SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — For the first time a men’s volleyball champion will be crowned in Division III. After years of programs coming and going, conferences realigning and passionate pleas from those involved with the game, a season will finally come to a complete ending as Springfield takes on Carthage for the national championship.
One of the strongest advocates for national tournament was Springfield professor Joel Dearing. He coached The Pride from 1989-96, and during some of that period he was one of the officers in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. He realized around that time the need for a national championship.
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“I had been coaching a team in Rhode Island [Roger Williams] in the mid 1980’s that had got to the varsity level,” Dearing said. “I became the athletic director there and it was obvious these guys, the student athletes, don’t have anything at the end of the season to play for.
“Then at Springfield one year we ended up undefeated one year in Division III and ranked No. 1 nationally and there was nothing. There’s no championship, it just seemed wrong. I always felt like I was just doing my job trying to push, speak up, work with administrators and do anything we could to get people thinking that this needs to happen.”
The biggest obstacle was trying to get the necessary number of teams. According to NCAA rules for a new championship there must be 50 teams competing.
“It was two steps ahead and one step back,” Dearing said. “At the end of the 1980’s we [Roger Williams] were the top team in New England. In the mid 1990’s it dropped the program.”
One of the biggest reasons for the eventual necessary for a championship was from the Molten Invitational. Since 1997 it had served as the unofficial championship for DIII and generated much interest in the sport. Dr. Gary Williams, associate athletic director at Carthage and chairman of the DIII men’s volleyball championship committee, said it was vital.
“If it wasn’t for Molten and the AVCA giving them the spotlight I think DIII programs would have filtered out,” Williams said. “Because the DIII programs were highlighted it allowed them to start expanding.”
The number of programs was reached in 2010 and the inaugural national tournament began in Springfield with quarterfinal action on Friday. And while the Molten helped open the door, those involved can see a difference with a NCAA-sanctioned championship.
“Men’s volleyball has always been seen as something important, but this weekend has given it so much energy and exposure,” Williams said. “What the student-athletes and coaches are seeing is the sport treated in a first-class nature.”
One of the biggest changes comes from who is fronting the bill.
“At the Molten each school who hosted it had to put their own dime behind it,” Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan said. “They couldn’t afford all the amenities they’re getting at this tournament. [For example] on Thursday we had a banquet where the All-Americans were given their awards, and team members got to talk about their teams.
“At each place setting, there was a team picture with a frame that had the championship logo on it. There was a camera to take pictures, photo albums, bookmarks and glasses with the championship logo on it. It was really nice.”
Carthage head coach L.J. Marx said he noticed right away how much more structured an NCAA tournament is.
“There’s no stepping on the court a second before your practice time,” Marx said. “As soon as that horn [to end practice] sounds you’re done, don’t touch a ball. You get walked to your locker room before and after the matches. Now if you have a question [on the rules] you read the book and there’s your answer.”
Perhaps the best way to sum up how much this weekend means those involved comes from NYU head coach Jose Pina. He is a volleyball lifer, and on the DIII men’s volleyball championship committee. He was sold from the player introduction.
“You don’t want to admit that the processional moves you, but it does,” Pina said. “In the past you warm up, you play that’s it. This weekend you’re actually marching in, there are officials marching in front of you. There is a seriousness to it.”