By Kristen Keller for VolleyballMag.com
Call it a team effort.
From an organization now called the First Point Volleyball Foundation, to smaller colleges adding programs, to help from the AVCA and more media exposure, men’s volleyball is growing in this country.
This is a look at the state of the men’s game and how it is moving forward.
First Point Volleyball Foundation
Formed almost three years ago, First Point Volleyball Foundation was originally named MotorMVB. Geared toward growing the sport at the college level, MotorMVB worked with many different schools at both the NCAA and NAIA levels, and the results are starting to show.
For example, MotorMVB helped St. Francis Brooklyn jumpstart its program, which will compete for the first time in 2020.
MotorMVB was the brainchild of Wade Garard, who went right to the top, to USA men’s national team coach John Speraw. They met in May 2016 before a national team scrimmage and what began as a coffee shop conversation between friends turned into a case study done by Garard, bringing to light what needed to happen to grow the sport.
Garard said he asked Speraw, also the UCLA men’s coach, why the sport wasn’t bigger.
After all, the USA has an impressive international resume, with Olympic gold medals in 1984, ’88, and 2008 and bronze medals in 1992 and 2016. What’s more, many players who have come through the NCAA system play in foreign leagues all over the world.
Speraw didn’t have many answers that day, but soon after, “I was hired to do a strategic plan to see how you would double participation of boys playing volleyball in America,” Garard said.
After interviewing athletic directors, volleyball families, donors, and Olympians, among others, Garard discovered that if there were more scholarship opportunities at the college level, then there would be growth throughout the sport as a whole.
Thus was born MotorMVB, recently renamed First Point Volleyball Foundation, which became the first organization dedicated to growing men’s volleyball at the collegiate level. Garard’s job was to raise money and awareness.
Garard and Speraw realized they needed to focus on growing the sport not only from the top down, but from the bottom up. There needed to be youth opportunities as well.
“I re-signed to be the national team coach for a second quadrennial, and I felt like it was part of my job to expand my role from just winning a gold medal in Tokyo, but to utilize the organizational structure I developed the last four years and really grow the talent base,” Speraw said.
Since the inception of men’s collegiate volleyball in 1970, Division III volleyball has seen substantial growth. In 2010, DIII finally reached the 50 teams required to have its own championship. Nine years later there are 104 teams.
First Point also gave grants to various NAIA schools, and its efforts in that realm have already paid off, with the NAIA holding its first national championship this spring.
Now First Point Volleyball recognizes it needs to focus on the growth at the Division I and II levels.
“We are beginning to see a similar organic growth at the Division II level with Conference Carolinas and schools like Daemen College,” Speraw said. “… and there are some other discussions with Division I schools.”
But the differences between divisions are huge. Division III men’s volleyball teams don’t have to worry about offering athletic scholarships. But Division I and II programs can only offer 4.5 scholarships at each university.
Another consideration for many of these institutions is Title IX, which mandates each university has the same amount of opportunities for women as men, and vice-versa. Many schools have already achieved a balance between the two, or they have football, which takes up a lot of opportunities on the men’s side.
But even with the scholarship challenges and Title IX to consider, Division II volleyball is starting to see an increase in the number of participating programs.
The Conference Carolinas is the only Division II conference within the sport, unlike other conferences that are either solely for Division I schools or allow both divisions to compete.
First Point Volleyball thinks that by 2026, there will be enough Division II schools to have the 50 teams required to create a DII national championship.
But growth is very slow at the Division I level. When St. Francis Brooklyn added a program, simultaneously adding women’s soccer to remain in compliance with Title IX, it was the first DI team added to the national picture in 18 years.
“We know that if there are scholarships at the top, there will ultimately be more athletes that recognize that opportunity and migrate into the game,” Speraw said. “That’s our goal. But I think it will take some time to get these started. We just need to continue to drive this momentum and see if we can get a bump into the number of boys playing the game.”
St. Francis Brooklyn
There already is a Saint Francis playing men’s volleyball, but that school is in Pennsylvania and plays in the EIVA, one of five men’s conferences that compete for the Division I-II national title along with the MIVA, Big West, MPSF, and aforementioned Conference Carolinas. More on SFU later.
The athletics director for the St. Francis in Brooklyn, New York, Irma Garcia, made the announcement on June 21, 2018, that her school would become the 23rd Division I program in the history of collegiate men’s volleyball.
Garcia, a longtime fan of volleyball, previously worked with the Empire State Games in New York, where she was the site supervisor for men’s and women’s volleyball, among other sports. The more time she spent spectating volleyball, the more she enjoyed the game, and since becoming the director of athletics at St. Francis, she has been waiting for the right time to add a men’s team.
Once Dr. Miguel Martinez-Saenz became president of the university in 2016, the idea of adding a program became a reality. When they met, she brought up men’s volleyball and women’s soccer, in order to stay within the requirements of Title IX.
“We were bringing in a women’s sport, and I wanted to add women’s soccer all along, but then we had to bring in a men’s sport,” Garcia said. “Instead of bringing back baseball, I wanted to bring in a sport where we had the court for it, so we decided to start men’s volleyball.”
From there, it came to finding a coach that could help lift the program off the ground. Garcia hired women’s assistant volleyball coach Andy Mueller.
“I wanted to find someone who cares about this program as much as I do,” Garcia said. “I wanted someone who was going to take this program from point A to point D and just keep growing. He has not let me down.”
Mueller had many experiences with the men’s game before becoming a women’s collegiate coach. The St. Louis native played volleyball throughout high school and continued playing on the club teams at Lindenwood and Missouri during college.
He later transitioned to coaching, making his way to St. Francis Brooklyn after working with the women’s programs at Columbia, Fordham, Brooklyn College, and Columbia College in Missouri.
“It kind of came back full circle for me in February of this year,” Mueller said. “I was at a national qualifier at the convention center in St. Louis recruiting, and I tried to figure out the last time I was in there. And I realized that I never played there because the sport wasn’t big enough when I played. It’s cool to see it’s grown enough for it to be seen as a marquee sport.”
St. Francis is a member of the Northeast Conference, which happens to include the other St. Francis, for its other intercollegiate sports. Also in that league is another member of the EIVA men’s volleyball conference, Sacred Heart.
In an upcoming meeting, Garcia will present to the other athletic directors of the NEC schools the steps her athletics department went through in order to add the sport, hoping to get a few more schools on board.
In the meantime, Mueller continues to recruit from all over the country, securing players from California, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and New York.
“The excitement has not left,” Garcia said. “We are trying to get into a conference, and we understand we have to do some upgrades to compete at that level. We are excited and we are going full force for it.”
The American Volleyball Coaches Association
AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer had a tremendous career as a coach. She won three SEC titles in her nine years as the coach at Kentucky and in 1996 served as an assistant coach on the Olympic team.
The AVCA is integrated into volleyball on many fronts, not the least of which is partnerships. The AVCA, for example, is partnered with 17 state high school associations throughout the country.
Women’s sports exploded with the passing of Title IX in 1972, and volleyball was the sport that crew the most. Today, it is still one of the most popular sports among girls. However, everything that empowered girls to play volleyball may have turned boys away.
“Worldwide, there isn’t a perception that volleyball is a women’s sport,” DeBoer said. “But the very thing that fueled the growth in the United States, which was Title IX, that very thing that benefited women in the 1970s, ’80s, and even the ’90s, was the very same thing that discouraged men from trying the sport.”
And the AVCA puts its money where its mouth is. From an AVCA news release on May 17, 2018:
The AVCA Board of Directors has approved a $150,000 contribution to the MotorMVB Foundation, a non-profit created to drive growth in men’s and boys’ volleyball. Contributions will be made during the 2017-2020 quadrennium and will support efforts to identify and encourage colleges and universities to add varsity men’s teams that provide scholarships in men’s volleyball. There are currently 188 colleges sponsoring men’s volleyball programs in the United States, with 12% more boys participating in high school boys volleyball than four years ago.
But who’s the face of men’s volleyball?
For growth to happen, it comes down to a grassroots effort and a change in mentality throughout the country. Many other sports find themselves front and center for boys with star athletes who are the respective faces of the game. Think LeBron James in basketball, Mike Trout in baseball, Tom Brady in football.
In an informal poll conducted on social media with 60 people responding, only eight percent were able to name a professional male volleyball player. Former Penn State player and international star Matt Anderson was the most named player, followed by beach veteran Phil Dalhausser, and then USA women’s national team head coach Karch Kiraly, who is one of the greatest players in history both indoors and on the beach but nonetheless hasn’t played since 2007.
Although unscientific and small, this poll showed that the vast majority of people are unable to name a professional male volleyball player.
“In the United States, on the professional level, you see football, baseball, and basketball every week for about 30 weeks of the year,” DeBoer said. “The fact that those sports had already established professional leagues meant that boys were growing up not seeing men’s volleyball as part of the mainstream sports media.”
Around the country different factors affect the future growth or decline of men’s volleyball. One, the perception of volleyball as a sport for girls, and two, a boom of men’s soccer and lacrosse at the collegiate level. But the AVCA is trying to focus on development aspects that the sport brings to the table.
What’s more, there are more chances for boys to see the sport. Between the growth in social media and the opportunities to watch high-quality competition through sites like FloVolleyball and EuroVolley, it gives more chances for boys to see the sport and realize that it’s a viable option for them to play.
“We still have some very serious challenges to expose volleyball to large parts of the country where there are no entry points for boys,” DeBoer said. “This is why we’re so excited about the First Point Volleyball Foundation initiative. We know that if there are more collegiate opportunities, then it would incentivize more clubs and high schools to add boys volleyball.”
There have been many efforts to try and add boys volleyball as a sanctioned high school sport in Minnesota, a state that has had national champions on all three NCAA levels for women and has a strong club system.
In the summer of 2018, the first vote for the sport was conducted and went 11-5 against. That hasn’t stopped kids from trying to be a part of the action, however, and Walt Weaver, a Minnesota Hall of Fame volleyball coach, has gotten involved.
Volleyball took off in Minnesota after Title IX and now has more than 16,000 participants, which is higher than track and field, basketball, and softball. The University of Minnesota is also one of the top teams in the country and tickets for its home matches are often scalped. What’s more, the Minnesota head coach is Hugh McCutcheon, who led the USA to men’s Olympic gold in 2008 and the women to silver in 2012.
“Hugh asked me why boys volleyball wasn’t as big in Minnesota, and I told him about what happened when I spoke with an athletic director about 40 years ago,” Weaver said. “But Hugh has two Olympic medals around his neck. I asked if he was willing to help, and he decided to help.”
During the first year of an after-school program in 2018, 22 schools and 400 boys were interested in the sport, and they played throughout the spring. They created a club league for these schools to play centered around the Twin Cities.
Now, 16 months after the inception of the program, 50 schools expressed interest in the sport with about 1,000 boys playing.
“I sent the statement about Colorado sanctioning boys volleyball to the head of the high school league,” Weaver said. “Will this be something that board looks at and say we should do this? I sure hope so.”
Weaver and McCutcheon are attempting again to get the sport added, this time with the backing of five athletic directors. Girls wrestling is also on the table.
Right now, there are 15 sanctioned sports for girls and 14 sanctioned sports for boys in the Minnesota State High School League. A lawsuit was also settled in court that allowed boys to compete on the girls dance team, but that was the only sport allowed by the court where boys could compete on a girls team.
Because of the lawsuit, Weaver thinks this may be the necessary push to get boys volleyball sanctioned in the state.
“If they were smart, they would just sanction boys volleyball instead of having to worry about another lawsuit,” Weaver said. “The bottom line is that I don’t think they can stop the momentum now.”
While Ohio State has been a men’s volleyball powerhouse for years, the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s emerging opportunities committee made a unanimous vote April 17 to approve boys volleyball, giving the sport the chance to become sanctioned.
Boys volleyball has been played at many schools throughout the state since the early 2000s, but this process took about four years. And now, the growth advocates within the state worked on is finally coming together.
“Previous CEOs and executive directors of the Boys Volleyball Association lined up our rules and regulations with what the girls rules are in the state,” longtime Ohio boys coach Matt Mihelic said. “This type of foresight was key in what we are doing right now.”
Currently there are about 80 schools that offer the sport. But according to numbers projected by Mihelic, if 20 percent of the schools with girls teams add a boys team, the number of boys teams within the state would double.
But in Ohio, it’s not just about sanctioning the sport at the high school level. It’s also about growing it at the youth and collegiate levels within the state as well.
Mihelic, who helps with growth in the Ohio Valley Region of USA Volleyball, created initiatives to try and increase participation at the youth level through clinics and club teams to expand boys’ knowledge of the sport.
Four years ago, a 12s boys club team wasn’t really a thought. But now, they went from having five teams three years ago to eight teams this year. It may not seem like a huge growth, but it’s a start.
“The growth aspect of my job is fantastic,” Mihelic said. “I incentivized our girls clubs to start boys teams and start young. There are 9-, 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old boys out there on a team that are trying to do what they can. It’s great.”
With a $10,000 grant from USA Volleyball, Mihelic is hoping to get more girls club teams throughout the state to add boys club opportunities to help continue with the growth of the sport.
Along with Mihelic’s various roles with volleyball in Ohio, he is also the head men’s coach of the University of Mount Union, a Division III school in Alliance which recently completed its first year of competition.
Currently, there are nine Division I, II, III, and NAIA schools in Ohio. And after the OHSAA votes on sanctioning the sport, the number might increase.
Depending on the course of the vote, Mihelic will meet with the athletic directors of the Ohio Athletic Conference, a Division III NCAA conference, this fall to talk about adding the sport at their institutions.
“The commissioner of the Ohio Athletic Conference is waiting to see what happens with the vote for the OHSAA,” Mihelic said. “If they give it the thumbs up, he will let me to present to the athletic directors of the OAC at their fall meeting to possibly bring on people to add men’s volleyball.”
In the state of Ohio, it’s not about just growing it at the high school level. It’s about growing the sport at all levels, creating an environment for the sport to continue prospering within the state.
“I think the high school aspect of things is huge,” Mihelic said. “If we have this youth that is growing at the high school ranks, and then you have the opportunities in college, then it’s going to be a win-win-win for everybody.”
Off the Block
Off the Block is an online publication that focuses solely on men’s college volleyball.
Founder Vinnie Lopes grew a love for the game during his time at Ball State, where he covered the men’s volleyball team for the school paper. But after he graduated and started a job reporting for a small local newspaper, he found himself wanting to do something else.
With the help of his wife, he decided to launch Off the Block in 2011. While VolleyballMag.com covers NCAA men’s volleyball — specifically with a daily in-season roundup and feature stories — Off the Block does nothing but men’s volleyball.
“There was never really anyone that covered college men’s volleyball year-round, 24/7,” Lopes said. “There wasn’t a central hub that people collected their news. You had to go to 30 different websites to get your news for the day. I figured I should do something about this.”
Two years ago, Lopes got deeper into the men’s game. He founded an early-season men’s tournament called the Grow the Game Challenge in Nashville where he lives. The tournament was conducted in 2018 and 2019, but will take 2020 off.
Last year, 11 teams competed, including Hawai’i and USC.
“I thought, ‘How can we expose this sport to more people in a market that doesn’t typically see it,’” Lopes said. “My thought was to host a non-conference event, and we were able to do it … On the opening night, we had almost 1,000 people come out, watching a sport for that they never seen before.”
The recruiting base is growing
California used to have the men’s volleyball recruiting market cornered, but that is changing. With more states continuing to add the sport, college coaches are now able to search for talent all over the country.
“One of the trends that is noticeable is that younger kids are playing the game at a much higher level,” said Mark Hulse, the head men’s coach at Loyola Chicago. “High school is being played at a higher level. I am not that old, but it’s played at a much higher level than when I played 13 years ago.
“The country is getting deeper and the talent pool is getting deeper. I think some of the coastal communities and some of the East Coast has always been strong, but I think as the game continues to grow, more of the Midwest and flyover states are starting to see growth.”
Boys volleyball is tremendous in the Chicago area. Wisconsin is strong. New York State is, too, and there are pockets of strong play throughout the country.
“Kids in southeast Wisconsin either went to parochial school where they started volleyball at a young age or they saw their sisters play,” said Holly Jablonowski, the southeast representative for Badger Region Volleyball Association and the assistant coach of Milwaukee Sting’s 17 Adidas team. “A lot of them are starting off young, or there’s crossover from athletes who got cut from other sports.”
But the important aspect of the game is that younger kids begin playing. Groups throughout the country are starting initiatives to get kids involved in the sport earlier in life. Daemen College in Buffalo, New York, is one such organization.
Coached by Don Gleason, the newest Division II program did more than finish with a 6-17 record in its first season with a team made up of freshmen. Along with the Champion Project, the team goes into four schools for about four to six weeks. During this time, they bring volleyballs and nets, if necessary, and teach the kids about the sport.
By the end of the program, all the schools come together for a big event where they play volleyball, eat pizza, and the boys leave with a T-shirt and a pair of kneepads.
“I applied for a grant with the Champion Project to expand what they were already doing with volleyball in the community and the city,” Gleason said. “It just started over the past year and a half. But I felt like it was important as we built the Daemen program that we are not just in our own little bubble on campus, but that we get involved with the community and kind of give back.”
Tim Falk, a sixth-grader playing volleyball in Wisconsin, joined the sport because it was in his family, with his mom and dad meeting through volleyball, his aunt coaching volleyball, and his cousins playing the sport. From there, he told all his friends about it, which gave his school enough players to form a team.
“My friends were not playing before,” Falk said. “But since I wanted to play, I encouraged others to try it.”
Now, Falk plays on club teams and participates in clinics within the state.
Although he is only in sixth grade, Tim and his mother, Trisha, are already thinking about what’s going to come next. He hopes to play in college one day, and his mom is considering letting Tim go to a high school that offers the sport.
“I definitely see him sticking to playing through high school,” Trisha said. “Right now, he is in sixth grade and he is opting to go to a high school that has volleyball as a school sport. I would prefer to send him to the Catholic high school, but they do not offer boys volleyball through the school. This is a difficult decision, but if volleyball is that important to him, we’ll consider his opinion.”
Northwestern’s women’s volleyball coach, Shane Davis, was the head coach of Loyola-Chicago’s men’s team when the Ramblers won back-to-back NCAA championships in 2015 and 2016.
Even though he’s only been away from the men’s game for three years, he noticed an increase in the talent nationwide and how the sport is progressing at a rapid rate.
“I would say in my last few years coaching at Loyola, you saw the growth in the Midwest and on the East Coast, but you could also see the quality of the growth,” Davis said. “In the early years of my coaching career, a lot of the talent came from the West Coast. I think because of the boys growth throughout the country at the high school and club levels, you are seeing a lot of that homegrown talent.”
Credit the sport, but also groups like First Point Volleyball and the AVCA.
“No one is going to do this for us,” DeBoer said. “If we’re going to wait for the high school athletic association, the NCAA, the NAIA, we will wait forever. Programs are started by people that love the sport enough to invest their resources into developing opportunities.”
Kristen Keller graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism this past June and is now the director of sports communications at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois. Contact her at kristenkeller2019@u.