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Tampa Bay area courting volleyball history as it prepares for NCAA Championship

By Joey Johnston for the NCAA

From start to finish, the Tampa Bay area has become the epicenter of NCAA Division I volleyball this season.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

When the Tampa Bay Sports Commission hosted the Road 2 Tampa Bay Invitational in late August — bringing together the Florida Gators, Penn State Nittany Lions, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and host South Florida Bulls — the two-night tip-off event attracted more than 13,500 fans to downtown Tampa and the USF campus.

It was a prelude to the NCAA Volleyball Championship, which heads to Tampa’s Amalie Arena on December 14-17. TBSC executive director Rob Higgins said the hosting organization will be “laser-focused’’ on setting the NCAA Volleyball championship match attendance record (surpassing the 18,755 in 2021 when Wisconsin defeated Nebraska in Columbus, Ohio).

“We love the college volleyball trajectory and this season should be a remarkable journey,’’ Higgins said. “For our community to be the backdrop for the start and finish of the season, it’s truly phenomenal.’’

And truly historic.

A few days after the season began in Tampa, the Nebraska Cornhuskers hosted “Volleyball Day In Nebraska,’’ an outdoor double-header at Memorial Stadium that attracted 92,003 fans, the largest crowd to witness a women’s sports event. Tickets were $25 for adults, but reached as much as $400 on the secondary market.

In December, the championship match will be shown on ABC-TV for the first time. Instead of the traditional Saturday night window, the final will be played on Sunday afternoon, likely providing unprecedented exposure.

“Adding ABC to the lineup will enhance our efforts to grow a sport with incredible talent and an already extremely loyal fanbase,’’ ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions Dan Margulis said.

In all, Margulis said more than 2,500 NCAA Division I women’s volleyball matches will be shown this season on ESPN platforms, including the streaming ESPN+ service.

“This is what every girl before us dreamed of for so many years — and we get to live it out,’’ Penn State middle blocker Taylor Trammell said. “I can’t even believe (what happened) in Nebraska. And by being on ABC, I think it shows that this sport is here to stay.’’

“I think we’re living in the best time for women’s volleyball,’’ Florida coach Mary Wise said. “The number of eyes watching us both in person and on TV, it has never been this high. We’re a niche sport and we have built this on the backs of … no one. That’s what I believe volleyball coaches are the most proud of, how we got to where we are today. We built this.’’

When Tampa Bay hosted its first NCAA Volleyball Championship, the championship match was one of the sport’s all-time spectacles. Penn State, down two sets, rallied to defeat Texas (and MVP Destinee Hooker, still one of the world’s top players). The Nittany Lions captured their third straight national championship and won the program’s 102nd consecutive match.

It was among the most spine-tingling and riveting events ever staged in a Tampa Bay area that has hosted dozens of nationally renowned championships.

And now, from start to finish, Tampa Bay will give college volleyball another chance to shine. TBSC vice president of events Claire Lessinger, a former college volleyball player and head coach, said her organization hopes to do more than just host a big-time sporting competition. It wants to change the game and help to accelerate its expansion.

The TBSC has established two mantras:

Setting The Standard — In keeping with the TBSC’s standard goal, the mission is to stage the most successful NCAA Volleyball Championship ever and set a championship-game attendance record.

Growing The Game — Every event and every initiative will look to expose volleyball to a wider audience, while continuing the game’s upward trajectory. (Learn more at

Tampa Bay’s Local Organizing Group has assembled a regional volleyball marketing committee — its slogan is “ALL-IN’’ — and it includes constituents from colleges, high schools, clubs, sports facilities, USA Volleyball, AAU Volleyball, the Pro Volleyball Federation and the Professional Association of Volleyball Officials.

“For those volleyball folks who don’t get to the (NCAA) championships on a regular basis, the excitement level is very high, ” said volleyball official Donna Carter, a Tampa native who played at Clemson University. “It’s all anyone can talk about. For those who do go to the championships regularly, there is even more excitement.

“It’s a chance to host and show all of our friends from around the country what a great place Tampa is to live and visit. We are all exchanging ideas about how to make our visitors enjoy their experience to the fullest. We all want it to be sold-out, fun and memorable.’’

Volleyball has become the fastest-growing and No. 1 sport for female participation. Particularly in the state of Florida, volleyball has skyrocketed.

OTVA — a volleyball club with facilities in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville — has consistently been the top club in Florida and among the top three nationally while winning 44 national championships and sending more than 400 players to college scholarships.

The AAU Junior Nationals — the world’s largest youth tournament — are traditionally held in Orlando.

According to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, following the 2021-22 school year, Florida was ranked fourth nationally in high-school girls volleyball team participation (19,006 athletes, 694 programs) behind No. 1 Texas (51,275 athletes, 1,387 programs), No. 2 California (45,534/1,463) and No. 3 Illinois (21,990/676).

At each locale, new fans and young athletes are discovering what the sport’s insiders have known for decades. Volleyball is captivating and fun.

“Every person who watches their first collegiate volleyball match says afterward that it’s the coolest thing and a lot more fun than they expected,’’ Florida libero Elli McKissock said. “When you see the long rallies and hustle and effort, you just don’t see many things with that much love and that much heart.’’

“Volleyball is fast-paced, it’s electric and it’s incredibly exciting,’’ Higgins said. “Every single play ends in a result and you can’t say that about all sports. And these are some of the best athletes in the world — from their ability to jump and cover and serve and hit. It’s truly a spectacle — and it’s great for families and fans of all ages.’’

The players and coaches — the participants — have a message for the spectators.

Come join us!

“I think fans will be enticed by the energy, the fast pace of the game, the constant scoring and the energy of aggressive defense,’’ USF coach Jolene Shepardson said. “The physicality that our young ladies bring, the athleticism and camaraderie, it’s all great. If people haven’t been exposed to volleyball much, they’re going to see young women who are great athletes and connected with joy.’’

As Wise indicated, the best time is now. From start to finish, the Tampa Bay area is courting volleyball history.