On Sept. 16, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) announced a plan to begin spring competition for fall sports such as volleyball, cross country and soccer.
The Big Ten, Big East, Summit League and other conferences announced earlier this year they would be postponing their seasons indefinitely due to the danger posed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Now, the men's and women's teams in these conferences have a chance to return and compete for a title. But this year, the competition might look very different.
Since 1981, the competition has pitted the nation's top teams against each other through the winter season. With this in mind, the oversight committees for collegiate volleyball recently voted in a proposal package to resume the season.
"We believe we have an appropriate and considerate plan to move fall championship events to the spring," said NCAA Division I Council Chair M. Grace Calhoun. "I look forward to presenting this plan to the Board of Directors next week."
One of these proposals is a plan to begin a women's volleyball season in 2021. If approved, the regular season would start on Jan. 22, culminating in a tournament akin to the yearly fall competition in late April. Some head coaches, including Nebraska head volleyball coach John Cook, believe that this move might give rise to an even greater increase in the sport's popularity.
Cook said that in the fall, volleyball competitions struggle to get coverage on national television, drowned out by the buzz surrounding the football and basketball seasons.
“The Big Ten Conference is awesome with getting us Wednesday night volleyball and even Saturday night volleyball on TV, but once basketball starts and football’s going in November, volleyball disappears," Cook said. "So let’s do it in the spring when we’d have less competition for TV.” Though this plan is optimistic, many logistical issues threaten approval.
The first of these issues is the introduction of a new style of play-in games. Rather than the usual 64-team bracket, some universities have opted into a split season, with matches being held throughout late fall and into early 2021 to space out contact between teams and reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Other universities, including Rutgers and others in the Big Ten, have chosen to play matches only in the spring, resulting in a difference in opinions among the programs.
Another factor in the resumption of collegiate tournaments is the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak. Though the initial plan for some NCAA colleges was to remain in quarantine in the fall, many universities have chosen to reopen and, in turn, resume their sports practices early.
Many of these schools, including Notre Dame and North Carolina, have faced immediate negative repercussions, forcing a sudden close of on-campus activities and making plans for a rigorous season nearly impossible.
For safety reasons, the NCAA has reduced the number of teams that can participate in the tournament from 64 to 48, leading some colleges to schedule a limited number of fall volleyball games for additional practice before the play-in games begin. Though this might increase their tournament chances, early resumptions threaten the competition's sanctity and could prevent it from occurring at all.
If these issues are solved, the NCAA plans to follow in the footsteps of the women's volleyball tournament and begin resumption of other sports as well.
Tentatively, the NCAA soccer season is scheduled to start on Feb. 3, with cross-country slated to begin early March. For Southern head volleyball coach Venessa Jacobs, the plans require action on behalf of everyone involved to succeed, down to the student-athletes participating.
"I keep encouraging our players to do the right things," Jacobs said. "Stay safe, social distance as much as possible and within reason."
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