Volleyball

The age at which girls start getting recruited by college volleyball programs keeps getting younger and younger.

Supply and demand. That’s the rule of economics. That’s the law of recruiting.

In a perfect world, college coaches wouldn’t make scholarship offers to eighth- and ninth-graders because there would be enough talent to go around three or four years later.

“The reality of volleyball is you need kids who are physically superior in order to elevate your program to the next level,” said John Tawa, founder of PrepVolleyball.com. “You can wait and find players who are very good who will help any program, but they’re not program-changers.

“So you are fighting for a small pool of elite athletes.”

That’s the coaches’ incentive. Now look at the players’ perspective. Again, demand exceeds supply.

Take the setter position, Tawa said. A top program that runs a 5-1 offense will grant a setter scholarship only every other year. So if there are 30 elite programs, you’re talking about 15 scholarships for setters. If you’re waffling over an offer, your coach won’t wait.

“They’ll go to Plan B pretty quickly,” Tawa said.

Borne out of the scarcity of resources, volleyball insiders see (at least) 12 big issues with volleyball’s rush to commit.

1. Planning headaches for coaches

John Cook feels like an NBA general manager, he said. Every week his staff meets to discuss scholarship allocation. Not just for 2017 or ’18, but four or five years down the road. Decisions for the class of 2021 must be made now.

“Let’s say a ninth-grader comes to camp or a visit,” Cook said. “If you don’t offer them, you may never get another chance. That’s the pressure we’re all feeling. If I want to wait and see how she develops, there might be 20 other schools that offer. So she’s going to think, ‘Oh, Nebraska isn’t interested.’

“Two years later, you say, ‘We love what you’re doing, we want to offer you.’

“ ‘Sorry, it’s too late,’ they say. ‘You don’t offer me when I was there.’ ”

You try to make predictions, Cook said. You weigh the risks of offering some girls early — and waiting on others. You hope you don’t invest four years in a prospect who doesn’t develop, gets hurt or transfers. In that case, you have to start over chasing ninth-graders.

“If something doesn’t work out,” Iowa State coach Christy Johnson said, “all of the good players have already committed.”

2. Shady recruiting practices

How do college coaches lure a prized eighth- or ninth-grader to campus? They invite her whole team to a camp. Sometimes the college coach goes to her school for a clinic, just to see a 14-year-old.

“There’s a lot of that,” Penn State assistant Salima Rockwell said.

Another popular strategy: blanket offers. Multiple prospects. One scholarship.

Tony Carrow, an Omaha club director, tells a story of two girls invited to a campus the same day. The college coach offered both. First to accept received the scholarship; the other was out of luck.

While Prospect No. 1 flew home to talk it over with mom and dad, Prospect No. 2, a local kid, said yes.

Worse, occasionally kids receive an offer, then a coach finds a better player, comes back to the kid and pulls the scholarship. Or, more common, a coach runs off a player after a year or two in college.

3. Financial obstacles for families

The NCAA prohibits official visits before a prospect’s senior year. And schools don’t cover travel, lodging and meals for unofficial visits. That means families are paying 100 percent of the costs.

“To do the research and make the college trips,” Carrow said, “it’s all on your dime.”

Millard North’s Emma Grunkemeyer, an Iowa commit, made six unofficial visits: Colorado State, Wyoming, UNO, Iowa, Notre Dame and Ohio State. At least they were driveable.

Madi Endsley, a Nebraska commit from southern California, visited Washington, Louisville and NU. Her family tried to schedule visits around club tournaments, but the money adds up.

4. Weary middlemen

Club directors like Carrow spend hundreds of hours a year playing mail carrier. Why? By rule, college coaches can’t call prospects before their senior years. So they send the club coach emails like this: “Can you have athlete X give me a call? Here’s my cell number. Here are the times I’m available.”

If the college coach misses the call, the process starts over. That’s just the calls, Carrow said. It gets more complicated trying to set up unofficial visits.

Carrow left his corporate job because he was tired of answering emails. During the club season, he wonders if he should go back. How many does he average per day?

“About 300.”

5. Middle-schoolers are fair game

Once a player starts ninth grade, she is a “prospective student-athlete” by NCAA rule. College coaches can’t contact her or her family off campus — except via mail.

But middle-school prospects are not yet PSAs. There are no rules against communication. At a club tournament, for example, coaches can mingle with an eighth-grader’s dad, but not an 11th-grader’s.

“It’s getting a little out of control,” Carrow said.

6. Those pesky academics

John Tawa tells a story of a Minnesota prospect who accepted a scholarship — sight unseen — from Georgia Tech. Sounds good, right?

Until a couple of weeks later when she took a visit and realized Georgia Tech is a technical school. She backed out.

At Grunkemeyer’s visits, coaches asked what she wanted to study.

“What 15-year-old knows what they want to do?” her mom, Heidi, said. “It was almost laughable. Like, OK, this trip I’m going to say I’m going into business. This one I’m going to say marketing.”

Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth sees a change in priorities between 14 and 17.

“I’m not exaggerating that I’ve heard junior-highers that are very good players say, you know, I like that school because they’re sponsored by Nike or I like their colors more than that team’s colors. By the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’ve probably figured out that those are not reasons they’re going to make a decision.”

7. Awkward conversations

John Cook describes a typical exchange with a ninth-grader.

Coach: “So do you have any questions?”

Kid: “Are you gonna offer me?”

“It’s not like, tell me how my education will be,” Cook said. “Or what can you do for me? Why should I come to Nebraska? Nope.”

Said Booth: “You have these poor kids scared out of their minds. ‘Hi Coach Booth.’ You try to not make it too painful.”

8. Slippery slope of specialization

Once a girl is a top prospect, it becomes difficult to set aside that sport, even for one season.

How, for example, can a 15-year-old volleyball standout justify skipping club tournaments — where college coaches will be watching — to run hurdles for her high school?

Emma Grunkemeyer gave up other sports as a freshman at Millard North. She plays volleyball year-round. Is mom concerned?

“Oh God, yes. It drives us nuts,” Heidi Grunkemeyer said. “You read stuff all the time. We always say give your body a break. They need a break physically and mentally and they don’t get it very often.”

9. Prideful parents

Not all parents want to slow the process. One dad from Colorado, Tawa said, called with a question: What’s the earliest a prospect had ever accepted an offer?

“He wanted to set a record.”

Those examples are extreme, but Tawa frequently sees parents pushing for early commitments.

“Parents say, I want to wear the sweatshirt. I want to put money down on that Beamer knowing that I don’t have to pay for college for you.”

10. Development hiccups

The biggest harm, according to some club coaches, is trying to motivate committed prospects.

They’ve been coddled and wooed by certain programs. They accept a scholarship offer and think they’re good enough. In some cases, they have a long way to go.

The offer used to be the reward at the end of the race. Now it’s just the midpoint.

“When they get here,” Cook said, “you’re holding your breath, like, did they develop?”

11. Late-bloomers slip through

The phenoms are easy to find. At 14, they’re touching 10-foot-2 or 10-3. But coaches miss on kids who develop late.

Said Penn State’s Rockwell: “We walk by the 18s courts all the time at nationals going, ‘Who the heck is that kid?’ ”

One prospect the Nittany Lions evaluated early hit a late growth spurt. Why aren’t we looking at her, head coach Russ Rose asked his assistants.

“You were looking at that girl two years ago,” they said. “She’s grown a lot.

“She hasn’t grown a lot,” Rose barked. “She’s grown 10 inches!”

12. Early decisions, early exits

Coaches see a correlation between premature commitments and the transfer epidemic in volleyball. In 2010, 95 Division I players transferred schools, according to analyst Rich Kern. By 2013, transfers had jumped to 267.

“These kids make early decisions,” Cook said, “and then they end up not panning out or they go somewhere and realize it was the wrong choice.”

The good news for coaches: When a 21-year-old announces her transfer, guess where she goes? Back on the market.

Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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