LINCOLN — A new NCAA volleyball rule takes effect this fall designed to increase access and opportunity for women within the sport, but some of college volleyball's biggest names worry it could change the game for the worse.
Starting this season, women's teams will be allowed to make 15 substitutions per set, up from the old limit of 12, which had been the maximum allowed for the past four years.
LSU coach Fran Flory, chairwoman of the NCAA women's volleyball rules committee, said the hot-button issue was deliberated extensively at the committee's annual meeting in January and relied heavily on survey results from almost 1,300 coaches, senior women's administrators and athletic directors from Divisions I, II, and III.
Ultimately, the committee decided an increase in the number of substitutions would allow for more opportunities for playing time, which could go far in keeping greater numbers of players satisfied, bolster budgets at lower levels and lead to fewer transfers.
“The committee felt in this juncture of the sport having more availability was a positive thing,” Flory said.
But opponents of the rule change see it as another step in the march toward specialization in volleyball. Until 2002, teams were allowed only eight substitutions per set. The limit was increased to 12 with the addition of the libero position in 2002, then raised to 15 in 2005 before dropping back to 12 in 2008 when the NCAA reduced the number of points to win a set from 30 to 25.
Some coaches have spent the past decade fighting the rising number of subs, saying it will force coaches to prioritize recruiting over developing players with all-around skills and could widen the parity gap further between elite teams and up-and-coming programs.
Southern California coach Mick Haley, a former rules committee member, said teams use an average of 10 substitutions per set, making the limit of 15 a drastic jump. With so many substitutions, a program might not have to worry about making sure that an elite attacker also develops the skills to serve and pass competently in the back row.
“If we're going to do that,” Haley said, “let's just leave (the same) three players in the front row all the time and three in the back row all the time.”
Former Nebraska coach Terry Pettit is another vocal opponent of the rule. Pettit blasted the increased limit in a recent article for the American Volleyball Coaches Association Coaches Journal, writing: “It's not too difficult to imagine that sometime in the near future we may even eliminate the concept of rotating.”
Current Husker coach John Cook also lands in the “purist” camp. Cook pointed out a lower number of substitutions is an equalizer similar to the 3-point shot in basketball. It forces coaches occasionally to play their attackers and middle blockers in the back row, where they could be tactically exploited if they don't have the all-around skills of serving, digging and passing.
With 15 substitutions, coaches will likely not have to worry about reaching their limit and can take out their top hitters when it is time to rotate to the back row, replacing them with passing and serving specialists.
Cook suspects that will swing the pendulum of success even more toward the country's top programs that are able to land the few elite attacking recruits every year.
“There are very few kids that are 6-foot-5 and athletic,” Cook said. “There are only so many to go around, and the top programs are going to get those. They won't have to worry about training them back row. There will be no equalizer when they have to go to the back row.
“Stanford just signed a 6-8 girl. How many girls around are 6-8? Now, make her play back row and I'll take two 5-11 kids and beat you.”
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|What do you think of the new substitutions limit? Click the image above to discuss it on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
Haley, Pettit and Cook all expressed the fear that increased subs could actually lessen participation in the sport because an elite female athlete may turn away from volleyball in favor of a sport like basketball where she may be on the court more often.
“Nobody wants to be a middle blocker anymore because they don't get to stay in the game,” Haley said.
There is also a concern it could put U.S. players further behind their international counterparts in development. International rules allow only six subs per set and only one per set at each position, which means that players with all-around skills are preferred over elite specialists.
Flory, who said she didn't necessarily endorse the rule change personally, stressed the committee weighed perspectives like those of Haley, Cook and Pettit, naming all three without being prompted. However, she added the NCAA received very few negative comments from coaches during the review period following the announcement of the rule change.
“We're never going to please every coach with this one,” Flory said. “We even discussed reducing subs down to six. I don't think those guys realize that. I think they think we just went in a room and made a decision. That was not the case. This was a very long conversation.”
The survey results would indicate the rule change was driven largely by coaches and administrators at the NCAA's lower divisions. They show a wide split in preference depending on the level of play. Among Division I respondents to the survey, 54 percent of coaches, 62 percent of senior women's administrators and 72 percent of athletic directors were in favor of either keeping the limit at 12 substitutions or dropping the maximum to eight.
Meanwhile, 65 percent of Division II coaches and 76 percent of Division III coaches favored either raising the limit to 15 substitutions or eliminating the limit entirely.
Flory said at lower levels, increased subs allow for greater roster size, which often is a factor in how much funding a team receives from its athletic department.
The issue seems like it could be resolved if the NCAA allowed each division to craft its own set of rules. In men's volleyball, the NCAA allows only six subs per set in Division I, but allows 12 in the lower divisions. However, Flory said the NCAA mandates that the rules must be the same among all divisions of women's play.
“Certainly having different rules for Divisions I, II or III may lead to a different decision on this rule and many other rules,” Flory said.
Contact the writer: