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An overview of college volleyball

Learn more about college volleyball from volleyball recruiting experts at NCSA.

College volleyball is one of the fastest-growing NCAA sports. Driven by the explosion in popularity of volleyball at the high-school level, college volleyball has gone from a minor athletic footnote in the 1970s to a college sport represented by more than 1,800 women’s teams in 2019. As a major fall sport, the college volleyball season corresponds roughly with the fall semester of college, with the final championship games being played in the latter half of December.

The term college volleyball is most often associated with the 12-person indoor variant rather than beach volleyball. While there are some schools that have men’s college volleyball, there are drastically fewer total teams, with just 43 schools offering the sport at the Division I and Division II levels. For those who want to know what colleges offer men's volleyball, they can follow this link. There are also a handful of schools that offer competitive beach college volleyball.

Indoor college volleyball is played throughout all five major collegiate divisions, including NCAA Divisions I, II and III as well as the NAIA and the JUCO. While women s college volleyball and men s college volleyball both nominally represent the same sport, there are some important differences, particularly regarding the level of competitiveness and the relative prestige of the sports. Women s college volleyball is often viewed by schools as a sport of considerable importance. While not as critical to a school’s public image and standing as sports like men’s basketball and football, women s college volleyball has been exploding in popularity, including among spectators.

The Division I women’s college volleyball championships are televised events that draw tens of thousands of attendees. This has meant that women s college volleyball programs are well funded, with Division I schools offering up to 12 full-ride scholarships per team. Even women s college volleyball players at lower NCAA division levels and in the NAIA and JUCO divisions can often take advantage of scholarships. The opportunities for men s college volleyball players to avail themselves of scholarships are far more restricted. And there are currently no teams that offer full-ride scholarships, with a typical arrangement for men s college volleyball players covering around 25 percent of tuition costs.

College volleyball for women is currently offered at nearly every major university. The top volleyball programs for women are generally recognized to be those of Stanford, Duke Colombia and UCLA. For men's volleyball, the University of California system as well as Ohio State and the University of Southern California are often cited as being among the best schools. However, men's college volleyball players have an uphill battle, as they are fighting for a much-smaller pool of much-smaller scholarships.

What are the best volleyball colleges?

Those college athletes who are gifted enough to have real professional prospects in men’s baseball, football, basketball or hockey may be able to parlay their college sports experiences into a big-money career. For almost all other college athletes, including college volleyball players, the chance to play in college is often best viewed as a complement to academics, with the latter always taking the clear long-term priority.

Learn more about college volleyball recruiting experts at NCSA.

Therefore, the best place to play college volleyball is a highly individual decision that the athlete must determine on their own and that must be based around their long-term academic and career goals. For those who have a good idea of what careers they would like to pursue after graduating, one of the most important considerations is how strong the academic program is with respect to the athlete’s desired career track. This is not a simple decision even for non-athletes. For those who are being extended partial or full scholarship offers, the decision can be highly complex. Bringing parents, career counselors and admissions staff into the discussion is prudent.

Some career tracks are more sensitive to undergraduate academics than others. For instance, missing getting into a top medical school because you wanted to play on a championship college volleyball team rather than a mediocre one may not be a compromise worth making. On the other hand, accepting a place at a less academically competitive school in exchange for a full-ride college volleyball scholarship can make fine sense for someone majoring in business or education. Ultimately, the student-athlete must decide, based on their unique circumstances. But athletes should always be realistic about the virtually nonexistent prospects of making volleyball a bona-fide pro career.

College volleyball divisions

Still, there are differences between volleyball colleges, both among teams and divisions. The most stark differences will be found between divisions. Division I or DI volleyball colleges tend to be the largest and most competitive schools. This means that their volleyball programs have the most stringent athletic requirements for those student-athletes who seek to play there. We’ll focus mostly on women’s volleyball, with the understanding that men’s volleyball tends to be considerably more competitive than even the tough road that women face due to the relatively low number of opportunities.

DI volleyball schools

DI volleyball schools often require very special physical traits and abilities as well as truly standout athletic skills. At Division I volleyball schools, the average height of a female player is 6 feet. This is far above the average height for women and means that only around 2 percent of all girls will be at least this tall. Not meeting or exceeding the average height for Division I volleyball schools doesn’t mean the player is guaranteed not to make one of those programs. However, these programs already require exceptional athletic ability. For shorter players, their athletic abilities must be truly superlative.

DII volleyball schools

While Division I schools are the most prestigious, athletically competitive and offer the most full-ride scholarships, Division II or DII volleyball schools are still highly competitive and offer some player scholarships but without such onerous height and other physical requirements. For example, the average height of a DII volleyball player is 5 feet 10 inches tall rather than 6 feet. While this may not sound like a big difference, it means that around 15 percent of all females will be the average height or taller as opposed to just 2 percent in Division I.

Learn more about volleyball recruiting from volleyball experts at NCSA.

DIII volleyball schools

Division III or DIII volleyball has the least stringent requirements. Someone who has a vertical jump of less than 20 inches will have virtually no chance of playing at Division I volleyball schools unless they have towering height or other outlier traits, skills or abilities to make up for it. However, DIII volleyball schools may still be interested in such a player, particularly if they are a well-rounded athlete with proven in-game performance.

For those who are looking to play volleyball in college, there is nothing wrong with setting your sights high. However, when it comes time to begin visiting colleges, sending out highlight videos and communicating with recruiters, it’s important to be realistic about your prospects so that valuable time and money are not wasted.

Objective third-party college volleyball rankings

For reasons already mentioned, it is imperative that all volleyball prospects take a holistic approach to evaluating potential college volleyball recruiting opportunities. This includes weighing things like any available volleyball scholarships against the probability that your academic goals might be better fulfilled at another institution.

However, when solely focusing on the variables of NCAA volleyball and academic performance, it is possible to devise objective college volleyball rankings that identify the schools with the best college volleyball teams and overall academic pedigree.

For those looking to play volleyball in college at only the best programs, NSCA has developed a list of college volleyball standings that incorporate objective college volleyball stats. It has taken the search histories of more than 2 million college volleyball prospects and college volleyball recruits and combined it with college volleyball standings from the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges page. NCSA has then further weighted the value of the schools to volleyball recruits and volleyball prospects by incorporating their graduation rates. The result is a list that gives those interested in girl’s college volleyball an accurate picture of relative school rankings at a glance.

College volleyball championship

Each year, Division I volleyball colleges with girl’s volleyball hold a national championship. This is very similar in structure to the NCAA Final Four, with 64 teams qualifying for the tournament and a total of four rounds taking place prior to reaching the championship game. The championship takes place during the month of December, with the final game usually occurring the week before Christmas.

Someone playing volleyball at college, commits a large amount of time to the sport. The regular volleyball season of a typical college team runs from the end of August to the beginning of December and usually includes around 30 games, a pace that keeps even top athletes on their toes.

College volleyball teams and rules

College teams have six players on the court at any given time. Because volleyball was originally derived from badminton, it has superficial similarities to both that sport as well as other related sports like tennis. However, volleyball also has some distinctions.

Learn more about womens volleyball recruiting experts at NCSA.

Volleyball scores are based on the best of five sets. The winner of each set is determined when the first team reaches at least 25 points and wins by at least two points. Unlike some other netted-court-based games, volleyball allows up to three contacts with the ball to be made by team members before the ball is sent to the opposing side. This may seem like a small difference from, say, tennis. However, it adds a huge layer of complexity that makes volleyball not just an athletically challenging and visually exciting sport but also makes it a game where highly coordinated team maneuvers and deep strategy play a central role. This means that, like football, volleyball is a sport that tends to produce a few utterly dominant coaches whose great strategic skill and leadership generate spectacular winning records.

How to play volleyball in college

Making it to the level of college volleyball playing is a process that is equal parts natural talent, hard work and getting the right experience. Although there has been some effort to strengthen college volleyball rules with respect to recruiting, for players who may have Division I talent, the college volleyball recruiting process often begins in ninth grade.

For athletes who are looking to land college volleyball scholarships, one of the best ways to go from a merely talented player to a formidable all-around elite athlete on the court is through attending college volleyball camps. In fact, nearly all players who ultimately make it to an NCAA team have attended at least one college volleyball camp or combine and have also played club volleyball, participating in tournaments like those organized by USA Volleyball. Almost all Division I college volleyball recruits will have played in the Open Division of the Junior Nationals competition. And most college players will have competed in the Junior Nationals at some level.

How to get college volleyball coaches to notice you

Like tournaments, volleyball camps are an indispensable way for talented young volleyball players to both improve their skillset and avail themselves of an effective means of getting noticed by college coaching staff. However, it is important to make sure that any camp that you may be attending will also be attended by the coaches that you wish to make contact with.

How to get recruited for college volleyball

The recruitment process for volleyball can be highly complicated and stressful. However, knowing a few general guidelines and pieces of critical information can significantly streamline the process.

Typically, someone who ends up playing volleyball commits to a school on a formal basis sometime during their senior year. The current NCAA rules state that this must be after November 18 of the student’s senior year and before August 1 before the start of their freshman year in college.

However, these rules only apply to formal commitments where a National Letter of Intent has been signed. For highly talented athletes, schools with competitive college volleyball programs have traditionally extended nonverbal agreements as early as the student-athletes eighth-grade year. While the new college volleyball rules for recruiting effect when coaches can reach out to students, they do not affect when students can reach out to coaches.

Highly talented volleyball players with apparent Division I prospects are encouraged to reach out to schools as early as possible. One of the best tools in capturing the attention of the coaches of bigtime volleyball programs is to put together a great highlight video. This doesn’t have to be a multi-thousand-dollar professionally edited endeavor. However, it should demonstrate the athlete’s core abilities and immediately captivate the viewer with standout performances.

Most volleyball athletes will not be clear Division I prospects in their ninth-grade year. For players who aren't, it is essential to take a rational approach to recruitment that makes the best use of the time and money spent. Recruiting can be a very long, complicated and expensive process. Maintaining realistic and well-defined goals can streamline things and ultimately help the student-athlete to choose a program, both academic and athletic, that will help them excel not only at volleyball but at life as well.

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