Husker great Sarah Pavan didn’t plan to become beach volleyball star, but she’s enjoying her success

Husker great Sarah Pavan didn’t plan to become beach volleyball star, but she’s enjoying her success
Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, center, congratulates Sarah Pavan, right, on becoming part of the 2018 University of Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame Class at Memorial Stadium on Friday. To the left is fellow inductee Mike Rozier. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — If Sarah Pavan could go back and give some advice to her meticulous, exacting teenage self, it might well be: Don’t worry if things don’t go according to your best-laid plans.

Pavan has found successes off the path she had originally anticipated, with the latest coming this weekend when she was inducted into the Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame and will have her jersey retired after Sunday’s 1 p.m. match between No. 7 Nebraska (5-1) and Iowa State (6-3). The match will be televised nationally on ESPNU.

The former Husker great will become the ninth player in the program’s history to have her jersey retired and was part of a star-studded Hall of Fame class on Friday that included Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, NU baseball coach Darin Erstad, NCAA gymnastics champion Tom Schlesinger and former softball All-American Peaches James.

“I think my first thought when I look at the other inductees is, A, how did I get included in this group?” Pavan said Friday. “Like, we’re talking actual legends in Nebraska sport and American sport with Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney. It’s just very humbling to be included in this group because compared to what they did, I did nothing.”

Self-deprecation notwithstanding, Pavan has a résumé of athletic and academic success that stacks up to anyone who’s worn a Nebraska uniform. She was a four-time first-team All-American, one of only five players in college volleyball history to earn that distinction. An at-times unstoppable opposite hitter, the 6-foot-5 Pavan became the program’s all-time leader in career kills (2,008) and kills per set (4.56), and was the team’s most dominant player from the minute she stepped on campus.

The Kitchener, Ontario, native also stood out in the classroom, earning her biochemistry degree with a 4.0 GPA and three times being named a first-team academic All-American.

“She’s probably the most decorated college volleyball player in the history of volleyball,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “When you look at the awards she won volleyball-wise and academic, I’m not sure anybody can top that.”

By beating out Penn State, Stanford and Minnesota for Pavan, Cook pulled a recruiting coup early in his coaching career. The methodical Pavan, who weighed her college choices against a list that included academics, athletic success and strength and conditioning, finally picked Nebraska after visiting the school’s then-newly opened Beadle Center, the building that housed most of her biochemistry studies.

“Honestly, at every single school I visited, Nebraska was the only one that had everything,” she said. “Me, with my logical brain, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s got every single thing on my list. Of course I’m going to go there.’ ”

Pavan led one of the most successful runs in Husker history. Her teams reached at least the regional final all four seasons, topped by winning the 2006 NCAA championship in Omaha in a season in which she was the unanimous pick for national player of the year.

But it was her post-NU career that took her in directions that veered from her plans. Her ultimate goal was always to become an Olympian, but after Canada failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in indoor volleyball, Pavan chose a future in beach volleyball.

She dedicated her focus to the beach game in 2013, finishing fifth in the 2016 Rio Olympics with partner Heather Bansley. This spring, with new partner Melissa Humana-Paredes, Pavan won beach volleyball gold at the Commonwealth Games.

Pavan, now 32, has no plans to slow down any time soon. When she left Nebraska, she figured she’d play a few professional seasons, go to medical school and start a career. Now, she’s aiming to qualify for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, and perhaps make a run at the 2024 Olympics in Paris when she would be 38.

“Honestly, my body as an athlete, I feel better now than I did when I was 20,” Pavan said. “I still feel strong and healthy. I definitely think it’s realistic for me to do that.”

Pavan said she feels like she “graduated literally yesterday,” but this weekend marks her first time in Lincoln since 2010, when she attended the wedding of former NU assistant Dani Busboom Kelly. She’ll be one of several former Nebraska greats in the Devaney Center for Sunday’s match against Iowa State, which will be playing its third match in as many days.

The Cyclones are coached by former Husker setter Christy Johnson-Lynch, and this season she added her successor at NU, Fiona (Nepo) Fonoti as an assistant. Iowa State is coming off a 1-1 performance in Creighton’s Bluejay Invitational in Omaha with a Friday loss to the Bluejays and a Saturday win over Wichita State. Senior outside hitter Jess Schaben, a Harlan product, leads ISU with 3.42 kills per set.

After playing 10 professional indoor seasons in Italy, Brazil, China and South Korea, Pavan and her husband Adam Schulz live in Hermosa Beach, California, where Pavan trains with other professional beach players. Her friends include former rivals who played at USC, UCLA and Stanford, and she’s quick to let them know when the Huskers are playing well.

A career in beach volleyball wasn’t where Pavan envisioned herself when she arrived in Lincoln in 2004. But plans can change. That’s the perspective she could give her younger self. And detours can still lead you where you hoped you’d be.

“I love it so much,” she said. “I didn’t expect that, either. It’s interesting how life happens and evolves.”

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