An event once played in half-empty arenas, the NCAA women’s volleyball Final Four not only will take over Target Center for the next three days, it also will dominate parts of downtown.
Thousands of fans clad in mostly red or blue are in town to support their schools at one of the hottest showcases in women’s sports, an event that has been drawing sellouts in recent years. Given volleyball’s soaring popularity in Minnesota, promoters expect a full house for Thursday’s semifinals and Saturday’s championship.
Karch Kiraly has attended this spectacle every year since 2006 and said fans are in for a treat, even if the Gophers missed a chance to be there with an upset loss to Oregon last week. Kiraly, a three-time Olympic volleyball gold medalist, marvels at how exciting the women’s game has become.
“They’re playing at a level and a place above the net we haven’t seen before,” he said.
The sport has grown nationally from one dominated by West Coast schools to one balanced in power by the Midwest, especially with the Big Ten’s burgeoning talent.
In Minnesota, volleyball has become far more popular for high school girls than basketball, with 16,458 participants last school year compared with 12,206 for basketball, according to a nationwide database.
Last year’s Final Four drew sellout crowds of 18,000-plus to the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The championship match — Nebraska over Florida — drew more than 1 million viewers on ESPN2, according to Sports Media Watch.
Target Center holds 18,104 for volleyball, and there are standing room only tickets available for Thursday, when No. 1 Stanford plays BYU, followed by Nebraska vs. Illinois. Saturday’s championship match is sold out.
Minnesota was the nation’s No. 2 seed heading into the NCAA tournament, seeking its third Final Four berth in four years, but lost in the Round of 16. Michigan coach Mark Rosen, president of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), wonders how much buzz Minnesota’s loss will cost this Final Four.
“My gut is Minneapolis is a town that will support it,” Rosen said, “because it’s such a big volleyball town and such a big sports town.”
The AVCA alone will have 2,800 coaches in Minneapolis this week for its annual convention, up from about 800 at similar conventions last decade, Rosen said. “It’s very much a boom time for women’s college volleyball right now, and the Big Ten is leading the charge,” Rosen said. “I know how excited they are about volleyball in Minneapolis. It’s happening here in Ann Arbor. It’s happening in East Lansing. It’s happening everywhere.”
Last week, at the NCAA’s Minneapolis Regional, Kentucky coach Craig Skinner described how much the sport has grown, just within the Southeastern Conference (SEC) footprint.
“In 2005, when I got to Kentucky, about 50-60 percent of the high schools in the state had girls volleyball,” he said. “Now I think it’s close to 100. Kentucky’s obviously a basketball state, and two or three years ago the participation numbers in high school girls volleyball surpassed basketball.”
Minnesota has produced some of the nation’s top Division-I recruits in recent years, including five current members of Team USA: Lauren Gibbemeyer, Tori Dixon, Sarah Wilhite, Hannah Tapp and Paige Tapp. All five came from the Northern Lights volleyball club in Burnsville.
This season, there are 77 Minnesotans on Division-I volleyball rosters, according to the website RichKern.com. Texas (704) and California (667) lead that list. When factoring in population, Hawaii ranks No. 1 with 50 D-I players per million people, with Nebraska (33) and Iowa (30) both in the top five nationally. Minnesota (16) ranks 23rd.
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon has seen recruiting clusters spring up from various pockets of the country. One season it’ll be Colorado, for example, Kansas the next. But it’s rare to hear of a coach finding a “diamond in the rough” from the “middle of nowhere.”
“I don’t think there’s too many of those stories anymore,” McCutcheon said. “I just think there are lots of good players in lots of places.”
Baseball had Carlton Fisk’s wave-it-fair World Series home run. Football had Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception. What was NCAA women’s volleyball’s greatest all-time moment?
Without hesitation, Kiraly pointed to the 2008 Final Four, and the semifinal match between Penn State and Nebraska. This was during Penn State’s run of four consecutive NCAA titles. The Nittany Lions were undefeated and hadn’t even lost a set that season, with a roster featuring four future Olympians. But this contest was in Omaha, before a crowd of 17,430 dressed mostly in red.
“I’m getting goose bumps now, just talking about it,” Kiraly said.
Down 2-0 in the best-of-five match, Nebraska took the third set, snapping Penn State’s streak of 111 consecutive sets won. Then the Huskers took the fourth set. “I remember looking at a cup of water sitting next to me, and the water was shaking,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “Not out of fear, but the reverberations of the crowd.”
Nebraska had a 10-8 lead in set five before Penn State eventually prevailed.
“I think that’s what changed the perception for volleyball, that this is a really big deal,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “I think what it established is we can sell out Final Fours in volleyball. They used to give away tickets, but we had two of three years there [in Omaha] where they’re scalping tickets for $300-400.”
Scalpers would have had another heyday Thursday, if McCutcheon’s Gophers were playing just a few miles from campus. But in this volleyball-mad state, spectators will still get a chance to see one of the sport’s biggest showcases up close.