On The Road, Volleyball Style

Nebraska Athletics
The doors are about to close on Nebraska University's Coliseum

NCAA records show the University of Hawaii as the undisputed women’s volleyball attendance leader. For the sixteenth straight year in 2011, the Rainbow Wahine topped all others with an average of 6,814 fans per match at Stan Sheriff Center (capacity: 10,300). But their coach Dave Shoji readily admitted, “It’s not an intimidating place to play.” There’s plenty of space between the court and the seats, so opponents don’t get the feeling the crowd is right on top of them.

Last December, however, the Sheriff Center atmosphere reached a fever pitch. One of the NCAA regional semifinals featured the ’Bows—ranked No. 3 at the time in the AVCA poll—against No. 1 ranked USC in front of a sellout crowd.

“The intensity of the match that we played out there was really interesting because at one point I called a timeout and the noise was so loud my chair vibrated across the floor,” said Women of Troy coach Mick Haley, in his thirty-sixth year as a head coach and twelfth at USC. “I don’t think I ever remember going to a match in Hawaii and having it be like that, so that was really special.” USC won the match, 3-2, and the region, to advance to its seventh national semi in the last 12 years.

Shoji knows something about defusing a tough environment. His ’Bows snapped Nebraska’s 82-match winning streak in the 2002 NCAA regional final at the NU Coliseum in Lincoln. There’s little dispute, however, that Hawaii did it in one of the most intimidating venues in the country. This is the final season for the Coliseum as the Huskers home court before they move on to a revamped Bob Devaney Center next year.

Kevin Hambly, the head coach of 2011 NCAA runner-up Illinois, said succinctly, “The Coliseum, for sure, is the toughest and I think by far.”

The Huskers ranked second in attendance with an average crowd of 4,522 in 2011. The size of the arena is the only thing preventing Nebraska’s attendance figure from growing; the NU Coliseum has been packed with red-clad vocal fans for 164 straight sellouts. “We have the longest waiting list we’ve ever had for season tickets,” Huskers Head Coach John Cook said. At a place better known for its demand on football tickets, the Huskers women’s volleyball current sellout streak is the longest among all NCAA women’s athletics.

“It’s just the noise level there. It’s insane,” said Hambly, whose Illini went into an October match at NU’s Coliseum last year ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll but left their first encounter with this Big Ten foe with a loss in four sets. “When it’s rocking—when it’s a big point or in a timeout when you’re down by just two points and just made a run—you could barely think and hear others talk.”

On the men’s side, the NCAA doesn’t release attendance rankings for the year. But Brigham Young University, which averaged 2,701 fans in 2011, is traditionally one of the top-drawing men’s programs in the country. And, according to USC men’s coach Bill Ferguson, one of the toughest environments for visitors, especially in the tight end zone areas.

“There’s lots of stories of the BYU fans pulling leg hair of the servers,” said Ferguson, who guided his Trojans in May to the men’s volleyball final played on USC’s floor.

Here’s the bottom line: Recurring winners enhance their chances of creating a tough environment for visiting teams.

When the Penn State women’s team reeled in a record-setting streak of 109 straight victorious matches and four consecutive NCAA titles, it didn’t matter if the Nittany Lions played at Rec Hall or in a mountain cave. They flat out won because they had top-notch talent. But, coaches agree, there are several other sites and situations around the country that potentially create difficult atmosphers for opponents when they fill arena seats and make plenty of noise.

Five Atmospheres Worth Checking Out

University of Nebraska | Coliseum
Its final year as the home of the Huskers figures to be a raucous one and Nebraska head coach John Cook knows his team has a built-in edge. Cook’s only hope is that the Devaney Center atmosphere can somehow match that intensity when the renovations are finished.

University of Hawaii | Stan Sheriff Center
As the NCAA attendance leader, sheer numbers can make it difficult for University of Hawaii opponents. The home crowd seldom rides opponents, but the Rainbow Wahine know the fans are a huge boost for them in a competitive match.

University of Texas | Gregory Gym
The home of the Texas Longhorns seats only 4,000, so a team that ranks among the best in the nation and plays in such an intimate setting has formulated a tough combo.

University of Nebraska-Kearney | Health & Sports Center
The home of the Lopers at the University of Nebraska-Kearney has been at the top in NCAA Division II attendance in all but three years since 1996. Opponents dread a horseshoe configuration during the regular season since it puts the court in close proximity to fans and narrows the serving areas in the end zones.

Rivalry Games
Take your pick on the location – when the visiting rival shows up, you know the home fans will bring a little extra.

Rivalries Ignite the Passion

Oregon State coach Terry Liskevych believes the toughest venue for visitors can be anywhere a rivalry match is played. So while Liskevych maps out a plan to neutralize the Ducks crowd at cross-state rival Oregon, fellow Pac-12 Conference members USC and UCLA are primed for holding serve on their home courts this fall against each other, something neither did last year.

USC will close out UCLA’s regular season home schedule, Nov. 23, after the Bruins men’s basketball team christens a renovated Pauley Pavilion. Until Pauley’s ready, the NCAA defending champion Bruins will continue playing at John Wooden Center, which after further thought isn’t so bad, according to head coach Michael Sealy.

“We had amazing crowds at Wooden Center. It only seats 2,000 people, but we had amazing fans,” he said. “The energy was electric and it gave us a huge advantage.” It also caused Sealy to re-think his options, perhaps mixing in Wooden Center with matches at Pauley down the road.

On the USC campus, long gone are the days of the North Gym where the band blared its tunes from the crow’s nest, the balcony behind the serving line.

“It was very difficult to play at USC when they played at the old gym,” said Liskevych. “They had their band there and, ohmygosh, that was an unbelievable atmosphere. I still remember that. You could not hear yourself think.”

The UCLA-USC match to open the 2011 Pac-12 season in early September drew its largest crowd for a women’s volleyball game, 5,385 fans, since Galen Center opened in 2006. To the chagrin of USC coach Mick Haley, UCLA won the match in straight sets.

“If we would have played (well) and not gotten blown out, we would have gotten them all back,” Haley said. “The athletic director was mad. Everybody was mad. I was upset, but I wanted them to see you can do this.”

Despite a fair share of Bruin fans mixed in with the USC fans in Galen Center’s lower bowl, the can-do feeling Haley has, ignited by a rivalry match, fuels the potential for a great volleyball environment in the regular season.

Originally published in July 2012

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