Red Sox. Celtics. Patriots. That’s who you think about if youre a sports fan in Boston. But on May 7, 2014, the crowd at Fenway Park was thinking Pride, as in the Springfield College’s men’s volleyball team.
Charlie Sullivan, 17-year coach of the Pride, took the mound for the ceremonial first pitch. He and his players were fresh from the school’s third-consecutive NCAA Division III national championshiptheir ninth title if you count the years that tournament was sponsored privately.
With his players looking on, Sullivan hurled the ball toward home plate. It was right down the middle! the coach recalled. But even if it missed, the recognition was a fitting symbol of the growth boys and men’s volleyball has undergone in recent years.
The quantity and quality of players, from high school through college, has increased significantly. What used to be big gaps in the national map of boys high school and club programs are closing as the number of participating high schools is rising steadily.
Collegiately, men’s varsity is positively booming at the Division III level and growing at Division II, where five new schools will join the ranks for the 2015 season: Alderson Broaddus (Philippi, West Virginia), Georgian Court (Lakewood, New Jersey), Holy Names (Oakland, California), North Greenville (Tigerville, South Carolina), and the University of Charleston (West Virginia). On the collegiate club front, 300-plus schools now battle for a berth in a national championship that started with 10 teams in 1985. Many strong club programs have two and sometimes three squads, creating opportunities for everyone from experts to novices.
Growth comes to a screeching halt, however, at Division I, where the number of universities with a men’s varsity program has been stuck at 22 for many years. (Grand Canyon University transitioned from DII to DI earlier this year, however the loss of the University of the Pacific’s team at the end of the 2014 season keeps the net change at zero.) Now there are concerns that recent NCAA legislation regarding autonomy for the Big Five athletic conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and ACC), which may give schools in those conferences the ability increase scholarships and possibility introduce stipends for athletes, will impact volleyball and other minor sports in ways that will make it tougher for some DI schools to maintain their volleyball programs or add the sport.
It’s a very interesting time for men’s volleyball, said John Speraw, coach of the UCLA men’s squad and the U.S. Men’s National Team. On the one hand, we have rapid growth of DIII and an extended period of nice growth in USAV membership. But on the other hand, there’s been no growth at DI.
It’s too soon to tell what the fallout of the new NCAA legislation will be, explained Speraw. If Big Five schools choose to start enriching scholarships to meet true cost of university attendance for their revenue sportsfootball, basketball, etc.they might do the same for volleyball players. Enriching scholarships would be great for those Big Five programs, but tough for teams outside those conferences or without big money sports, which compete for the same impact players. Some worry the new rules could become a budget-driven deterrent for a smaller DI school considering adding men’s volleyball.
The sport is not alone, stressed Ron Shayka, chair of the NCAA’s Men’s Volleyball Committee and senior associate athletic director of Division I school George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The whole landscape of DI athletics is a bit uncertain right now. From the standpoint of a lot of schools, we are sitting back to see what impact the changes are going to have.
One thing for sure is that bolstering continued growth, at every level and age, will be even more critical going forward than it has been in the past, Speraw stressed.
The new NCAA legislation, by the way, does not affect men’s volleyball’s limit of 4.5 athletic scholarships, a number that is not expected to change.
Geographic Spread and Title IX Rebound
Growth in participation parallels the geographic spread of the sport at all levels. The continental divide that seemed to run along California’s eastern border is seeing some erosion. Hailing from Chicago, Loyola University was the latest to loosen the West Coast’s historic stranglehold by winning the 2014 DI NCAA Championship. In the DI championship’s first decade, Ohio State was the only non-California team to even reach the final. That was in 1977, when the Buckeyes fell to perpetual powerhouse UCLA, which won 13 of the division’s first 20 titles. So far this decade, the balance of power is geographically even, with Ohio State winning in 2011 and Loyola last year, versus UC Irvine’s 2012 and 2013 victories.
On the high school stage, California remains the monster, with 655 high school teams in 2013, followed by runner-up Pennsylvania’s 208. Behind Pennsylvania, it’s New York (183), Illinois (180), and Florida (156) with the most high school boys teams. Based on annual data collected by the National Federation of State High School Associations, that ranking has remained constant in the last 10 years, but Ohio and Florida stand out with roughly 100 and 50 percent growth, respectively, in that span.
The guys game is still recovering from the unintended yet devastating effects of Title IX. Enacted in 1972 to equalize athletic opportunities for both genders, the legislation helped the girls game tremendously, and nearly killed the boys. There were approximately 3,500 high school boys teams in the late 60s, just over 1,100 by the late 70s, and down to 393 in 1984-85. Per the NFHSA, there were zero girls high school teams in the 1969-70 school year. Today, 15,265 of the association’s approximately 19,000 member schools have girls teams, representing 420,208 participants. For the boys, it’s 2,285 high school teams and 50,353 players, for a girls-to-boys ratio of roughly eight-to-one.
Building the boys back up is a slow process. Even with worry over head injuries, football has not lost much popularity and its big rosters make it tough for a school to add another boys sport while complying with gender equivalency rules. And then there’s competition from other sports and, to a lesser extent, the tendency for boys to focus on a single sport at younger ages.
USA Volleyball’s grow the game guru John Kessel sees plenty of steady and encouraging growth. His blog advocating for an exchange of effective strategies is inspiring reading. There’s the annual Sadie Hawkins sand tournament at Grimsley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, that few young men could turn down an invite to. And the tale of Thad Paunovich, who fought for a spot and played three years on his school’s girls team, amidst considerable controversy,
because he loved the game and there wasnt a better option in his area. He now plays for the men’s team at DIII Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania.
A Father’s Day and Mother’s Day campaign that encourages parents to get their sons on the court is part of USAV’s build-up-the-boys effort. And so is partnering with advocates for the new Olympic sport of women’s wrestling, Kessel explained. High schools with support for a new boys volleyball team might overcome equivalency hurdles by pitching both sports simultaneously.
Gone, Kessel hopes, is the era when elementary and middle schoolers are introduced to volleyball at its most boring: standing in a crowd while one player touches the ball and the rest twiddle thumbs. The distribution of 3,000 special nets that allow PE teachers to easily set up several two-on-two games in the same gym is part of USAV’s strategy.
Kessel’s approach is, Hi, Im the volleyball coach, let’s hit!
The boys especially go, Cool! The coach sets them, it’s a low net, and they are pounding the ball right away, he said.
Money, in the form of development grants, is good for growth, too.
Wisconsin used a USAV grant to take boys to the NCAA Championships in Chicago, where the winning Loyola roster now includes four players from the Badger region. Grants also help stage youth boys clinics at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with help from the DIII school’s players. Youngsters are encouraged to stick around and watch the big boys take the court.
In Ohio, the number of boys high school programs doubled, to 110, in the last decade. Using USAV and their own funds, the Ohio High School Boys Volleyball Association’s expansion committee offered grants toward start-up costs and other expenses. Targeting schools that already had a girls program was the first step, explained committee chairman Matt Mihelic, coach of two-time boys volleyball state champion Archbishop Hoban in Akron. Equipment and coaches can often be shared, making volleyball a relatively easy sport to add. The expansion brigade also encouraged fall leagues for sixth to eighth graders. The idea is to hook them early before they get too deep into baseball or lacrosse, said Mihelic.
The Ohio endeavor has been very successful, but it wasnt without roadblocks. We went to some schools that said, We didnt know that boys play volleyball, recounted the lifelong player with a wince. Internal champions are the best weapon against resistance of any kind. It took an athletic director, a girls volleyball coach, students and parents, to really drive it through, Mihelic noted.
Olympic success and Ohio State’s 2011 NCAA championship win helped pique some interest, Mihelic said. The best catalyst, however, was developing a presence at indoor and beach adult tournaments, where grown-ups got fired up about promoting the sport to the next generation.
The fact that high school volleyball athletes have opportunities to play in college is a selling point to prospective high schools, and the increase in DIII schools, in particular, gives that angle more oomph.
Division III Explosion
USAV grants also played a part in pushing Division III well past the 50 schools needed to earn an NCAA-sanctioned national championship. That tournament debuted in 2012, with NCAA-facilitated bells and whistles that took the event to a new level, reported Springfield College’s Sullivan. Before 2012, an unsanctioned DIII championship ran thanks to corporate sponsors. All told, Sullivan’s Pride squad has nine national titles, fitting for a team that held its own against the big guys when DIIIs were allowed to make a run for the DI championship.
It’s been amazing to witness the growth at all schools, and to see the higher level of players that are coming up from high school, said Sullivan. Initial concerns about having enough competition in the new championships have disappeared. Seven years ago, there were four or five good DIII teams and then a total drop-off. Now the whole middle level has stepped up. We go on the road and face teams that are 10 times better than they were. There’s more players, more physical abilities, more recruiting. Everyone is raising the bar and it’s really exciting.
New York University men’s head coach Jose Pina concurs. Ive been around for 25 years, and what I see is a direct line between growth at the high school level, the cap in opportunities at the DI level, and the increase in number of schools and level of play at DII and DIII. It’s been very positive for the lower divisions.
Limited opportunities at the DI level, particularly at the West Coast outfits, have inspired strong prospects to look beyond the usual suspect schools. The number of kids that are willing to leave California has quadrupled in recent years, Sullivan said. Similarly, college coaches at all levels are scouting well beyond the Golden State.
Social media has made it easier for small schools to create appealing team identities, and the recognition and publicity the NCAA brings to the national title bout ices the cake.
Sullivan predicts these trends will continue to the point that DII and DIII players will get more shots on top national rosters. Speraw has a more tempered assessment of the increase in impact players coming up from lower division schools, but he agrees it’s a future possibility.
Courting New Conferences
Conference Carolinas jump on to the DII scene marked another milestone, and it reflects efforts to bring men’s volleyball into the mainstream. We are changing our focus to try to get whole conferences to add the sport, versus having a team join as a one-off deal, Shayka, the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Committee chair, explained. Conference-wide expansions add excitement for fans and the support and sponsorship opportunities that come with that.
With an automatic DI-championship tournament bid as the dangled carrot, and more USAV grant money, the Conference Carolinas came on board in 2011, and officially became eligible for that championship bid in 2014. Although high school teams are few and far between south of Virginia and north of Florida, interest sprang up quickly around the new conference.
Derek Schmitt joined the party as coach of the first men’s team at Erskine College in 2012 and said recruiting was relatively easy from the get-go for the Due West, South Carolina, school. There were so few opportunities to play volleyball in the area that kids tended to recruit themselves once word got around, said Schmitt. The coach attended a few regional club tournaments to round out Erskine’s first-year 11-man roster. Over half of the players were out-of-staters.
As for why adding men’s volleyball appealed to Erskine’s administrators, Schmitt figures they liked the feather it added to their recruiting cap. Not too many schools around us offer it, so it became one more unique thing we could sell to prospective students.
Men’s volleyball was also an easy add at The Sage Colleges in Albany, New York, said athletic director Danielle Drews. It’s a perfect package for a small, tuition-driven school. You can bring in 15 to 20 tuition-paying male students relatively inexpensively, she said. DIII schools do not offer athletic scholarships for any sport, so that expense is not a factor for these institutions.
Erskine’s Schmitt took the two-year-old Flying Fleet team to a 12-2 conference and 20-6 overall record in 2014 and carried Conference Carolina’s first flag to the NCAA Championship. A first-round loss to Stanford didnt dampen enthusiasm about the region’s future in varsity volleyball, but Schmitt wont experience it firsthand. Over the summer, he accepted the assistant coach role for fellow Division II team Cal Baptist in Riverside, California.
Schmitt is among many who like the fact that Divisions I and II play each other and go after the same pool of players. Numbers-wise, the divisions need each other and it’s another area in which the ability gap is closing. Citing Lewis University’s solid appearance in the DI championships last year, Shayka noted, Theyve competed at or near the top level of the sport. The drop in talent at DII is just not that great anymore.
Club & Varsity Conundrum
Despite DII and DIII growth, there are still relatively few opportunities for men to play varsity volleyball in college. An estimated total of 116 NCAA teams are poised to play the 2015 season: 22 DIs, 24 DIIs (four of which are in Puerto Rico), and 70 DIIIs. At an average roster of 16, that’s 1,856 spots. This explains why the thriving collegiate club scene is a godsend to many players and something of a double-edged sword for the sport.
The limitation in varsity opportunities on the men’s side has really fueled the growth of club, said Sante Perrelli, board of directors president for the National Collegiate Volleyball Federation, the organization that oversees men’s and women’s collegiate club volleyball. Bigger schools in particular have not been able to add varsity programs in a long time. He estimates that 3,500 men play for the Federation’s 300-plus teams, some at a high enough level to give accomplished DI and II varsity teams a run for their money.
Unlike school-funded varsity squads, most club teams rely on fundraisers and fees to cover their approximately $25,000 to $50,000 annual expenses, and the clubs are always student-run. We believe strongly that the value of sport is uniquely and wonderfully demonstrated through club volleyball, Perrelli said. Players learn leadership, entrepreneurship, outreach, and time management. It’s a wonderful culture because they want to be the best they can be. Successful teams practice two to four days a week and play weekly tournaments during the run-up for a five-division championship in April.
Perrelli helped restart the dormant club team at Michigan State in 1988. He led a push to make the Spartan Green Machine a varsity squad, with the backing of a 10,000-signature student petition, a turnout of 278 for tryouts, and sponsored and televised home matches. But it was not to be.
Even with the big scope of the collegiate club circuit, there’s a bit of a chip on the shoulder for some players, Perrelli explains of club versus varsity perceptions. There’s a sense that youre not a real sport if you dont have the institutional blessing. Such stigmas are wiped out for anyone who’s attended an NCVF Championship, he added. The atmosphere at the finals is one of the most electrifying experiences you will ever see.
Ironically, the success of collegiate clubs adds another obstacle to the already challenging path of bringing more varsity teams into the fold. An athletic director can look at that and say that men already have an opportunity to play the game at a decent level, said Shayka.
Title IX realities and the unknown impact of new NCAA legislation aside, DI men’s volleyball has always struggled with expansion. One of the obstacles we face is that it does not exist within the standard conference structure: the Big Ten or the SEC, for example, Shayka explained. So from the start, we are not talking about a structure that most athletic directors understand as far as fitting nicely into an existing conference package. Schools in the mainstream conferences tend to have more alumni and sponsorship support and the general credibility that goes with it. Notions that men’s volleyball is only a West Coast sport have not helped either, but results are changing that reality.
For the foreseeable future, it looks like DI men’s volleyball will remain an immovable rock in the stream of otherwise impressive expansion. Thanks to strong leadership and, as John Kessel puts it, lots of people who give a sh–, the boys and men’s game seems poised to keep finding its way forward.