The University of Nebraska women’s volleyball team is the top-ranked program in the country and has a freshman starting middle blocker with a strong Alaska ties.
Andi Jackson was born in Soldotna but didn’t grow up in Alaska because her father worked in the energy industry and their family had to move around a lot before eventually setting down roots for the longest time in Brighton, Colorado. She also spent time living in California and overseas in Dubai while growing up.
“I was born in Alaska and have spent a lot of time up there but I would say I was raised in Colorado in the winter and in Alaska in the summer,” Jackson said.
During the summer months growing up before she really got into volleyball, she and her sisters would spend five to six weeks in the Last Frontier visiting her grandparents, who still live in Soldotna and also own a home in Palmer.
“I see them when I go up during the summer and around Thanksgiving,” Jackson said.
She tries to come up every year as much as she can, including this past summer when the team got some time off around the Fourth of July holiday.
“My grammy and I love going to Homer, especially as a family and spending a day up there,” Jackson said. “This year we went clamming in Ninilchik, lots of hiking in Palmer, hanging out and fishing in the Kenai (River), and just being outside.”
Reluctantly falling in love with sport
Her volleyball journey didn’t begin until she was in the eighth grade heading into her freshman year of high school.
“I was what they call a late bloomer,” Jackson said. “I grew up playing all types of sports including track, soccer, basketball, and I loved all of them.”
She never envisioned herself playing volleyball but her older sister was playing it and her mom made her attend tryouts at a local club.
“I was super mad that she made me do it and I remember that I cried all the way to the tryout because I was so defeated and I felt like I had already didn’t make it,” Jackson said. “But then they took me and I became a middle blocker on their team at 15 and I fell in love with it.”
She remains best friends with some of her teammates from that first team she was ever a part of and is grateful for the experience that turned volleyball from a reluctant whim to burning passion.
“After playing there I just knew I loved volleyball and that’s what I wanted to do,” Jackson said.
She has been a key contributor to the top-ranked Cornhuskers’ success this season and credits her coaches and teammates for helping her adjust to the ramped up speed of the college game and the higher level of competition that comes with it.
“Every day is a competition in our gym,” Jackson said. “I think that some of the hardest games that I’ve played in have been in the gym against my own teammates just because the level is so high and we’re super competitive.”
Nebraska wasn’t her first school choice during the recruiting process but after conversations with the coaching staff and seeing the incredible amount of support from the fanbase, she was sold.
“I loved talking to coach (John) Cook,” Jackson said. “He just had so much confidence that he could turn me into an amazing player and I knew that was a coach that I wanted to play for.”
Her top two choices originally were the University of Texas given her family’s fandom for the Longhorns and Baylor University.
“I remember telling coach that on the phone and he sounded super defeated,” Jackson said. “I just wanted to be honest with him … My call with Texas fell through and was not what we expected.”
Being on an elite team and handling early success
Jackson is one of five freshmen on the Cornhuskers’ team. All five decided to skip their final semester of high school this past spring to enroll into college early and start getting acclimated to their new teammates and environment sooner.
“It’s been a really nice experience to have all of them with me because I definitely couldn’t have done it alone,” she said. “That was a huge step, not even finishing your senior year and you’ve got to go to college to play for the No. 1 program is super intimidating, but having those other girls with me made it super easy.”
It didn’t take long for the new and returning players to gel and establish strong chemistry on and off the court that Jackson believes has been just as integral to the team’s success as their overall talent level if not even more.
“We all love each other really well and I think that’s what sets us apart from other teams,” she said. “It’s been a really great experience getting to have a record-setting season with these girls.”
On Aug. 30, the Cornhuskers set a world record for attendance at a women’s sports event when more than 92,000 people filled their school’s normal football venue -- Memorial Stadium -- for a match against the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
“If I could go back and relive that night a thousand times, I would,” she said. “It was super amazing to be a part of something so special, not only to say that I played in front of 92,000 people but to be a part of a team that is impacting women’s sports so much is more than I can put into words.”
Nebraska is only a year removed from making it to the NCAA Division I national championship in 2021 and is poised to make a run again this year after losing in the Sweet 16 to Oregon in 2022.
“You’re not going to make it to a national championship every year with how high level volleyball has become,” Jackson said. “It’s hard. We’re seeing conferences other than the Big 10 peak and become really good.”
The Cornhuskers will host Georgia Tech University on Thursday in Lincoln, Nebraska, on their home court in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Pioneering and building a brand
The boom in coverage and interest in women’s sports at the collegiate level especially has exploded in recent years, and Jackson is proud to be a part of the growth in publicity for women’s athletics.
“It’s incredible and you love to see it,” she said. “You work super hard and women’s sports are fun to watch. I think people are now realizing that we put in a lot of work.”
While she can’t speak for the rest of the world, Jackson has seen tremendous growth in the interest in volleyball in America at the youth level.
“It’s one of the fastest growing sports, especially for young female athletes,” she said. “I think it’s incredible that these athletes are seeing an opportunity and having their hard work showcased. Now you see us getting put on ESPN and ESPN+.”
This heightened interest has created avenues that generate revenue and establish brands for young women through NIL (name, image, likeness) deals.
“I’m super proud that I get to be a part of history in the making,” Jackson said.
She has already been in contact with multiple brands although she hasn’t had as much time to network during the season. She is currently working with a Colorado-based athletic brand and hopes to work with some clothing brands in the offseason.
“I really want to start my own clothing brand for tall women,” Jackson said. “I’m hoping to work with American Tall or maybe an athletic clothing brand or maybe a shoe brand.”