Abbie Hughes learned to play volleyball at 7, competed at 11 and received her first collegiate offer at 14.
As a sophomore, the Cincinnati native committed to play volleyball at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
She regretted one of her first major decisions in life.
“I committed too quick,” Hughes says. “But the thing is, I have friends who have waited, then there are no scholarships anywhere.”
Two years ago, for the first time ever, the number of high school girls playing volleyball (432,176) surpassed basketball (429,504), according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Currently, Division I schools are limited to 15 volleyball scholarships (12 for indoor, 3 for beach), the same limit as basketball.
As the sport’s popularity soars, volleyball coaches are offering scholarships to talented players earlier and earlier, which begs the question: Will it someday get out of control like boys’ basketball?
In October 2014, a website called Middle School Elite declared the grandson of diminutive NBA star Muggsy Bogues the “second-best fourth-grader in the country …” trailing only LeBron James’ son.
Tstreet Volleyball founder Troy Tanner says eighth and ninth graders are committing to play collegiate volleyball now.
“The kids are being recruited earlier, especially the blue-chip athletes,” says Tanner, a member of the U.S. men’s volleyball team that won a gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. “I don't think colleges want to do it. I don’t think parents want to do it. I don’t think the kids want to, either. I don't think anyone really likes it, but it’s the competitive nature of Division I volleyball.
“If you don’t offer,” he adds, “you’re afraid they’ll go to a competing university.”
Rob Long of Next Level Beach Volleyball Club and Kelley Crowley of Tri-State Elite Volleyball both insist the competition between colleges to land the best indoor players has one unfortunate byproduct.
“It’s a shame, in a lot of ways,” Long says. “You’re signing fully and completely on potential. It’s so much easier for me to get a six-foot kid recruited who plays like a 6 (on a 10-point scale) rather than a 5-foot-8 girl who is a 9 1/2.
“(College coaches) think, ‘I can make them into something.’ ”
Crowley says the overinflated value on height sends troubling messages to the more vertically-challenged but extremely talented indoor volleyball players.
“As a club director, it’s challenging,” Crowley says. “The kid who does everything right watches as others who don’t play as spectacularly get offers, and they’re like, ‘What just happened?’ It’s hard to explain it to that kid (who got overlooked).”
Long says beach volleyball, though, doesn’t emphasize height nearly as much; the well-rounded, 5-foot-8 players thrive on the beach. Specialization can be covered up on an indoor team (six players) while specialization will be exposed on a beach team (just two players).
So what’s the scholarship solution?
Tanner suggests student-athletes should be permitted to take five trips as a high school senior. Too often, he says, they feel the pressure to commit when they’re on a campus visit.
“They don’t get a well-rounded view of the landscape,” Tanner says. “Anytime one of my main players visit a school, they want to commit, and they need to back off and make more visits.”
Kaylee McClure of Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia, started to receive interest from colleges as a sophomore. McClure, who has committed to play at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, believes athletes shouldn’t be able to receive an offer until their junior year.
“Too many players are committing as freshmen and sophomores, and it’s ridiculous,” she says. “They get overwhelmed, and they’re too young to make a sound decision.”
That’s what happened to Hughes.
She committed to UAB because of its small size and rural campus.
“But my perspective of what I wanted in college literally did a (180),” she says.
When there was a coaching change at UAB, Hughes decided to de-commit.
“They were not happy,” Hughes says of UAB staffers.
For a time, neither was she.
“ ‘Is it worth risking the whole education?’ she recalls asking herself. “That was scary not to know what you were getting yourself in to.”
She no longer had an athletic scholarship.
Within a few days, however, the head coach at Florida International University — located just outside Miami with an enrollment of 55,000 students — offered her one.
“It was such a huge relief,” Hughes says. “But the whole process was heart wrenching.”
Hughes says the players are not mature or responsible enough to wait. Besides, the player doesn’t have a decision until coaches extend an offer.
“The only way to solve this is for coaches to not offer until a certain time,” Hughes says. “You can obviously talk to players and explain that you’re interested. But they have to wait until the right time.”