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The game of men's volleyball has changed due to increased physicality, and this has made it more popular

Though he has worked as a volleyball coach, Penn State’s Mark Pavlik is well-versed in all sports, just as likely to discuss screen passes and slap shots as he is spikes and side-outs.

Even though he is a volleyball coach, Mark Pavlik from Penn State is interested in all types of sports, such as screen passes and slap shots, not just spikes and side-outs.

Pavlik, who graduated from Derry, was recently watching highlights of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. One of the players who caught his attention was safety Mike Wagner. By most standards, Pavlik said, Wagner looked like a pretty average guy.

Nowadays, Pavlik mentioned, players who would have been linebackers or defensive ends are now playing safety in the NFL.

The trend in sports over the past few decades has been for athletes to gradually become bigger, stronger, and faster.

“Look at baseball,” said the coach of 30 years. “Home run, strikeout. All of a sudden, that’s become more physical. You look at hockey, and I think (the NHL) is outgrowing the North American rink size. … I think everything has just developed.”

Men’s volleyball is also going through a similar evolution. It has always been a physical sport, but in recent years, the level of physicality has increased. The high jumps and powerful hits that have always been associated with men’s volleyball are now the main focus, and the more traditional aspects of the game have become secondary.

John Speraw, the coach of the reigning national champion UCLA and the U.S. men’s national team, also acknowledges this trend. When Speraw played with the Bruins, he was a middle blocker at 6-foot-3. Now, many teams have setters taller than that, including his own team: Sophomore Andrew Rowan stands 6-6.

According to Speraw, back in his day, it was a big deal if a player could touch 11 feet. Now, many are approaching 12 feet and even higher.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve improved a lot in strength and conditioning, and nutrition,” he said. “I think we have seen this across all sports. It seems that athletes are optimizing their physical potential more and more across all sports.

“I also think that as boys volleyball continues to grow, we’re seeing more and more talented athletes coming into the sport, and there are more athletes – bigger athletes – to choose from.”

So men’s volleyball has tried to take advantage of this increased physicality.

Grip it and rip it

It's difficult to pinpoint when the increased emphasis on physical play started. Pavlik mentioned that even in the 1970s, most college teams had at least one player known for being a big hitter.

The trend gained momentum in the 1980s and ’90s, and now, Pavlik said, every team has multiple players who can hit with power and serve 65 or 70 mph.

“I don’t think coaches set out to purposely make the game more engaging,” Pavlik said. “Like anything else, coaches assessed and realized that to win, they needed physicality.”

Longtime St. Francis (Pa.) coach Mike Rumbaugh has a theory about what may have contributed to the increase in physical play, especially in serving. He points to the 2016 and 2017 seasons when Ohio State won back-to-back national titles. According to him, those Buckeye teams caused a lot of trouble for opponents with their serve.

They worked as hard as they could, regardless of mistakes.

“I think that’s when everybody realized, we’re not going to focus on the service error,” Rumbaugh said. “We’re going to focus on the service ace.”

So more players started increasing the power of their serves. And as the jump serve became more popular, the number of “fastballs” coming over the net increased.

Rumbaugh said Red Flash junior Nathan Zini (Seton LaSalle), for example, consistently can serve in the low 70s.

But here is the other side of men’s volleyball’s “grip it and rip it” mentality. Serving has become much more of a risk-reward effort.

Saint Vincent men’s coach Kate McCauley said she often goes home from matches with a self-inflicted bruise on her leg as a result of digging her pen into it. The source of her consternation is missed serves.

“Your serve is basically a free throw,” said McCauley, a former Bearcats player in her third year as the men’s coach. “It’s a free point that you can get somebody out of system.”

Seeing a stretch where men continually pound the ball into the net can get exasperating for coaches and fans. But coaches have become more willing to grit their teeth and live with the ups and downs.

“You’re not seeing anybody in the major leagues bunting the ball anymore,” Speraw said. “… You’re not seeing basketball players taking many 15-foot jump shots because they recognize they get more value from stepping a few feet back and taking their chance at a 3-pointer.

“The other corollary to this is it’s not just the physicality. It’s just the speed and efficiency of offenses. … You have to take some risks from the service line or you’re going to lose that point anyway.”

For McCauley, seeing volleyball from the perspective of a player and now as a woman coaching men, she has learned to work with the differences in the style of play.

Jaime Snyder understands, too. A former player for the women’s team at SUNY Brockport, Snyder is in her second season coaching the Division II D’Youville men’s program, which plays in the Northeast Conference with St. Francis.

Like McCauley, she has had to adapt her thinking for working with the men’s team. But she hasn’t been hesitant to bring in some finesse from the women’s game while maintaining the physical play.

“How can we be creative with the physicality, but how can we create more opportunities for them to be offensive?” Snyder said. “There’s other ways than just hitting the balls 100 mph.”

Pavlik calls it “appropriate physicality.”

Though powerful spikes can be a momentum grabber much like a slam dunk in basketball, there can be a tendency to get carried away. Trying to hit a ball through a block every time isn’t the best approach.

Snyder said she often puts her players through two-on-two drills to show them there are other ways to manufacture a kill. It forces them to think about different methods to put away the ball, then those skills, she said, can come into play in a regular match.

Speraw said a number of factors go into deciding when to swing away and when to settle for simply keeping the ball in play.

“There’s gradients,” he said. “What is the right time? Who are the right athletes to swing away? And what is the circumstance within that individual play?”

Pavlik added that there will be very difficult shots that even God can't save, so don't let the other team get an easy point. Be physical in the right way. Challenge the block aggressively and adapt your movements to avoid getting blocked. Try to use the block to your advantage.

Potential for growth

Every sport has traditionalists, and volleyball is no exception. Some may be unhappy with the direction the men's game is taking, as certain technical aspects seem to be getting neglected.

Pavlik questions what is considered 'technical.' As the rules change, coaches are simply adapting, as they have been doing for decades.

“I believe coaches will always teach the most effective ways of moving and controlling the ball to score the most points within the rules,” he said. “The game is now becoming bigger, stronger, and faster.”

And coaches agree that this is a positive development.

“When people began to realize that it's not an easy game, better athletes started playing,” Rumbaugh said.

Speraw, in addition to his coaching duties, serves on the board of First Point Volleyball Foundation. The foundation’s main goal is to increase volleyball opportunities for boys and collegiate men. Thanks to First Point’s efforts, 10 states have recognized boys' high school volleyball since the organization’s founding in 2016. Several others have classified it as an 'emerging sport.'

According to the American Volleyball Coaches Association, over 77,000 boys participated in high school volleyball nationwide during the 2022-23 academic year. This is an increase of 20,000 from six years ago, and Speraw believes that by the time the 2028 Olympics are held in Los Angeles, this number will approach 100,000.

AVCA numbers also show that between 2011-12 and 2021-22, college men’s volleyball participation grew 79%. Two years ago, the Division II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference added the sport. The NEC added it last season. Two more Division I schools will begin next season: Maryland Eastern Shore and Northern Kentucky.

Closer to home, the D-III Presidents’ Athletic Conference will sponsor men’s volleyball for the first time next season. McCauley’s Saint Vincent squad will be part of that.

“I was an integral part of getting the men’s volleyball program to Saint Vincent, and that’s something that’s near and dear to my heart,” she said. “…. I think it’s just awesome how much more thought is going into the men’s game.”

Outside hitters built like strong safeties hitting the ball hard and servers who can serve over 70 mph have been significant factors in the growth of the men’s game.

“I think volleyball is such an enjoyable sport to watch,” Snyder said. “Introducing (kids) to something other than soccer, basketball, baseball, and football is definitely intriguing to the younger generations. It’s definitely starting to grow a lot faster, and it’s kind of exciting to see.”

And as more universities start offering men’s volleyball at higher levels, there will be more scholarships available, which, Rumbaugh said, will attract even more talented athletes.

“Many high school students missed out on scholarships because there weren't enough schools offering them,” he said. “Now, more parents are realizing the potential for scholarships in the sport, so they're encouraging their kids to play volleyball as a way to get into college.”

And Speraw thinks that the athleticism and potential in men’s volleyball is only just beginning to be seen.

“Many people who watch a men’s volleyball game for the first time are amazed,” he said. “On the men’s side, we need to attract more spectators so they can understand and appreciate the physicality and athleticism of our sport. We need to capitalize on our sport's strengths for sure.”

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