Jeff Putz, December 02, 2004
Many kids and their parents dream of attending college on a volleyball scholarship. Realistically, only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of high school volleyball athletes ever get that chance, but there are great opportunities in the smaller schools. Only Division I and II schools give scholarships, but beyond that there are coaches recruiting for their teams and their schools. Universities are, after all, about a learning first!
We talked to two Division III coaches from opposite ends of the United States about what they look for in athletes. Mark Massey, from the University of Puget Sound (Division III) in Washington has a wide range of experience that includes Division I and II, and has a record at UPS of 156-60 after the 2003 season. J.J. O’Connell is in his third year at Stevens Institute of Technology (Division III) in New Jersey, where he has already brought the team up to a 28-5 record in 2004. He has also coached in an assisting capacity in Division II.
An athlete’s home town frequently has a lot to do with their search for a college, so it should come as no surprise that coaches start with what’s in front of them as well. “For me, it’s a combination of in-state and out-of-state players,” O’Connell says. “I attend the major east coast [junior Olympic] qualifiers and nationals every year. During the summer I spend time developing my local contacts and finding the local talent. Fall is the time to find the juniors during the high school season, so you can find out their goals as they head into the club season.”
Massey also finds kids via the J.O. system. “I don’t personally watch many high school matches, except for a few local ones,” he says. “It just isn’t an efficient way for me to recruit. Division I programs have bigger staffs, so that helps them get out more. Club tournaments are where it all happens for me. I can evaluate a thousand kids in a couple of days, so why would I want to spend every night in a high school gym? Even at the Division III level, very few players make it through four years on the team if they haven’t played club.”
Massey, who also teaches a sport psychology class at UPS, looks for athletes that are first and foremost naturally competitive. “Some very good athletes without that ability will crumble,” he says, “so someone talented enough, but not a superior talented player, can excel if they are very competitive.”
“My number two focus is work ethic. I look for evidence of it in various parts of their lives. With competitiveness and work ethic, a lot of positive things can happen. And even if your team has a down year, you are still working with a great bunch of kids.”
O’Connell is also a believer in the importance of personality. “It is something that I am putting more stock in and I feel that the campus visit is a critical step in my actively pursuing players. If they reach out and make a strong effort to get on campus, they have moved up a level or two on my recruiting lists.”
Generally likeable athletes help the cause as well. “If the current players have positive things to say about them, that makes them more desirable,” O’Connell says. “You can win with personalities that don’t get along, but it won’t be much fun.”
Athletic ability ranked third in desirable qualities for both of our coaches. “Natural competitiveness and work ethic make an athlete special, and those considerations eliminate most of the other problems in college recruiting,” Massey says. “You even see it in the NBA… fabulous physical talent, and so little discipline, focus or motivation that they can’t even practice during the summer or give up cheeseburgers. How sad is that?”
“After matching players by curriculum and grades,” O’Connell says, “I will make an effort to evaluate a player and ascertain whether she will fit into my program athletically.”
The emphasis on academics is huge for a lot of schools at this level. O’Connel says his university is very selective, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time considering students with SAT scores below a certain level. “This is something specific to my current university, and not something that was high on the list when I was at a liberal arts school.”
He also says, “Not having athletic scholarship money is the reason why matching up the curriculum is important. I believe our academics to be comparable or better than most of the country and once I have student-athletes interested in that, I can show them the benefits of coming to my university, regardless of being Division III.”
Massey agrees. “In my experience, trouble in the classroom carries over to trouble on the court. Kids who don’t want to buckle down and study usually have some of the same discipline deficits when they get in the gym.”
Strong academics obviously create opportunities for academic scholarships, which help in lieu of athletic scholarships. “People get all happy about the [athletic] scholarship offers,” Massey says, “but I think the missing piece is, is this a good school for the kid, a strong match socially, environmentally, educationally and is the player ready for school at all?”
“My views have changed over the years. I would eliminate athletic scholarships completely now, if I could. I think players should attend school because of school, and that they should pick the school that is a match for their career goals. There might be some kids who would not go because of this, but I think they are the ones who generally shouldn’t be in college anyway. I don’t have any sympathy for athletes who are students in name only, at any level.”
O’Connell says that his needs vary from year to year. “Certain years I will spend more time and energy on players of a certain position. This year for example, we didn't have very much depth in the middle. About 8 of my top 15 recruits are middle hitters and two of the players that went early decision were middles. I actively spent more time and money to make sure that I got them on campus and that I knew a lot about each one of the players at that position specifically.”
Since Division III coaches can’t really control who accepts admission to the school, athletes need to be flexible if they want to play. “You may have played at this position in high school,” Massey says, “but if you want on the court, we have this opening. I may have 7 middles one year and 7 opposites another.”
Though it may seem obvious, the first question to ask is whether or not you should play college ball at all. O’Connell says it depends on the athlete’s priorities. “If playing is your main goal, ahead of academics, I'm certain any player, regardless of ability could find a school to play at. There are some pretty bad programs across the country and there are many schools that do not even have full rosters of 12 players. Playing collegiate volleyball is certainly possible, but not every player has the skills to be an elite level player and compete for a national title.”
In addition to the academic considerations Massey mentioned, the priorities are certainly a consideration. “Bad school matches aren’t good, especially if they are only volleyball players and not serious students,” he says.
One of the most difficult angles for a parent is to realistically evaluate their child’s ability. “I see so many people, players and parents, get inflated expectations,” Massey says. “Plus there is the natural aspect of thinking your kid is amazing because they are your kid, or that they can do no wrong.”
Because the experience of applying to and choosing a college is new to most parents, they aren’t sure what to look for, and the details of a volleyball program and its requirements are even more of a mystery. “I don’t think either high school or club coaches generally do a great job of informing players about their options, and helping them find the right fit. So often it is about ego for the coaches, players and parents. It’s about the biggest money at the biggest school, there is any guidance at all.”
“Players and coaches need to find someone who knows about the different levels, who can help them be objective, instead of feeding their egos. For instance, ask a respected opposing coach from another team and see what he or she thinks about your child.”
Above all, parents should keep the academic fit in mind and be aware of the application process. “I get calls in April each year from seniors who are interested in our school. At my D-III level, which is very academically selective, the application deadline is February!”
Both coaches firmly believe that the school has to be a good fit for the athlete, and they shouldn’t attend just to play volleyball. Massey spells it out clearly: "The number one question to ask yourself is, ‘If I get injured and can’t play anymore, would I want to be here?’"
Not only is a true and non-ego driven opinion on your chances important, but a good read from the college coach is also important. “Players want to aspire to be a part of a great team,” O’Connell says. “However, they sometimes do not have the skill sets to be able to compete at the current level of that team. It ends up that they get cut and do not play in college at all. To avoid this, honest and open talks with the coach about the student's role should be initiated. You can usually tell by the wording if you are in a good situation. If you hear things that sound vague, I would be worried. Things like, ‘I'm not sure where I want your daughter to be playing on the court,’ are typically not good things to hear. It means that your daughter might not have a role in the coaches system.”
If an athlete has aspirations to play college volleyball, it’s a process that requires you to be proactive. “My strongest advice is to start early,” Massey says. “Begin researching in your junior year, at a minimum. If you aren't getting letters and calls from coaches, then market yourself. Contact schools, and send out video, and ask hard questions.”