Named president of Nebraska's professional volleyball team — the Omaha Supernovas — in July, Diane Mendenhall returned to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to keynote at the College of Business annual Partnership Summit Luncheon. The 16-year radio analyst for Nebraska volleyball shared about the new team in the Pro Volleyball Federation, the players and the inaugural season, which starts in late January, with more than 300 business professionals, faculty and staff in Howard L. Hawks Hall.
A native of Ogallala, Nebraska, Mendenhall was a four-year starter for the University of Kansas volleyball team and worked for 20 years for the University of Nebraska in several administrative leadership positions. These roles included 12 years in Husker Athletics as Head Volleyball Coach John Cook’s first director of volleyball operations at Nebraska for four years when the team compiled a record of 128-9; senior associate athletics director, overseeing $70+ million in annual donations and ticket sales; executive director of the 25,000-member Nebraska Alumni Association for six years; and the chancellor’s director of external engagement where she completed her tenure at the university.
"Being president of the Supernovas in the Pro Volleyball Federation is really the perfect pinnacle of my career, and as John Cook said, 'It's life coming full circle.' Volleyball played such a vital role in my life and to be the president as major league volleyball comes to the United States is unbelievable," said Mendenhall, who shared that former Husker Volleyball Coach Terry Pettit recommended her for the position.
The Supernovas — named for the "exquisite explosion of light and energy that illuminates the universe with a pulsating radiance that astonishes those in its presence" — are one of seven teams in the league. The others include the Atlanta Vibe in Duluth, Georgia; Columbus Fury in Ohio; Grand Rapids Rise in Michigan; Orlando Valkyries in Florida and team names are soon to be announced for Las Vegas, Nevada; and San Diego, California.
The Omaha Supernovas will make history being selected to host the inaugural match of the league on January 24 at the CHI Health Center. Each team will play 12 home and 12 away matches in 16 weeks, followed by a Pro Volleyball Federation Championship.
"Three more teams are already on board for the 2025 season, and there are conversations with many other cities," Mendenhall said. "This is what we had hoped for in 2000-01 when our players started going overseas for six to nine months to play volleyball. It's exciting that now we can have them here playing in big arenas in front of lots of people, including their friends and family."
Two marquee players help promote the Supernovas — former Husker Gina Mancuso-Prososki, '13, the 2008 Gatorade National Player of the Year who most recently played in Puerto Rican professional volleyball league, and Natalia Valentin Anderson, a three-time All-Sun Belt Conference performer at Florida International University who represented Puerto Rico at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Mancuso-Prososki led Papillion-LaVista High School to two back-to-back state championships in 2007 and 2008, and after graduating from Nebraska, she played in Rabita Baku in Azerbaijan and Dresdner SIC in Germany, winning titles in the three volleyball leagues. Her teammate and roommate in Puerto Rico was former Husker Madi Kubik, '22. Her older sister, Dani Mancuso-Helu, '07, also played for Nebraska, and her dad, Mike, was a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers.
Natalia Valentin Anderson was captain of the Puerto Rican national team. She married Colt Anderson, a former FIU football player who graduated from Westside High School in 2007.
Mendenhall, Mancuso-Prososki and Valentin Anderson attended Nebraska Volleyball Day and flew in Nia Kai Reid, who played at Penn State and was named "best opposite hitter" in Brazil, and Tori Dixon, who played at the University of Minnesota and was part of the 2028-19 Volleyball Nations League Gold team. After networking with the more than 92,000 volleyball fans at Memorial Stadium, Mendenhall took the players to Grand Island for the Nebraska State Fair.
"We thought it would be fun to experience the energy and the enthusiasm in the heart of America," she said. "We're building this airplane while we're flying it, and our biggest challenge for the team is what any startup would face. We are building off the relationships we have and working on corporate sponsorships. We are grateful for the people of Nebraska who are so receptive to anything that supports women and volleyball in the state and the opportunity to invest in it."
The team is owned by global music sensation Jason Derulo, and Chris Erickson and Danny White, co-founders and co-owners of City+Ventures. The founders of the league are Dave Whinham and Stephen Evans, and league investors include Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and his father Husker great Jimmy Burrow and wife Robin, along with Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer. Noted administrators of the Pro Volleyball Federation are volleyball pioneers Cecile Reynaud, an American educator in volleyball and retired coach of the Florida State volleyball team, and Laurie Flachmeier Corbelli, former head coach of the Texas A&M women's volleyball team and a silver Olympics medal winner for the U.S. in the 1984 Summer Olympics.
"One of City+Ventures' multitude of businesses is luxury apartments, so the brand new apartment complex in LaVista City Center will house our players. Every single player and coach will have their own apartment. Our athletic trainer will also be there, so we can administer athletic training 24 hours a day," said Mendenhall. "They also will have a car furnished for them, and the College of St. Mary is providing our practice facility. They've rolled out the red carpet for us, and we're doing some renovations there to upgrade the facility — bringing new TaraFlex courts for them, remodeling their locker room and co-branding the Supernovas and the College of St. Mary. That's another way that we're investing in the community."
Mendenhall shared how she asked Erickson, who is originally from Holdrege, why a former high school basketball player with three little boys had a passion for volleyball.
"He looked at me kind of puzzled and said, 'Well, I'm from Nebraska, right?' Then for Jason Derulo, it's completely about the passion for advancing women and the opportunity that this can bring them to play in the United States," she said. "Jason's a great, heartfelt, wonderful human being who wants to take care of people and loves volleyball."
Former Husker volleyball players Kenzie Maloney, '19, and Kenzie Knuckles, '21 & '23, also joined the Supernovas to help advance fan engagement.
"Of course, we would like to have them playing, but due to an injury or rehab they're not able to play in 2024, yet they want to be part of this team and help advance the sport in any way. That's what we're seeing from many Husker volleyball alumni from our first Olympian Lori Endicott; to Tonia Tauke Dorn, '99 & '01; Nancy Metcalf, '01; and Anna (Schrad) Zajicek, '05 & '09. They are asking how they can help. These women want nothing more but to ensure that pro volleyball just takes off," she said.
Mendenhall said she feels right back at home surrounded by players and enjoys rebuilding those relationships. She is also honored to have been part of the first wave of little girls that capitalized on Title IX.
"My sister was three years older than me, and she didn't have the opportunities I had. I got to play in high school, earned a college scholarship, and then came to Nebraska during John Cook's first season to create the first director of volleyball operations role. I still remember being in his office and having the conversation about a sellout streak. How many years would it take us to surpass football? That's where the concept was born and the 'we can do this too.' When I see those numbers for the sellout streak at Nebraska, it just makes me beam. The sport has evolved, and the rest of the state, the country and the world is supporting what you and I always knew because we played it. We lived it, and we love it. This is our time."
To learn more about the Supernovas, get tickets or sponsor, go to https://supernovas.com/pro-volleyball-federation/.
Published: November 7, 2023