When an athlete has been playing volleyball for close to 20 years and has recently graduated from college, it’s sometimes difficult to discern what one’s next step might be. 

For Tara Ziegelbein, a Lincoln native, things began to fall into place, piece by piece.

“It was kind of wild, volleyball has opened up a lot of doors for me,” said Tara Ziegelbein, former UNK Loper.

Ziegelbein is in the process of earning her Master’s Degree in Exercise Science with an emphasis on Strength and Conditioning from the University of East London (UEL). However, her time abroad was cut short due to the worldwide spread of COVID-19. 

The six-foot middle blocker has been playing volleyball most of her life, beginning at the YMCA at the age of four. From then on, she spent years competing at the club level and helping the Lincoln Lutheran Warriors reach the 2012 Nebraska State Tournament.

Sue Ziegler, head volleyball coach at Lincoln Lutheran High School, described her as a great leader who knew how to get the most out of her teammates. Ziegelbein, while being a very skilled volleyball player herself, wanted the same success and opportunity for her teammates and friends.

“It was just great to see how she really took others under her wing, to make them better players as well,” Ziegler said.

Beginning her sophomore year of high school, Ziegelbein received countless offers to play Division I volleyball, basketball, and soccer from colleges and universities all over the U.S. Offers came from institutions such as Minnesota, Iowa State, Colorado State, Wichita State, Wyoming, Bowling Green and Nebraska, as well as smaller schools such as Hastings College.

Ziegelbein decided on the University of Nebraska at Kearney and played a crucial role in bringing home multiple MIAA Championship titles during her time there. At the end of her senior year, the four-year starter was invited to play for the Division II U.S.A. National Team for three weeks in Brazil during the summer of 2017.  

“I think she [Ziegelbein] is one of those people that was drawn to volleyball because she liked to share that process with other people,” said Rick Squires, head volleyball coach at UNK.

Squires said he thought it was important to [Ziegelbein] to help build up and support the success of her teammates. He said he believed that Ziegelbein became very comfortable with herself and the role she played on the team. She also gained an awareness that others really appreciated her authenticity.

“Tara as a person is one of those who’s got a heart of gold, and she really valued being successful as part of a team,” said Squires. “She really was always trying to bring somebody else along and enjoy their success.”

It was during her time in Brazil that additional opportunities began opening up for Ziegelbein to continue her postgraduate volleyball career. International teams and coaches began reaching out and expressing interest in her.

“London was the one university that really kept in contact with me or kept asking me about it,” said Ziegelbein.

After offering to cover the expenses for her postgraduate degree, while still playing volleyball, Ziegelbein chose to go with UEL. 

In Ziegelbein’s experience, volleyball was much more relaxed in London. While the season abroad spans from September to April, she said it seemed to be a more unorganized system and practices were far less strict. She said that the U.S. collegiate sports system is rigorous and of a higher caliber in comparison.

“It’s totally different than it is here, where you go and you work your arse off in practice,” said Ziegelbein. “[In the US] it’s very serious, like the coaches are always in communication with you.”

Ziegelbein settled into volleyball and her degree work at East London University and enjoyed the experience, travel, and opportunity to extend her college play, as well as make connections.

“I knew, going into it, that this was going to be like my victory lap, like, ‘Hey, this is just for fun,’” Ziegelbein said. “But, I mean, that’s what gives you your connections.” 

The rapid spread of COVID-19 meant an abrupt end of volleyball for Ziegelbein, like many others this past spring. 

“It was kind of taken away just because school got canceled and we had to come home,” said Ziegelbein. “Otherwise we were gonna be stuck there ‘til Lord only knows when. It was just scary. So, we had to make those ‘gametime’ decisions.”

One of the hardest realizations, when told they were going home, was her family’s trip to London for spring break would not happen. A visit from some UNK friends, planned for the end of April, would also fall by the wayside. 

“They [her family] were supposed to come out March 13th,” Ziegelbein said. “And then the next week … they announced, ‘We’re gonna shut down class. We’re gonna move everything online.’ And then two days later was when all of us American players left. So it was like, the most rapid turnaround of all time.”

For the time being, she will finish writing her dissertation and enjoy her newfound time back in Lincoln. Ziegelbein has shoulder surgery scheduled for late August and will play it by ear when she is healthy enough to return to volleyball. 

No matter what the future holds for Ziegelbein, Coach Squires of UNK believes that she will find access to sports and competition and do something that she very much enjoys.

“She’s really successful at things when she enjoys and is interested in them,” said Squires. “Wherever she ends up, you know those people are going to be lucky to have her around.”

Senior Sports Media and Communications Major at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln and Assistant Photographer for Nebraska Athletics.