By BECKY GILLETTE
Girls rule in youth volleyball. Volleyball is the most played girl’s sport in the world. But Mississippi has been slower to catch on to this trend than many other states, possibly in part because competitive volleyball is an expensive sport. Not all parents can afford to pay for club dues and travel expenses.
It is a high socio-economic sport that is expensive at the higher skill levels because of the travel costs, said Justin Dee, head volleyball coach at Belhaven University in Jackson, and High Performance Director of the Delta Region of USA Volleyball (https://www.deltavolleyball.net/), which has an estimated 10,000 players in parts of Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri, and the entire state of Arkansas.
“In basketball, a parent pays $500 for a year and everything is included,” Dee said. “In volleyball, it is more like $5,000 for four to five months of a club program. It is a little tougher for families to afford. I just got back from Orlando [Florida] for a 12-day long national championship. Many parents have two or three different girls playing, and just paying for hotel rooms for 12 days is thousands of dollars.”
Volleyball has overtaken soccer and basketball in popularity. But Dee said Mississippi has been way behind in terms of skill levels because the state didn’t sponsor volleyball until so late. That may have been because softball can be played year around in Mississippi, and a lot of high school coaches tended to keep some of their best athletes in slow-pitch softball rather than volleyball.
Youth volleyball is picking up steam in the state with several different clubs that have purchased old warehouses in the Jackson area and started volleyball academies. DeSoto County also has one.
Volleyball tournaments can bring in quite a bit of business. For example, the Jackson Southern Hospitality Tournament at Jackson Convention Center over President’s Day weekend this year brought in about 160 teams, with teams averaging about ten.
“So, there were about 1,600 people who came into downtown Jackson playing volleyball,” Dee said. “There is a large impact there. Memphis Junior Volleyball Academy did a tournament in Tunica this year that attracted 2,500 to 3,000 people. Think of how many hotel rooms were filled, and the kind of impact it has on communities in Mississippi. Columbus has a tournament almost every weekend that brings in revenue to the city.”
The High Performance Program is the pipeline to the Olympic team. Dee said because of that, you will see the best players in that program.
“We identify the best players in the region and continue to encourage and develop them,” he said.
Dee played boys’ volleyball in Orlando, where some players were as tall as 6-foot-8. In Mississippi, there aren’t any competitive boys’ volleyball teams yet, although boys up to age 13 can play on girls’ teams. The lack of interest by boys is likely related to there being no men’s volleyball teams in colleges in the state, meaning there is nothing to aspire to, and few opportunities to watch mens’ volleyball on television.
“Most people think volleyball is a girls’ sport so it is hard to ‘sell’ to boys,” Dee said. “It is really hard for boys to jump into it and then realize they are so far below the curve.”
Dee said volleyball is a really fun sport.
“It is different from every other sport,” he said. “You can attend a soccer, football, basketball or softball game and go an hour without a point scored. In volleyball, within about 15 seconds after the whistle, there is probably going to be a point scored. In volleyball, every play is different. Every game is different. In volleyball, if you are great at ball control, you can beat anybody. It doesn’t matter how tall you are, but if you dig the ball up, you have a chance against anybody.”
Jenny Hazelwood played volleyball growing up in Texas. She and her husband, Brian, decided to start a club in Flowood, the Infinity Volleyball Academy, and have a dedicated volleyball facility with five courts. She said it was important to have courts dedicated only to volleyball because it is tough going from one place to another to practice, and athletes don’t have as much time on the courts. They have about 150-160 athletes in the club.
Hazelwood said youth volleyball is growing in popularity for a number of reasons. Besides being a lot of fun, it is a way for strong female athletes to really shine.
“There is so much about the sport that people don’t even realize is happening such as the systems of play, the specialized positions,” Hazelwood said. “I think it is a great challenge. It can help with self-image. You see all body types in our sport. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter someone’s body type. Muscles can be good sized and that is a good thing. It is celebrated a little more seeing the strong female athlete.”
There are six players on the court at any time, but teams tend to carry ten to 11 in club volleyball. Players range in age from 9 to 18.
Infinity Volleyball Academy has done trips this year to Orlando, Houston and Dallas, Atlanta, and Indianapolis.
“These girls are getting to see the country,” Hazelwood said. “It was the only thing at a young age that got me out more to see the country. Parents follow them to watch games. It is definitely a family sport.”
Another type of volleyball that is exploding in popularity in Mississippi and the nation is beach volleyball.
“It is the fastest-growing sport in the NCAA by numbers,” Dee said. “It is growing three times faster than any other college sport. Beach volleyball is probably growing quicker than indoor volleyball in Mississippi. The indoor game is growing at a higher rate than any other state in the nation because we were so far behind until a couple years ago. With investments into venues and space for their clubs, it has been great for our state in terms of developing great volleyball players.”
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