Dec. 9, 1996: One of the most legendary dates in UNO Volleyball's rich history. A juncture at which a program was changed forever. A time for long-awaited celebration. A day when the Mavericks, after years of challenging the nation's best, finally claimed their own coveted NCAA championship.
Today, on Dec. 9, 2016, we pay tribute on the 20th anniversary of UNO's national title, when the Mavericks defeated Tampa, 3-2, at the NCAA Division II Championship in Warrensburg, Mo.
The 1996 season was confidently dubbed MISSION: POSSIBLE, as UNO entered the year on a determined quest for not only an NCAA Tournament berth, but its first national championship. "Dec. 9" was written on the back of every athlete's playing shoes and water bottle, symbolizing their season-long commitment to realizing the goal of an NCAA crown.
The Mavericks opened the season with an unmatched fire, compiling a school-record 20 consecutive victories. Their only two losses on the year came on the road at No. 5 North Dakota State and No. 11 St. Cloud State, both in five games. At the culmination of North Central Conference play, UNO tied with Augustana for the regular-season conference title with identical league records of 16-2. Amy Steffel, Erin Shafer, Kim Gerdes and Tanya Cate were all named All-NCC and AVCA All-North Central Region.
After receiving a first-round bye and the top seed in the NCAA North Central Regional, the Mavericks defeated North Dakota State, 3-1 (7-15, 15-11, 15-7, 15-7). Steffel and Shafer were both named to the regional's all-tournament team.
UNO took down New Haven with a 3-0 (15-7, 15-11, 15-1) sweep in the Mavericks' first NCAA Elite Eight appearance in nine seasons. The Chargers entered the Elite Eight with the field's highest team hitting percentage at .417, but UNO held them to their lowest attack percentage of the season at .091.
UNO advanced to the national semifinals, gutting out a 3-2 (15-11, 7-15, 15-13, 6-15, 15-10) victory over a Northern Michigan squad that had appeared in the last four NCAA Championship matches. Steffel led the way, dishing out 57 assists, nine digs, eight kills and seven blocks.
With the Mavericks assured of their highest national finish in school history, the scene was set.
In the national finals, UNO and Tampa duked it out over two hours and 15 minutes of hard-fought championship volleyball. UNO took the first set, 15-13, before the Spartans prevailed in set two, 17-15. The Mavericks stormed back in the third set, 15-10, but Tampa again evened the match at 2-2 with a 15-12 win. In the final play of the fifth set, with the national title on the line, Chris Brink blocked Tampa outside hitter Kirsten Zshau, giving UNO the 15-11 victory, the 3-2 match win and the prized 1996 NCAA Division II championship.
Shafer led UNO with 21 kills, 16 digs and five service aces, while Steffel added 59 assists, 18 digs, four kills and four blocks. Brink ended the match with 10 kills, four blocks and nine digs.
Steffel and Cate went on to earn All-America honors from the AVCA, with Steffel picking up first-team recognition and Cate named to the second team.
UNO All-Americans Amy Steffel (left) and Tanya Cate (right).
After being named both NCC Co-Coach of the Year and the AVCA North Central Region Coach of the Year, head coach Rose Shires was tabbed the Tachikara/AVCA National Coach of the Year. The award capped an incredible season for Shires, who led the Mavericks to a record of 35-2, their first national championship, and both their first Elite Eight trip and first NCC title since 1987.
Head coach Rose Shires (left) and assistant coach Karen Povondra (right).
The 1996 UNO Mavericks -- Front Row (L-R): Cheri Pribyl, Amy Steffel, Jamie Shafer. Second Row: Erin Shafer, Krista Niezwaag, Tanya Cate, Korrine Boltin, Christyn Malone, Christy Fossum. Third Row: Athletic Trainer Denise Fandel. Fourth Row: Kim Gerdes, Assistant Coach Karen Povondra, Graduate Assistant Denise Otten, Head Coach Rose Shires, Chris Brink.
Members of UNO's 1996 NCAA Championship team, which returned to Sapp Fieldhouse for a 20th anniversary celebration and reunion in 2016.