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When Maryland Eastern Shore volleyball player Shanti Ramdeen and her teammates — along with some other student-athletes — were summoned to the school’s athletic complex for an announcement last week, no one was certain what was about to happen.
Ramdeen, a junior middle from Austin, Texas, said they were just told to show up.
“When we got there, we were pretty confused as to what was going on,” she said. “When the news broke, there were gasps. I know a lot of my teammates were … everybody just got loud. My teammates were really excited.”
One of her teammates, she said, let out an audible — and loud — “Wow!”
The UMES program, which will begin play in the Northeast Conference in the 2025-26 season, was one of two public universities to announce the addition of men’s volleyball within a one-week span. Northern Kentucky followed. The Norse also will begin playing in 2025-26, and this marked the first time in more than two decades that public universities added men’s volleyball.
UMES made further history by becoming the first Division I historically Black college (HBCU) to add men’s volleyball.
Wade Garard was at UMES to hear the gasps and the “wows” from the assembled students for the announcement. He called it the coolest part of the event. And Garard’s organization, First Point Volleyball, played no small part in helping both of the new programs get off the ground.
When First Point Volleyball launched seven years ago, its stated mission was to grow opportunities in the sport for males at all levels. Since First Point’s inception in 2016, 10 states have sanctioned boys high school volleyball, and 40 college men’s programs have been started, with UMES and NKU being the latest.
Helping grow the game for minority males has been another key part of First Point’s mission. To that end, in 2019, First Point gave $600,000 and USA Volleyball $400,000 for the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to add six men’s volleyball programs: Central State, Edward Waters, Fort Valley State, Benedict, Kentucky State and Morehouse.
All are historically Black schools.
Maryland Eastern Shore received a $250,000 grant: $100,000 from USA Volleyball and $150,000 from First Point. Donors such as East Coast Volleyball also pitched in to make the UMES program happen.
Northern Kentucky, meanwhile, received a total of $100,000 from First Point, USA Volleyball, East Coast and other donors. The larger amount UMES received, said Garard, co-founder and CEO of first point, included support services that benefit the school’s women’s team as well.
Ramdeen, whose Hawks qualified for the MEAC tournament this weekend, is excited about the possibilities of what volleyball can do not only for UMES but for HBCUs across the board.
“I know a lot of people who feel — not necessarily out of place — but I feel like an HBCU brings a different type of environment, especially for minorities,” she said. “And I feel like it’s great to introduce volleyball into that as well because I know a lot of men’s volleyball players that I’m friends with that wanted to go to an HBCU but were never really given that opportunity because there isn’t that many HBCU volleyball programs.
“It’s going to open up new opportunities for everybody of every color. It’s great, and I feel amazing to be a part of it, honestly.”
Tara Owens, vice president of athletics and recreation at UMES, had first-hand knowledge of the excitement and opportunity men’s volleyball could bring to a campus. She was the athletic director at Central State when the SIAC made men’s volleyball part of its menu.
She had a front-row seat as Central State captured the inaugural conference title.
“It was a great opportunity for us (at Central State) to provide students an introduction to a very popular sport and give our students who didn’t play another sport an opportunity,” said Owens, who came to UMES in September 2022. “Central State, the SIAC, I thought it was a bold move then, and we benefitted from it greatly.
“That was something that was a wonderful experience for the campus as a whole.”
Owens brought the idea of a men’s volleyball program with her to Maryland Eastern Shore.
“Because of my experience at Central State University prior to coming to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, I brought men’s volleyball up to my president (Heidi M. Anderson) and I shared with her that I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to enhance our athletic program on the men’s side,” Owens said.
St. Francis (PA) men’s coach Mike Rumbaugh, who is entering his 26th season with the Red Flash, was pleased with the addition of UMES to the NEC and with what it could mean for HBCUs down the road.
“I’m really hoping that more MEAC members might look to add men’s volleyball and the NEC will provide them a place to compete,” Rumbaugh told Volleyball Magazine in an email. “The time is right for more growth. I can’t wait to see who the next school is to add.”
The Northeast Conference, which had its inaugural season in 2023, included St. Francis (Pa.), Daemen, Long Island U, Sacred Heart, St. Francis Brooklyn, Merrimack, Fairleigh Dickinson and D’Youville. But Merrimack and Sacred Heart recently announced they will be leaving the conference, so the addition of UMES was welcomed.
“It’s great to see more growth in the D-I ranks with both the additions of Northern Kentucky and Maryland Eastern Shore,” Rumbaugh said. “I love that the NEC took the bold step a year ago when it decided to add men’s volleyball as a conference sport.
“With help from First Point, the NEC helped the last three D-I universities that added men’s volleyball get off to strong starts. As members in the NEC are waiting for the NCAA bid, the exciting news about Maryland Eastern Shore joining the NEC could not have come at a better time.”
Noreen Morris, commissioner of the Northeast Conference, echoed Rumbaugh’s sentiments in a statement to VolleyballMag.com:
“The Northeast Conference proudly enters its second year of sponsoring men’s volleyball, and we are fully committed to the growth of the sport. Since 2020, we have welcomed four new NEC men’s volleyball programs, and the forthcoming addition of UMES in the 2025-26 season heightens our excitement even more.
“Special thanks to Wade Garard and First Point Volleyball Foundation for their continued support and financial investment in advancing men’s volleyball at the collegiate level.”
Owens said she is happy for her program to be joining the NEC. In the long term, however, she hopes to see the MEAC sponsor men’s volleyball.
“As (Anderson) said, we are trail blazers in many ways with this move,” Owens said. “Although I believe it’s a fantastic move for UMES, I certainly hope I can give some positive feedback to our conference because I believe many more HBCUs will have a level of interest, and I’m happy to be the first.
“But I think at some point we’ll have a great number of schools that participate. … The level of diversity it brings, the excitement it brings to a campus, those are the things I will be sharing with my colleagues. … We’ll start off competing in the NEC, but I’m surely hoping that at some point it may be a (MEAC) sponsor.”
Northern Kentucky, meanwhile, had been looking to expand its athletic offerings. Christina Roybal, vice president and director of athletics for NKU, said the school was exploring nearly 20 options for additional sports.
Six were chosen, and men’s volleyball was among them.
“Men’s volleyball made a lot of sense, one, because we have a facility that is exclusively for volleyball,” Roybal told Volleyball Magazine. “… Two, we knew that it was one of the fastest growing sports — if not the fastest growing boys sport — in the country, and the popularity in Kentucky and Ohio, we heard — anecdotally as well as statistically — that great information.
“It made a lot of sense for us to add the program to give high school students in the region an opportunity to participate at the Division I level close to home.”
Roybal said the school is in active discussions with the MIVA about joining the conference and said Northern Kentucky plans to apply for membership.
As with UMES, the news of the addition of men’s volleyball was well received on the Highland Heights campus, especially with the women’s program. The Norse women play in the Horizon League.
“They are excited,” Roybal said. “… Liz Hart is our head coach on the women’s side. She was very excited. She actively said, ‘I think this is a very good opportunity for NKU.’ They find the excitement that’s around volleyball year-round. Now we can enjoy volleyball in both seasons.”
Ramdeen will graduate in spring of 2025. She said she might remain at UMES for grad school, but there is a chance she will go elsewhere and won’t be on campus when the men’s volleyball team plays its historic first match.
Regardless, Ramdeen said she will be in the stands.
“Either way I’m definitely going to make it a point to come out here because it’s huge,” she said, “especially this being the first HBCU Division I volleyball program. I love men’s volleyball, too. It’s just exciting to be around.”