Saturday, July 16, 2016
Amber and Kadie Rolfzen sat in the same circle as the others, feeling the same mix of anxiety and hope.
The twins had just completed their first tryout after joining the Premier Volleyball program. Now the teams were being announced at the Kiewit Fitness Center on the Creighton campus.
For purposes of identification, Amber was No. 420 and Kadie was No. 421. Those numbers had been on their shirts through the workout.
“They were like, ‘OK, we’re going to list off your numbers, and these numbers are Gold, these numbers are the Red … ,’ ” Amber Rolfzen said. “And I was just thinking, ‘Please say my number. Please say my number.’ ”
The Rolfzens had started out in the YMCA Spirit League. Then played briefly with La Vista BOOM! This was the next step.
“I remember being so nervous,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “Every time I’d make a mistake, I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m not going to make it.’ ”
That may have been the last time the Rolfzen twins had only their own expectations to meet.
Soon they would attract the attention of college coaches, even as 13- and 14-year-olds. And when they committed to Nebraska before even playing a match in high school at Papillion-La Vista South, it was already assumed that state championships for the Titans would follow, and eventually even national titles with the Huskers.
Reaching those heights and handling the pressure are reasons Kadie and Amber Rolfzen are named the 2016 winners of the Fred Ware Award, presented Sunday for the 36th time by The World-Herald.
The Ware Award goes annually to the four-year college athlete in Nebraska who, in the judgment of the newspaper’s editors, made the most significant achievement in sports while representing the best traditions of his or her institution. The late Fred Ware organized The World-Herald sports department and served as sports editor from 1924 to 1942, and later was the newspaper’s managing editor and a member of its board of directors.
In 33 of the previous 35 years, the Ware Award went to one student-athlete. The exceptions were 1994, when it was split between Nebraska football player Trev Alberts and Creighton soccer player Keith DeFini; and 1990, when it went to NU football player Gerry Gdowski and track athlete Sammie Resh Gdowski, who had married the prior summer.
It seems appropriate that the Rolfzens share the honor in 2016, based not only on what they’ve accomplished but how they have pushed and helped each other along the way.
They started to take flight at Premier, where they played on 14 Gold and 15 Gold teams as seventh- and eighth-graders. Their coach, Shannon Smolinski, realized immediately that they had their own language on the court, and knew where each other was and what the other one wanted.
Two girls who just wanted to make the team also showed up with something else.
“They were competitors, first and foremost,” Smolinski said. “Right away, if we were doing a drill, if we were doing a scrimmage, they were there to win.
“They’re a little bit shy off the court. But on the court it is, ‘Give me the ball. I’m here to win.’ It was right away.”
Smolinski also witnessed what was happening around them. The “buzz” was almost immediate, she said, as their teams advanced into regional and national competition. It was hard to walk into a gym and not notice the college coaches there to follow two of the nation’s top prospects.
But the twins approached it with a sense of maturity, which Smolinski traces back to parents Mark and Teresa Rolfzen. They prepared their girls for the attention, and Smolinski said it probably helped that the twins were going through it together.
“Is that unfair to put those expectations on athletes at that young of an age? It can be, yes,” Smolinski said. “But for Kadie and Amber — and I would say especially Kadie — they thrive in that atmosphere, and they’ve been like that since Day One.
“When the chips are down or when they’re in the corner, I think is when they are at their best, because they want it. They want that. They like the challenge.”
Kadie Rolfzen enters the Devaney Center carrying the championship trophy followed by Amber. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD
The Rolfzen twins show off their 2015 national championship rings.
REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD
The biggest challenge was met last December, when the Rolfzens helped lead Nebraska to its first NCAA championship since 2006 to cap their junior season.
Kadie was an AVCA first-team All-American, and also an All-Big Ten pick for the third straight year. She led the Huskers with 3.3 kills per set after moving from outside hitter to opposite hitter.
Amber was a second-team All-American and made the NCAA championship all-tournament team. She led the Big Ten and was fourth nationally with 1.58 blocks per set, thriving after her move to middle blocker.
NU coach John Cook said the position changes “finally, for the first time in their lives, separated them.”
“They had their own deals now,” Cook said. “It was one of the things that allowed them to have their own identities. Amber blossomed, and Kadie was the most happy and positive and productive since she had been at Nebraska.”
Cook saw the expectations sometimes hanging like a cloud over them in their first two seasons in Lincoln. The pressure may have sapped some of the enjoyment. The Huskers won — going 49-17 over the Rolfzens’ freshman and sophomore years — but maybe not enough.
Kelly Hunter, left, was the Rolfzens' setter in high school at Papillion-La Vista South. Together again at Nebraska, they won a national title in Omaha.
JOEY WALLER/WORLD-HERALD NEWS SERVICE
Through their own hard work and a reunification with a high school teammate, setter Kelly Hunter, it all came together for the twins, Cook said.
“One of the reasons our team was so successful this last season is they started to relax and just started playing, and everybody else relaxed,” Cook said. “They got in their comfort zone, and they started to enjoy the experience.”
Once upon a time, Cook was telling the Rolfzens that they didn’t need to commit so soon. It would bring undue pressure. Now, because they had to handle all that, Cook said, the girls are “much stronger, wiser, more mature people than when they first got here.”
The maturity extends beyond volleyball.
Both twins are three-time members of the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team and two-time Academic All-Big Ten selections. Kadie recently was named a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar (4.0 grade average).
“I love coaching both of them. They’ve been awesome,” Cook said. “Because they’re fun, they work hard, they’re very coachable and they want to be good. They’re just incredibly gracious kids, or young women.”
Smolinski said she was blown away by how nice and humble she found the Rolfzens to be, and by how important family, school and church were to them, along with volleyball.
She also recalls her first meeting with the twins’ parents, during an open house prior to tryouts.
“They basically just asked about the Premier philosophy, about this and that,” Smolinski said. “And you know what? They never really said, ‘What is Premier going to do for my kid?’ It was just basically, ‘This is the club that we’re looking at putting our athletes in.’ And I’m thinking in my head, ‘OK, this could be great.’ ”
The Rolfzens led Papillion-La Vista South to three consecutive Class A championships, a stretch that included a 93-match winning streak. They also helped Nebraska Juniors win a 2011 club national championship.
Former Papillion-La Vista South coach Gwen Egbert said she never saw the twins’ early commitment to NU wear them out, and it might have only pushed them harder to realize their potential.
“There is a pressure that comes with playing at Nebraska, but I don’t think you ever feel that until you get there,” said Egbert, now the head coach at Doane. “I think it’s all about a process, up until the time you get there. It’s about the steps you take to get as ready as you can.”
Egbert, a former NU player, was in Omaha for the NCAA Final Four last December, and said it was rewarding to see the Rolfzens achieve their No. 1 goal.
“You work hard for it,” she said. “They work hard for what they get. And to see that happen — to see all their work and all their training pay off — I’m super happy for them.”
The focus won’t be any different going into their senior year, but Kadie said she already felt good about 2016 when she walked out of a meeting after the spring semester.
“One of the things I told Coach was the fact that we’ve done it already is such a weight lifted off our shoulders,” Kadie said, “and we can just play free, instead of it being like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they never lived up to their expectations.’ ”
Amber said the biggest goal was always to win a national championship. And the only thing better than one would be two.
“Obviously when you win it’s like a really exciting feeling,” she said. “But then once you win you’re like, ‘I want to do that again. That was fun.’ That’s kind of how we are this season already.”
Coming full circle
Huskers Kadie, left, and Amber Rolfzen have been here before — standing at this very spot at Premier Volleyball/The Courts in Omaha. The Ware Award winners are all grown up now (6-foot-3) in the photo from July 2016. Move the slider to see them in August 2009. Back then, the identical twins were 15 years old, stood 6-foot-2 and had yet to play a high school match. They committed to play at Nebraska as 14-year-olds.
2016 WARE AWARD FINALISTS
In all, six student-athletes were named finalists for the Fred Ware Award:
Fabian Herbers, Creighton, soccer: Herbers led the nation in points (47) and assists (17), and ranked third in goals (15) with five game-winners. That led to the senior from Ahaus, Germany, being the runner-up for the Hermann Trophy. Creighton won 19 games and reached the national quarterfinals in 2015, and was ranked No. 1 for eight weeks. Herbers was taken No. 6 overall by the Philadelphia Union in the MLS SuperDraft.
MJ Knighten, Nebraska, softball: The third baseman became just the seventh Husker to earn first-team All-American honors after being one of 13 players nationally with 50 hits, 50 runs and 50 RBIs (and the first Husker to go 60-60-60). The junior from Buena Park, California, was second nationally with her 21 home runs, which also rank No. 2 on the Nebraska single-season chart. Ranked first in the Big Ten in homers, second in slugging percentage and third in RBIs.
Jake Guentzel, UNO, hockey: The Maverick co-captain led UNO with 19 goals and 27 assists, marking the second time in three years that he paced the team in scoring. The junior was named second-team All-NCHC and was a member of the NCHC Scholar-Athlete team. The Omaha native from Woodbury, Minnesota, chose to bypass his senior season to sign an amateur tryout contract with Pittsburgh.
Shavon Shields, Nebraska, basketball: Host of awards included Shields being named the 2016 Nebraska Big Ten Medal of Honor winner, a first-team CoSIDA Academic All-American, the NU male student-athlete of the year and a member of the Allstate NABC Good Works Team. The three-year co-captain averaged a career-high 16.8 points a game as a senior, along with 5.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists. The 6-foot-7 forward from Olathe, Kansas, is one of only five players in school history to surpass 1,500 points and 600 rebounds.
Clayton Taylor, UNO, baseball: The Elkhorn Mount Michael graduate was named the Summit League player of the year and Male Scholar Athlete of the Year, both firsts for UNO. The third baseman was a four-time All-Summit League pick, and hit .326 with 11 home runs and a league-high 66 RBIs as a senior. Graduated in May with a 3.81 grade average, majoring in IT innovation, and was a CoSIDA first-team Academic All-American.
Jaali Winters, Creighton, volleyball: The outside hitter from Ankeny, Iowa, helped Creighton to its first NCAA Sweet 16 appearance by setting a single-season school record with 546 kills, which also ranked second nationally among all freshmen. Winters was named the Big East freshman of the year and a third-team All-American. Played her best in team’s biggest matches, with 18 kills vs. Villanova in the Big East tournament final, 20 kills in NCAA win over Coastal Carolina and 21 kills and 21 digs in NCAA win at North Carolina that clinched Sweet 16.
2015: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska football
2014: Doug McDermott, Creighton basketball
2013: Doug McDermott, Creighton basketball
2012: Ethan Finlay, Creighton soccer
2011: Jordan Burroughs, Nebraska wrestling
2010: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska football
2009: Jordan Larson, Nebraska volleyball
2008: Dusty Jonas, Nebraska track and field
2007: Zac Taylor, Nebraska football
2006: Les Sigman, UNO wrestling
2005: Alex Gordon, Nebraska baseball
2004: Peaches James, Nebraska softball
2003: Kyle Korver, Creighton basketball
2002: Eric Crouch, Nebraska football
2001: Greichaly Cepero, Nebraska volleyball
2000: Heather Brink, Nebraska gymnastics
1999: Ed Thompson, UNO football
1998: Grant Wistrom, Nebraska football
1997: Johnny Torres, Creighton soccer
1996: Tommie Frazier, Nebraska football
1995: Darin Erstad, Nebraska baseball/football
1994: Trev Alberts, Nebraska football, and Keith DeFini, Creighton soccer
1993: Karen Jennings, Nebraska basketball
1992: Janet Kruse, Nebraska volleyball
1991: Pat Tyrance, Nebraska football
1990: Gerry Gdowski, Nebraska football, and Sammie Resh Gdowski, Nebraska track
1989: Lori Endicott, Nebraska volleyball
1988: Tom Schlesinger, Nebraska gymnastics
1987: Karen Dahlgren, Nebraska volleyball
1986: Dave Hoppen, Nebraska basketball
1985: Mark Traynowicz, Nebraska football
1984: Turner Gill, Nebraska football
1983: Merlene Ottey, Nebraska track
1982: Dave Rimington, Nebraska football
1981: Jim Hartung, Nebraska gymnastics