WHEN THEY SCORED tickets last spring to Volleyball Day in Nebraska, Jan Merrill and her daughter planned out a road trip. They would drive 2½ hours from Elgin, Nebraska, on winding roads through tiny towns to reach Lincoln, where they’d splurge on crab legs at a local restaurant, watch the volleyball match and stay overnight in a hotel. Maybe they’d get a pedicure the next day.

Merrill and her daughter, Melissa Borer, have attended Nebraska volleyball games since 1995, when Melissa was 11. The trip from Elgin would always be worth it when Merrill (no relation to the writer) and Melissa got to the game and crammed into a packed arena to watch their favorite team. So Borer knew the Aug. 30 event would be unlike anything they’d ever witnessed — the Huskers’ volleyball team playing outdoors at night under the lights at a packed Memorial Stadium in front of more than 90,000 fans more accustomed to traveling there to watch football games.

Their seats for Wednesday night’s match are in Section 28, alongside eight family members, including Borer’s 91-year-old grandmother. But Merrill won’t be there. Lung cancer has spread to her brain, clavicle and kidney, and she’s at home in hospice care, navigating back and forth to her bed with a walker. To the outside world, it might seem outlandish that a volleyball match could provide any sort of respite for a family in the grips of sickness and sadness, but for Borer, it temporarily will. And it’s cliché to say that the wildly successful Nebraska volleyball team has been the North Star in a state craving any kind of sports identity in the past decade.

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