Sydney O’Shaughnessy has been thinking about this weekend’s Omaha Challenge for quite a while.
Still, she can hardly contain her excitement when she’s discussing the three-day event at Baxter Arena.
The senior setter and her Mavericks will meet Kansas State, Northern Iowa and Nebraska on consecutive nights in the most anticipated home volleyball showcase in their school’s seven-year history in Division I.
O’Shaughnessy envisions flashing spotlights as the crowd roars from the darkness surrounding the court, especially when UNO meets the Huskers on Saturday for the first time since Rose Shires’ first year as coach.
“It’s going to be so outrageously cool that I can’t even describe it,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We’re all going to be so pumped. Having that atmosphere is something I think every little girl playing volleyball wants.
“Watching Penn State and Nebraska growing up, you want that packed house. To have that here, for at least one night, is like a dream come true. It’s surreal, almost, having that immense amount of support.”
O’Shaughnessy expects the Omaha Challenge to be one of the highlights of her stellar UNO career. Playing big-time college matches in her hometown was a dream for the former Omaha Marian star.
“I decided to stay here because I really wanted to be part of something special. I wanted to make a difference in something that was up and coming,” she said. “And I really believed in UNO. I still believe in UNO and where they’re headed for the future. I’m getting chills right now talking about it because it’s just so cool to watch it happen. I wanted to be a part of that. In the end, this is where I needed to be.”
O’Shaughnessy picked UNO over Butler, a decision that has worked well for her and the Mavs. The four-year starter enters the weekend ranked fifth on the school’s career assist list. She could eventually end up as high as second, even though she will have played her matches exclusively at the Division I level.
Shires believed O’Shaughnessy could have such an impact. The 5-foot-8 setter verbally committed to the Mavs prior to her senior year. She then led Marian to the Class A state title that fall.
“We recruited her with the idea of pushing to build the program at the Division I level,” Shires said. “It was something we, as a team, knew was one of the things that was missing — a high-level setter who could run the whole court, a setter that could demonstrate that competitiveness at a really high level.
“We were selling her on the idea that she could be the starter for four years and lead this team into Division I and, hopefully, the NCAA tournament. We had the hitters then. And now, we’re developing some good young players that, by the end of the season, we have a good opportunity to be there.”
That’s the ultimate goal, O’Shaughnessy said. UNO came incredibly close to an NCAA berth in its first year of D-I eligibility, falling five points short of the Summit League’s automatic bid. The Mavs led eventual champion Denver 5-0 in the fifth set on its home court before dropping the match 15-10.
“We were five points away from the NCAAs,” she said. “It’s crazy to think about it.”
The senior does think about it — a lot. It’s been a driving force for her since. She was a sophomore setter surrounded by seniors on that squad. Now, she’s a senior on a team relying on talented underclassmen.
O’Shaughnessy feels her duty is to lead them. She’ll pump them up, but also hold them accountable.
“I’m going to be probably the hardest person on you next to the coaches. When you do good, I’m the first one to let you know,” she said. “I’m like that in life, too. I really hold people, especially people close to me, to a high standard. I’m pretty hard on them if it’s not held up. I’m hard on myself if I don’t hold up that standard also. I’m always laughing and smiling. But when it comes down to business, it’s go time.”
The senior said she’s been described as “fiery” before. She doesn’t hide her intensity on the court — at all.
O’Shaughnessy said it comes from knowing her shortcomings, noting she’s not as tall or gifted as others.
“I know I’m not as technically good, but I’m trying to be better than you in every other way I possibly can,” she said. “If I can lead my team better, be louder, move the ball around and work harder than you, then I’m happy with it. I think that creates a better energy and catches people off-guard sometimes.”
Shires said that edge fuels her on-court success. But she also sees the creativity of her art-major setter.
“I think Sydney’s tenacity and competitiveness is something that makes her stand apart from other players,” she said. “It’s not just a position for her, it’s a way for her to demonstrate and control the court.
“Away from the gym, she’s a very artsy person who I think is a talented artist. They all beat to their own drum. Sydney probably has her own band that she’s going to. But when she’s on the court, she’s very in-tune to the competitive side of her. I think the two kind of coexist. It’s a very yin-and-yang thing.”
Shires has seen her young team grow around her senior setter in the early weeks of the season. And she feels the maturation of younger players takes a lot of pressure off O’Shaughnessy as the year moves on.
“Initially, we thought we were going to have to lean on her a lot,” Shires said. “Again, what I’m seeing out of our younger players is I’m seeing them saying, ‘We can hold our own.’ Once they get on court, they’re equal to Syd in terms of their ability to score and ability to play. She doesn’t feel like she’s so stretched.
“I think that’s one of the difficulties of being an upperclassman on a younger team. You often forget about your game because you’re so worried about taking care of everybody else. And maybe the first weekend, that’s how it was. But I don’t think that’s how it is now. They’re really holding their own.”
O’Shaughnessy also has seen it. She said she couldn’t have asked for a better group of players to spend her final season with and vowed that the Mavs will give K-State, Northern Iowa and Nebraska everything they have.
“There’s not going to be a moment of doubt with us,” she said. “That’s the coolest part to me — to play with girls who aren’t going to back down. How we handle it, even if we lose, people will respect that.”
Their goal this weekend will be to win matches, of course. But O’Shaughnessy understands the growth in tough competition. She said UNO improved from challenging Iowa and Iowa State in tough sets recently.
“It shows us how good we can be,” the senior setter said. “And show us, if we take every point together seriously and every match seriously, we are going to end up being at the top end of our conference.”
And that’s where O’Shaughnessy wants to be. UNO’s real challenge comes after the Omaha Challenge.
“I honestly just want to get to the Summit championships and win,” she said. “That’s it. That’s all I want. I don’t care what else happens. If these girls can hold out and push through with me — and we make it there and win — that’s the ultimate feeling of accomplishment for me. That feeling of being so close has been with me. I just want it again. I could see it happening. I can totally see it happening.”
At Baxter Arena
7 p.m.: Kansas State at UNO
4:30 p.m.: Nebraska vs. Kansas State
7 p.m.: Northern Iowa at UNO
Noon: Nebraska vs. Northern Iowa
5:30 p.m.: Kansas State vs. Northern Iowa
7:30 p.m.: Nebraska at UNO – KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM