With the school year starting and the second half of the college men’s volleyball off-season here, Off the Block in a new series is examining the successes and challenges currently facing the sport.
Off the Block during the summer conducted a series of interviews with various leaders in the volleyball community to discuss the current state of college men’s volleyball.
Check out this interview with Springfield coach Charlie Sullivan as he discusses the state of Division III men’s volleyball, why more Division III colleges are opting to add men’s volleyball and possible changes to the NCAA Tournament.
Off the Block: When you think about the state of Division III college men’s volleyball, what’s your initial thoughts on where the game is at?
Charlie Sullivan: Division III men’s volleyball is at a really strong point right now. It’s gone through considerable growth, and I think it’s not slowing down. It’s still growing at a really good rate in terms of colleges adding teams, and I think even in terms of better players coming and wanting to play Division III volleyball now.
OTB: For Division III teams, three years ago the NCAA added a national championship. Can you express just how important that decision was for Division III teams?
CS: The plan that Jerry Matacotta, Mike Rashardy, who’s since passed, USA Volleyball, put into place was one of the best 10-year plans ever implemented. There was a time with the first inaugural championship in 1997 that the group felt that if there was any championship at all that a Division III player could circle their calendar with that it would just add incentive schools to add a men’s volleyball. Without a true championship it ensured that Division III teams had the opportunity to still play in the Division I-II championship and no Division III team had ever made it to the Final Four. At Springfield College as a Division II team we made it to a Final Four twice. Not having a Division III opportunity to play in the postseason, once that Molten national championship was added — a proudly sponsored national championship — I think Division III players got really excited about that circle on the calendar that they could look towards and it increased excitement in Division III. I think it increased the popularity of the game, giving us some notoriety. Out of that we got some Division III All-American lists going from the AVCA, which was a really nice. It gave schools a reason to say, “yeah, we should add the sport, it’s easy to do and we got a good championship opportunity.” From there around 25 teams in 1997 to doubling that number in such a short time and have that 10-year plan come to fruition, I really think it was well done and really well thought out. It was done with a lot of energy and effort. It makes sense now. That’s why the sport in Division III men’s volleyball has experienced the growth it has and why it still has a lot of momentum to grow even more.
OTB: These first three years for your team it’s almost seemed like a dream scenario winning back-to-back-to-back NCAA championships. What is it about your program that you were able to get ahead some Division III teams right from the start?
CS: Winning three in a row has been really fun for our guys and a really big reward for our program. To win the Molten championship was equally as difficult as it was to win the NCAA championship. With the NCAA behind it, the bells and whistle after we won have been a lot more. … That’s been kind of neat for our guys. In terms of how we won three in row, I think it’s just been a lot of hard work and focus. There’s a lot of better players in Division III now. We have a lot respect for the opponents we’re going against. We have some good matches and some good folks and some good preparation. We’ve been really lucky.
OTB: You’ve mentioned seeing more talent at the Division III level. Do you feel that’s a byproduct of more kids playing volleyball or is it more that kids are starting to learn about these Division III programs?
CS: There are more kids playing volleyball. The notoriety is out there about Division III volleyball, and kids are starting to hear more Division III volleyball. I also think there hasn’t been any growth in Division I volleyball while there is growth and opportunity for high school volleyball. There just aren’t as many roster opportunities out in the Pacific and in the MIVA and in the EIVA. Kids are now more satiable looking at a Springfield College and a Division III program as an option to play after high school. … We’ve been able to put together opportunities for our student-athletes that have been exceptional and equally as great as if they went to a Division I school to play volleyball. We’ve been Hawaii for the Outrigger [Invitational]. We just represented the United States in the World University Games. We were honored to throw out the first pitch at Fenway [Park]. This is the kind of Division I notoriety we are getting at a Division III school and that’s been more attractive for kids. That’s why kids are opening their eyes to other options, especially California kids.
OTB: I want to ask you about the Northeast, there has been a boom in the amount of Division III men’s volleyball teams. From your standpoint living up there, what is it about this area that makes it appealing for schools to add men’s volleyball?
CS: That’s where the boom in Division III started, but really I think it’s now moved to the Midwest, which is great. I’m sure it has to do with the location, but more the people who are selling. The Northeast is where Jerry Matacotta and Mike Rashardy worked. They were in that meeting in 1997 and sold it. Many private schools in Northeast, particularly New England, are close together so it makes it geographically common sense to do it together. I think now with Gary Williams, who was the head of the NCAA championship committee, being in the Midwest that’s where the growth is right now. We lost Gary. He took another job and is no longer on the championship committee. … If we had someone similar in California who knows what could happen.
OTB: At the Division I-II level there is so much talk about NCAA Tournament expansion if six or eight teams is the right level. Are coaches at the Division III level happy with the current structure of the NCAA Tournament?
CS: I’m familiar with some conversation at the championship about changing the format a little bit, and it will have to change because you have to offer postseason opportunities for a percentage of teams that exists. As you add more teams, more teams will have to qualify. You can’t take more than eight teams at a final site so there is going to be some weekend-before site things that could limit it to eight or four teams at the final site. I think it’s definitely going to change. You can’t stay static. There is so much growth going on that the formula is going to change automatically.