then this happened.

With a cancelled flight and less than 24 hours until first pitch in a stacked tournament field, Nebraska had to turn to a bus to make the 4-hour drive to Palm Springs to get ready for the opener, a showdown with No. 6 Texas A&M. Nebraska had plenty of reasons to make an excuse, but didn’t, and the Huskers handed the Aggies their first loss of the year.

Your Featured Presentation…

Swimming a Foundation

How the Husker swim team is changing the culture, one NCAA qualifier at a time

It’s easy to walk into Memorial Stadium, or the Devaney Center for a volleyball match, and understand what makes college sports so special. You’d be hard-pressed to find two better venues anywhere in the country.

When you walk into the Devaney Natatorium, it’s not like all of the other programs at Nebraska.

Sure, the scoreboard and setup are still Big Ten worthy, and it’s a great venue for state swim meets, but it doesn’t have that same new-facility shine that you’ll find at Husker football, volleyball, basketball, soccer and now even tennis.

Next up for the facilities upgrade are the two Husker gymnastics programs, and while new athletic director Bill Moos has mentioned swimming facilities as an area of need, there are no formal plans for an upgrade.

But that time will come: Nebraska has shown they are not a school that stands still in any sport. And when it does, stories will be written about the ‘new era’ for Husker swim and dive. If Nebraska goes on to win titles and championships, the new facilities, and the spark they provided to the program, will be credited.

I’m here to tell you in advance: Don’t believe the hype.

Since I started covering Husker athletics in 2010, the Husker swim squad has been a program on the rise. It’s a lot easier to wait for titles and national recognition to say, “they made it,” but the proof is in the pudding. In the 2012-2013 season, Nebraska set a record with 12 dual wins that had stood since the 90s.

Husker Ari Weech was a senior on NU’s 2012-13 squad that set a school record for dual wins, while Weech finished sixth in 100-yard freestyle at the Big Ten Championships that season.

Head coach Pablo Morales, himself an Olympic gold medalist, had only ever won eight duals in a year before that season. Along with the team success, Nebraska had a swimmer qualify for the NCAA meet for the first time in six years. Pardon the pun, but it was a watershed moment for a Husker swim team moving to a new league.

And while casual Husker fans may never know names like Ari Weech, Ellan Dufour and Bailey Pons, future Husker swimmers will.

The next year, Nebraska added Anna Filipcic to its roster, and the trend continued upward as she would qualify for the NCAA diving meet all four years as a Husker. From Filipcic came Abi Knapton, who joined the program last season and earned All-American status with a fourth-place finish in the platform diving.

Oh, and that swimmer I mentioned that qualified for the NCAA meet in 2013: Her name was Taryn Collura, and she took a chance on coming to swim at Nebraska thanks to her father’s legacy on the Husker football team. Collura was a three-time state champ in high school, and swam against Olympian Missy Franklin in club competition.

She’s wasn’t the typical Husker swim recruit, and it showed right away.

Collura set a school-record with a 22.42 in the 50-yard freestyle at the Big Ten Championships that year, and punched her ticket to the NCAA meet in the process. It was the only trip Collura would make to the NCAA field, and while I don’t know for sure, you get the sense it started the “who’s next” mentality within the Husker swim program that still has not faded.

So who’s next?

That’d be freshman Autumn Haebig. Hailing from Grafton, Wisc., Haebig had offers from other major swim schools. She could have stayed home at Wisconsin, a team currently ranked 23rd in the national polls, or headed south to join an Alabama side currently tied for 25th.

But she came to the #DevaneyNat, instead, and in her first year has already made waves on the national scene.

Like Collura before her, Haebig set a school-record at the Big Ten Championships by posting a 4:42.69 in the 500-yard freestyle. That wasn’t enough for the freshman, though. This past weekend, in a last-chance meet at Mizzou, Haebig posted a lifetime-best 52.29 in the 100-yard backstroke, and posted an NCAA B-Cut time in the process.

That means that while she doesn’t automatically qualify for the NCAA field, it’d take some strange happenings for Haebig to miss out on the trip to Columbus in a few weeks.

Can you imagine how that’d feel? Knowing that you have one more race, just one more time to post, in an event that isn’t even your best, and still putting up the best swim of your life to give yourself a real chance at an NCAA appearance.

Here’s the best part: While Haebig was competing on the road, the Devaney Natatorium was packed with swimmers and fans for the Nebraska high school state meet. And I get it – swimming and diving isn’t the same as Husker football and volleyball… but does that make it any less badass than all of those high school swimmers got to compete in the same pool as a potential NCAA qualifier?

I have no idea what the Husker swim program will look like in 10 years, or if #DevaneyNat will still be a thing. But I do know this: Wherever this Nebraska swim and dive program goes, it all started long before anyone on the ‘outside’ even noticed.

1 Comment

  1. Forgot to mention that 6 Husker swimmers qualified to swim at the 2016 Olympic Swim Trials that was held in Omaha, Nebraska June/July 2016!

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