HEIGHT ANXIETY : Many Volleyball Players Coming Up Short on College Recruiters’ Lists
Perhaps the reason Dave Buehring harbors few ill feelings for volleyball’s present state is his keen appreciation for the law of natural selection.
To wit: A college volleyball coach with a choice between a good 6-foot player and good 6-4 one will naturally select the kid with the longer shirt-sleeves.
“That’s a fact of life nowadays,” said Buehring, a 5-foot 10-inch standout from Marina High School. “It’s the direction volleyball has taken, and I don’t think it will ever change.”
Boys’ (high school) and men’s (college) volleyball has grown up, thanks to a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rule limiting substitutions, a boom in high school popularity and the general evolution of the species.
That’s grown up as in gotten taller . So tall that the sport has outgrown many of its best young players, who now find it increasingly difficult to get scholarships to top Division I teams because of a very discriminating measuring stick.
A player of the caliber of Buehring, who was the most valuable player at the prestigious Orange County Championships this season, figures to be left out, come scholarship time.
Buehring, an All-Sunset League soccer goalie, has virtually given up on his chances to play college volleyball. He is planning to play soccer and has orally agreed to attend Westmont College, a Division III school located near Santa Barbara.
“I haven’t signed yet, and I guess I’m holding out just hoping something will come up in volleyball,” Buehring said. “But deep down, I know probably nothing will in Division I.
“Some people have asked me why I don’t play Division II or III, but I’ve played against the best all through high school. That’s who I want to play against in college. . . . I know I could compete at that level; it’s just a matter of getting the chance. The problem is, I have Division I talent, not Division I height.”
There are many others like Buehring. Newport Harbor’s Drew Sheward (6-0), considered by many the top senior setter in the nation, said he’ll probably have to walk on if he wants to play at a Division I school. And the list goes on of players of similar talent and credentials who stand to be left behind because college coaches believe that bigger is better.
They’re right. The direction the college game has taken--becoming a much more powerful, block-oriented game--has fueled the need for taller, more powerful players.
“Men’s volleyball is at the net,” Steve Stratos, Woodbridge coach, said. “If you can’t block at the net, you aren’t going to win. When you can block, you can score points defensively. It’s a tremendous advantage.”
Which means you are at a tremendous disadvantage if you are 6-3 or shorter.
“In college, 6-feet is small,” said Mike Cleugh (5-10), a former standout at El Toro. Cleugh, whom El Toro Coach Mike Jagd called “the best all-around player I’ve ever had,” walked on at Pepperdine but soon found that his opportunities were limited because of his height.
“It was night and day,” Cleugh said. “I was one of the best players in high school, but I get to college, and because I’m not 6-3, I’m bottom of the barrel.”
Cleugh is considering leaving Pepperdine to find a program that would give him more playing time.
Cleugh’s coach at Pepperdine, Rod Wilde, was himself a 6-1 setter when he played at the school in the mid-1970s.
“I was actually tall for my position,” he said.
But Wilde concedes that if he were coming out of high school today, he probably wouldn’t get a scholarship.
“I wouldn’t offer me one,” he said.
Powerful net play has always been a staple of men’s volleyball, but 10 years ago, college teams were balanced by smaller players with either supreme all-around skills or exceptional jumping ability or who specialized in technical skills such as setting or back-row digging.
Coaches, working freely under rules that allowed them three substitutions for each player each game, could alter their teams’ lineups liberally. If power was needed, you put in your big guys. If back-row defense was called for, you sent in the 5-10 players.
But in 1981, the rules governing international volleyball changed so that coaches were allowed just one substitution for each player, and the NCAA adopted the rule. Fewer substitutions meant less flexibility for coaches, who had to depend more on set lineups with players asked to do more--big men digging in the back row, setters given blocking responsibilities. Which put height at a premium. Gradually, lineups became taller.
One reason why there are taller athletes is that boys’ volleyball has experienced tremendous growth in the 1980s. According to Jess Money, who reports on high school volleyball for Volleyball Monthly magazine, the number of high schools offering the sport increased from 596 in 1985 to 883 in 1987, a 48% increase. The Southern Section has added 20 teams in the past two seasons.
Among those attracted to the sport were taller athletes, many of them basketball players. Their height, 6-4 or 6-5, didn’t necessarily make them imposing on the basketball court, but they were told of the opportunities in volleyball.
“It became critical for a volleyball coach to have a very good relationship with the basketball team,” Dan Glenn, Newport Harbor coach, said. “If I was to give advice to someone who was just starting to coach high school volleyball, I’d tell him to become good friends with the basketball coach.”
Money said: “The trend over the last eight years has been for much better athletes to gravitate to the sport.”
Money pointed out that when he ranked the top 50 recruits last season, only two were shorter than 6-0, and 20 were 6-4 or taller.
“But I think you see that all over,” Money said. “There are 6-9 point guards, football linemen who run as fast as running backs. People are just getting bigger and stronger and faster.”
Indeed, when Money ranked the top 14 high school girls last season, 11 of them were 6-0 or taller.
But the difference is in the opportunity for the athletes.
Whereas there are 263 universities competing in Division I women’s volleyball, only 50 compete in men’s Division I.
Those 50 programs offer about 60 scholarships, according to Pepperdine’s Wilde. Which means it is very much a buyers’ market.
“You’ve got about eight or 10 schools picking from a couple thousand kids,” said Charlie Brande, Corona del Mar High School coach. “They can afford to be picky.”
There still is room on teams for shorter players, such as Mike Lauterman of NCAA champion USC. Lauterman, a junior from Loyola High, is 5-9.
“He’s exceptional, but the key for any player that size is timing,” Wilde said. “You have to be coming into the program at the right time. USC can afford to have a small setter because the next smallest player on the team is 6-4.”
What can make it especially frustrating for a shorter player trying to break through is that colleges will usually take a taller player who has fewer skills.
“They look at potential before they look at playing ability,” Brande said. “Maturity for boys comes so late. They’re banking that the kid will develop.”
What about giving the same benefit of the doubt to a shorter player?
“There are no 6-foot projects,” Brande said.
In fact, to even have a chance at being looked at by Division I programs, a shorter player has to be practically perfect. He has to be able to perform every phase of the game well, and nowadays, have an exceptional vertical leap.
Woodbridge’s Jeff Smith is an exceptional outside hitter who stands 6-0. Smith knows that the going height for a outside hitter is at least 6-4. Besides hoping to continue growing, Smith is on a regimen to improve his vertical leap.
“It’s my only chance,” he said. “I might have skills just as good, but it does me no good if I can’t get up to their (taller players’) level at the net. The first thing coaches look at is your height. The next thing they look at is your vertical jump.”
Todd Labeaune, a 5-10 junior setter at University, cycles and lifts weights to improve his jump. However, Labeaune knows that many times, college coaches will write off players because of their height without ever seeing them play.
“What you’re hoping for is just to be given the chance,” said Labeaune, who has a 26-inch leap and hopes to increase it to 30 inches by his senior season. “But it looks like colleges aren’t willing to even give you that.”