Coaches’ reaction as 10 NCAA conferences move volleyball to the spring

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Spring volleyball conferences 8/9/2020-Tom Hanna-Akron
Akron coach Tom Hanna during a late-season 2019 timeout/Ernie Aranyosi photo

The Ivy League, as it did in March, led the way. 

No sports this fall.

Now, with the announcement Saturday by the Mid-American Conference, 10 of the 32 NCAA leagues won’t play volleyball this fall, a total of 99 programs.

The NCAA has 332 teams and has said if half don’t compete this fall, there will be no NCAA championship. In other words, if 68 more teams — basically the equivalent of seven conferences — move to the spring, there will be no sanctioned NCAA volleyball championships this year.

As Saturday went on, it was suggested that the MAC would start a domino effect. At least two major sports media outlets, SI.com and CBSsports.com, had stories suggesting that it was just a matter of time before the fall football season was postponed in its entirety. And if there is no football, there certainly won’t be volleyball.

The MAC was a surprise because it plays a high level of football. In volleyball, it has two six-team divisions. In the East are Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Kent State, Miami, and Ohio; while the West includes Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo, and Western Michigan.

The MAC coaches “have shown a strong preference for a spring season,” Akron coach Tom Hanna said. 

“I’ve been an advocate of playing next spring since back in April because I couldn’t see how we could assimilate ourselves into a campus setting when that campus had so many other moving parts. I didn’t know how that was going to work and had concerns about being the guinea pigs by being the first ones back to a degree.”

The University of Akron has an undergraduate enrollment of more than 13,000. Hanna, the former Marist head coach and Bowling Green assistant, is entering his sixth season at the school in northeast Ohio.

“Ultimately I think it was right call. I certainly wish it had been made a littler earlier just for planning purposes,” Hanna said. “But I’m excited from our end and now we have a whole semester to get kids acclimated in terms of the freshmen and for kids who are coming off surgeries. We can get slowly acclimated. There are a lot of positives just for our group, but I think for the sport as a whole having that entire semester to transition to college athletically, academically, socially, hopefully we’re going to see a higher level of play down the road.”

Here are the 10 conferences that have moved to the spring:

America East — 7
Atlantic 10 — 10
Big West — 9
Colonial — 5 schools have agreed to go in the spring, 4 want to still play in the fall
Ivy — 8
Metro Atlantic — 10
MEAC — 11
Mid-American — 12
Northeast — 8
Patriot — 9, counting Army and Navy, but both have indicated they may play independently
SWAC — 10

If the list doesn’t grow to 167 or more, the NCAA has said it will still conduct a championship in the fall, leaving the spring conferences to consider something else.

“I have a great desire to play in the segment when the NCAA championship is,” said Kent Miller, whose Saint Louis program is in the Atlantic 10. “So we’re hopeful that it moves to the spring.”

Miller said “there was a certain sense of relief that we’re not trying to get through returning student-athlete protocol, testing protocol, COVID protocol at the same time we’re trying to compete in just two weeks.

“And we’re under some city regulations, so I’m not sure how valuable training would be right now.”

Miller, the former Toledo coach and Illinois assistant, enters his 10th season with the Billikens. 

“Our university plans are well thought out. We’re a big health-sciences school,” Miller said. “And the city has to review all of our plans.”

Miller, who was a USA national team assistant from 1987 to 1996, said, “It’s interesting, because I’ve always wanted us to be a spring sport.”

He laughed, but continued: “You come in and have two weeks of training and you have to get ready to play. Your freshmen are kind of wide-eyed and then you get three weeks into the year and are overwhelmed by school. So there’s that aspect of it.”

Long Beach State coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer: “We can only control what we can control.”

When the Big West made its announcement, it included two of the just 10 teams that have won an NCAA title, Hawai’i (1982, 1983, 1987) and Long Beach State (1989, 1993, 1998).

“We’re disappointed, but when I think about what’s going on in the world, I do believe our chancellors and after talking to the administration they’re just trying to do what’s best for the student-athlete,” said fourth-year Long Beach State coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer, who played on that 1993 title team.

The California state system, of which Long Beach is a part, announced in May that its nearly 500,000 students would not attend classes on campus this fall. And in that state, prep sports were also pushed back to at least December.

“Not knowing if we’re going to have a championship is really killing me,” McKienzie-Fuerbringer admitted. “Because to have a championship (in the fall) and not be able to participate and compete is going to be very disappointing not only for myself and staff (which includes husband Matt), but the players as well.

“But we can only control what we can control.”

Speaking of which…

McKienzie-Fuerbringer said “unless we change our behaviors, none of us are going to have a season. You can see it in the pros. You see it in Major League Baseball. Some of it may be out of their control, but you can see it in some careless stuff going on that we can control. But no one is going to have a season unless we can do that.”

Things are not so simple for Howard of the MEAC and American of the Patriot League. Both private schools are located in Washington, D.C.

“It’s been a crazy day. While I was on the phone with a recruit,” Howard coach Shaun Kupferberg said Saturday afternoon, “our school decided to go all online for the fall. We were the last school in D.C. holding out. And I have every player texting me while I was on that call.”

Kupferberg will start his ninth year at Howard, which has won the MEAC the past five years. He said that Howard has its own testing site and “we’re getting results in three to 36 hours right now because we have a hospital and our own lab that’s doing it.

“The bigger component is the governments because D.C. is so strict. They’re requiring two-week quarantines from so people coming in from so many different states.”

So if Howard, for example, went to Florida to play a match, it would have to quarantine on its return, or if a team from Florida came to D.C. it would have to lock down. 

“It just made it unreasonable to have a match in our conference,” Kupferberg admitted. Crosstown American coach Barry Goldberg, whose teams have won the Patriot League title 16 of the last 19 seasons, said the large number of teams that haven’t moved to the spring have his attention.

“There are so many teams preparing to play in the fall it really has us thinking that if, boy, if we don’t play in the fall is the spring going to even matter?” asked Goldberg, who will enter his 32nd season as the American head coach.

“It certainly gives off the opinion we (the conferences who will wait till spring) won’t have anything. There won’t be an NCAA championship in the spring.”

Accordingly, Goldberg said he pulled together as many of his coaches in his league as he could to talk about somehow still playing in the fall. But the Patriot League Council of Presidents said in their July 13 announcement that “teams will not engage in competition in the fall season (championship and non-championship),” and that “Decisions surrounding winter and spring sport competition will be made at a later date.”

Yet Army and Navy, members of the Patriot League, have been given a dispensation, so to speak. 

“If there’s still an NCAA championship going on, I want a shot at that,” Goldberg said.

There’s also the dilemma of players who might redshirt and those who are on schedule to graduate in December.

For example, American senior libero Megan Crush “finishes school and right after has a job at the State Department in January. So what do you with that?”

Goldberg’s roster often resembles the United Nations. There are players from eight countries on the AU team and some are having trouble getting into the country, Goldberg said.

“Our school is saying no training yet. We’re not only not playing in any matches in the fall, but no training yet,” Goldberg said. “There’s not an official time yet for us to train until the first week of school and they see everything is OK and then we can start talking about it. 

“Right now, there’s no one on campus until the first week. So I literally have all my players flying in from wherever they’re coming from, or around here, and getting into their apartments. Even the freshmen, who were supposed to be in the dorms.”

Southern University coach Venessa Hackett Jacobs

The SWAC postponed fall sports on July 20. Most schools in the league admittedly could not afford the testing and/or what it would take to pull off fall sports.

“All of our kids except for one have decided to come back to school and train on their own,” said eighth-year Southern University coach Venessa Hackett Jacobs, who played volleyball at LSU. “Some of them are going to school virtually, some are going to hybrid classes — which means they can either decide to go into the classroom or log-in online at the respective class time — and the third option we have is in-person regular classes. So most of our kids are moving in between now and the 11th and school starts on the 12th.”

Jacobs was in Tampa this past week helping her 6-foot-7, 297-pound son Demontrey, a football player who transferred from Grambling to USF. Her other son, Darrion, played junior-college basketball.

For that matter, Jacobs also played women’s basketball at LSU, so as much as any coach, she has a strong frame of athletics reference.

“I keep encouraging our players to do the right things. Stay safe, social distance as much as possible and within reason,” Jacobs said. “Encourage them to continue to work out and stay healthy and in shape. Whenever they say we are able to go in the gym and practice, we want to be ready. Right now we can’t even get in our respective gyms. On our campus we’ve shut everything down.”

The Colonial Athletic Association has become its own hybrid. 

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Delaware coach Sara Matthews

“It would have been easier if our whole league had canceled,” said fourth-year Delaware coach Sara Matthews. “It came across a little unorganized. But one of the things that made it difficult is our league has teams in it for football that aren’t in our league for other fall sports.”

But in the case of volleyball, Delaware, Hofstra, Northeastern, Towson, and William & Mary will not play in the fall, while, College of Charleston, Elon, James Madison, and UNCW plan to.

“As hard as it was to hear that our season was canceled, because obviously we love to be in the gym and train our girls because that’s such a fun part of our job, I think for me it was a little bit relieving because I thought it was the responsible decision,” Matthews said. “I think as coaches such a big part of our job is we take on the role of being a surrogate parent for our team. So I felt a huge sense of responsibility with how do we keep our kids safe, and I know before they canceled the season it was really weighing on me.

“How would we do this logistically and safely? And how would I feel as a parent with my kid? It’s a lot to put on coaches’ shoulders. It’s a tough position to be in.” 

The Ivy League got everyone’s attention last March when it became the first major sports organization in the country to shut down athletics. Yale coach Erin Appleman, who got her 300th victory at the school last season, wasn’t surprised her conference was out front again.

“It’s heartbreaking, but I truly believe it was the right move to make,” said Appleman, who played at San Diego State and is a former Penn State assistant coach.

Appleman’s own daughter Emma is hoping to have her senior high school season. So Erin Appleman is dealing with it on all fronts and might have spoken for everyone when she said simply, “I think the team is heartbroken, but in this day and age you have to be flexible and you have to be patient with what’s happening because you don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring.”

All that being said, Akron’s Hanna said everyone now needs to look ahead.

“Now it’s time to come up with a plan as to what we as the MAC and we as Division I coaches would like a possible season to look like and not get something forced on us or just created out of convenience,” Hanna said. 

“Hopefully we can drive the discussion a little more.”

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