LINCOLN — Saturday afternoon, hours before the final regular-season home match for the Nebraska volleyball team, coach John Cook looked somewhat impatiently at his watch, wondering how long he should wait for Hannah Werth before starting the team's serve-and-pass warm-up practice.
Finally, he walked over to the sideline where Werth was chatting up a family, including a couple of kids who had come by to get a glimpse of the Huskers. Reluctantly, he tapped Werth on the shoulder.
Hannah, we have to start practice.
An occupational hazard of coaching the Huskers' most popular player is that it sometimes means a little crowd control.
“Hannah is a very giving person,” Cook said. “She just always is giving and connecting. She's been very good that way. She appreciates every moment that she's here. Her perspective has changed a lot over the four years she's been here. She's such a giver and wants to make people feel special and let them know how much she appreciates their support. I think that's why she is a fan favorite.”
It wasn't always that way, Werth will be the first to tell you. Before she was the high-flying, fist-pumping, goggles-wearing, thumping heartbeat of the Nebraska volleyball team, she was a lonely, homesick, immature kid who wasn't sure where she fit in.
She shined on the court her freshman season, becoming the first freshman to lead Nebraska in kills since Sarah Pavan in 2004 and being named an honorable mention All-American.
But the transition to college life wasn't easy. Werth struggled to find the right balance between the student and athlete sides of her life. Just months removed from her hometown of Springfield, Ill., she suddenly was a big piece of a championship-caliber team. Thrown into the pressure cooker of 4,000 sets of eyes in the NU Coliseum, she had never before felt so small.
“I was just a pup and I was playing with girls who were 22 years old,” Werth said. “Just trying to find my niche and understand who I am, as well as find my place within a bigger whole. You're really forced to, not necessarily grow up fast, but develop into who you are at a faster pace because everything goes by so quickly.”
Werth admitted second-guessing nearly everything. Was she happy with the path she had chosen, the school she attended?
“For me personally, that's where my faith has grown so much and become part of who I am as a person,” Werth said. “Realizing God has a plan for everything.”
Maybe it's understandable, then, why in those early days Werth was primarily worried about herself. Maybe it's why now, she works so hard so nobody has to go through those same challenges alone.
If the Huskers are a family, Werth is the clear big sister, balancing tough love with words of encouragement. If it's felt a teammate isn't working hard enough in practice, she's the one in their face. If they're still hung up on it after practice, she's the one to offer them a reassuring hug.
Relationships, homesickness, school problems, the pressure to succeed. College can be a vulnerable time for maturing young adults, Werth said. Those problems are tough enough without thinking no one else understands.
“That made me more determined to make sure those younger kids were like my sisters,” Werth said. “That's somebody's daughter. I want to take care of them. I want to make sure they're set and if they need anything they always have me.”
It's funny, Werth said, but embracing that responsibility actually made her feel lighter. Once you know where you fit in, you stop wasting energy trying to figure it out.
Werth is lighter now. There is no bigger smile on the court than hers. No celebratory scream louder. And the fans, especially the young girls, my goodness, don't they love her?
Her protective sport goggles, once somewhat of a source of embarrassment, are a fashion statement. Mothers email Cook to tell him their volleyball-playing daughters have ditched their glasses in favor of goggles.
During pregame introductions before Nebraska played Penn State on Oct. 28 at the Coliseum, when players normally throw miniature volleyballs into the crowd, Werth walked over to give hers to a little girl who came to the match in a Halloween costume. It was a cardboard box painted red on bottom and silver on top.
A hammer. As in, “Hannah the Hammer.”
If Nebraska advances to the Final Four in three weeks, the program's first since 2008, it will likely be due in large part to that frustrated kid who grew up well.
Since recovering from a midseason illness and ankle injury that kept her out of NU's five-set loss to Michigan State, Werth is playing the best volleyball of her career. She averaged 4.5 kills and three digs per set in the Huskers' three straight wins to end the regular season.
But, if Nebraska's season ends without a trip to Louisville, Ky., Werth knows now it's not the end of the world. Her experience has taught her not all victories come with a trophy.
Sometimes what you can give is better than what you can get.
“Your, my or anybody's successes are not necessarily defined by the championships or the awards, the wins and the losses,” Werth said. “It's so much more the journey, not the destination. I know that's cliche and people say that a lot, but the ups and the downs that I was talking about before, those are the things that are going to make you who you are as a person, not just as a volleyball player.”
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