Former Huskers to play in first American women’s volleyball league in nearly 20 years

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Husker volunteer coach Kelly Hunter made a daring decision, leaving her position at Nebraska to play in a new volleyball league. Hunter left Nebraska on Feb. 13 with the decision encouraged by head coach John Cook.

Nebraska is no stranger to having its volleyball players move on to the professional scene. Outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, for example, plays in Italy for the II Bisonte Firenze, while Hunter once played for Beylikdüzü in Turkey.

That’s the tip of the iceberg for Huskers in the pro indoor volleyball circuit. Others, such as twins Amber and Kadie Rolfzen and libero Justine Wong-Orantes, played in Germany right after graduation following the 2016-17 season.

Outside hitter Jordan Larson had one of the most illustrious Husker careers, being named a two-time first team All-American and having averaged 3.60 kills per set, the second highest average of any Husker under Cook. Larsen has spent her last 10 years playing in Puerto Rico, Russia, Turkey and China. As Larson’s passport started to fill up, an indoor volleyball league began to form in the United States.

The Athletes Unlimited League was created in 2020 with Larson as a part of the advisory board. Larson joins the fourth attempt at creating a professional indoor women’s volleyball league in the United States.

The first attempt was the most successful, taking place between 1975-1980 with the International Volleyball Association. That league placed both women and men on teams with the most recognizable player being former NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain, playing a season in 1978 and having a hand in the league’s development.

Despite Chamberlain’s presence, the league lasted just four seasons before closing in 1980. The owners of the Denver Comets, Robert and Dave Casey, began the domino effect after being charged with drug trafficking in 1979 and arrested after a July 14 volleyball match.

Despite the Comets getting a new owner, investors grew scared of a league where owners are sent to prison. Along with the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Olympics, volleyball’s momentum of the late 1970s died out.

That was the most successful attempt of any form of a women’s indoor volleyball league as Major League Volleyball was tried in the late 1980s. That league lasted just two and a half seasons before folding, with one team, the Minneapolis Monarchs, playing an extra season on an exhibition tour.

Another league, the United States Professional Volleyball League, popped up in 2002 and had been in the making for a couple of years. From exhibition teams to a set plan on where to start, the third iteration looked like it could finally break through.

The league lasted one season, with the Minnesota Chill being named champions in 2002, but there is not much archived from the four-team league. The last piece of news surrounding the league was in 2003 when the league postponed its second season but had expectations to be back.

2021 marks the first attempt since that 2003 announcement to create an American professional indoor women’s volleyball league. In a professional sense, Hunter and Larson are the first Huskers to play professional indoor volleyball in the US in the 21st century. 

Unlike the last three attempts, the Athletes Unlimited League breaks away from any norms of a pro sport.

There are teams, but no owners for any of the teams. Instead, the league is hyper-focused on the players and lets four captains draft a new team each week. The new league differs from any league by letting the players run the show.

Also unlike any other American professional sport, Athletes Unlimited has an individual points system that scores how each player does in the league. The points differ from each position to help level the field, as outside hitters, liberos, setters and middle blockers all have different responsibilities.

On top of the individual scoring system, each match has the players choose who the three best players were in each match, and MVP points are awarded that way. That creates the MVP standings by player voting throughout the season and helps to reshuffle the captains each week. 

After each week, the four captains are picked based on the four highest-scoring players through this system. The captains can alternate through the one-month season, and players picked can have different roles each week.

There is no championship at the end of the season for the Athletes Unlimited League. Each player plays for bragging rights, a massive difference from how leagues are traditionally run with a title as the end goal.

Hunter and Larson are the only Huskers in the Athletes Unlimited League, but depending on how the inaugural season goes, there may be a viable option for American women’s indoor volleyball that differs from the rest around the world. It could also make it easier to follow Huskers after leaving Lincoln.

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