Editor’s note: Ray Glier is a veteran reporter and author who lives in Atlanta. His work has appeared in major news outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, ESPN, Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, Vice, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and many others. He has created Geezer Jock News, a website devoted to senior athletes. Contact him at ray@geezerjocknews.com

By Ray Glier for VolleyballMag.com

During the college volleyball postseason, 60-year-old Connie Armstrong couldn’t wait to get in front of the television to watch the NCAA Tournament. She marvels over the athleticism of the players, especially the hitters who wind up and swing away again and again. They have ridiculous talent to go with competitiveness, Armstrong said. It gets her revved up for her own volleball tournaments, which include many former college players. 

But what strikes Armstrong most about today’s college game is not the athleticism. It’s the height of the players. They are light-bulb changers, so many well taller than 6 feeet. The average height of a Division I player, according to NCAA data, is 6 feet, which, counting setters and liberos, is quite something.

There wouldn’t seem to be room for Armstrong in today’s higher-level college game. She had what they have — attack jump and approach jump — but she was missing one thing.

Height.

She’s 5-foot-3½. 

In 1987, Armstrong was on the first Division I team at the University of Central Florida. Armstrong was a freakish athlete, too. She could get above the net with her vertical and could swing away.

She was, in a way, the Spud Webb of her volleyball generation, recalling the former 5-foot-6 North Carolina State star basketball player, who had a 12-year NBA career.

“Is there room for somebody like me in today’s game?,” asked Armstrong, who played on the AVP Tour for three years after college. “Yes. It would take a huge work ethic and extreme jumping ability, but you could do it.

Sandy Garner

“I did it. I ran the stadium steps, lifted weights, and worked really hard. A shorter athlete can still play this game. I could get over the net and was a hitter.”

When we visited with her, Armstrong was competing at the Florida Senior Games for Beaches, a 60-64 year old women’s team. She is a certified trainer in Port Orange, Florida, and while she can no longer routinely get over the net, she has fast feet and plays a different game of angles and cunning, albeit with less power.

“The players today are on a so much higher level than we were,” she said. “They’re all tall. And the game is faster now because of rally scoring. Our games took a long time because you didn’t score if you didn’t serve.”

One of Armstrong’s Senior Games teammates is Sandy Garner, who was All-Metro Conference and an All-American nominee at Memphis State (now University of Memphis). Garner, whose maiden name is Sandy Monce, was part of a Memphis team that won a school-record 41 matches in 1980. 

“The talent is just so spread out now,” said Garner who is a P.E. teacher at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach. “The West Coast schools dominated when I played. You see now that UCF just got into the tournament and played Penn State.”

What impresses Garner most about the game is the depth of talent on rosters.

“In my day most teams had a couple really good players,” she said. “Today, teams have really good players sitting on the bench.”

But will those players stick with the game and grow it on the Masters level?

The portal is open. More and more states are sponsoring senior games that include volleyball, both indoor and beach. It’s just a matter of getting the word out, Armstrong and Garner said.

If you’re shorter you can play. If you’re older, you can also play. The game looks dominated by youth and height. It doesn’t have to be.

Connie Armstrong

Garner, 63, said it is a challenge for her to find women’s volleyball competition among the older cohorts, 41 years after the sport was officially sanctioned as a championship by the NCAA. That was in the fall of 1981, the season after she stopped playing. 

Those women from the 1980s are just now trickling into the over-55 and over-60 tournaments, but there are not enough competitors to make it a vibrant affair.

“If I want to play, I have to play on a men’s net with the young guys and I don’t want to play on a men’s net, I want to play on a women’s net,” Garner said. “I wouldn’t mind playing with the young girls, but I want to play on a women’s net.

“We don’t have enough players locally to have a competitive 60s league, so for these state games and nationals we put together teams from different places. I’m playing with people that I don’t know, but you meet people from all over the country with the same common interest.”

The Florida Senior Games had seven teams, the most ever, for its over-55 tournament last month in the Tampa area. Volleyball for women over 55 is increasing in popularity because the pipeline coming from the colleges is starting to produce more players.

The 6-foot Garner, who coached high school volleyball for a time, still gets a kick out of the game. She wads her ego so small it can stuff into the toe of her shoes. She knows she has lost a step, or two or three, but that doesn’t keep her from enjoying the game.

“I went to Biloxi with some girls and we played a tournament and we played for the fun,” Garner said. “When I’m out there, I don’t feel like the 63-year old that I am. 

“When you’re out there that adrenaline’s flowing and it’s really fun.”

Now, it’s a matter of luring other Geezer Jocks who once played the game in college back to the court. 

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