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Final Four demonstrates volleyball growth

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Final Four demonstrates volleyball growth

Illinois fans jump to their feet after a kill for the Illinois volleyball team during the Final Four match against Nebraska. Illinois won the first two sets before dropping three-straight to fall out of the tournament.

Illinois fans jump to their feet after a kill for the Illinois volleyball team during the Final Four match against Nebraska. Illinois won the first two sets before dropping three-straight to fall out of the tournament.

Illinois fans jump to their feet after a kill for the Illinois volleyball team during the Final Four match against Nebraska. Illinois won the first two sets before dropping three-straight to fall out of the tournament.

Illinois fans jump to their feet after a kill for the Illinois volleyball team during the Final Four match against Nebraska. Illinois won the first two sets before dropping three-straight to fall out of the tournament.

By Eli Schuster, Sports Editor

A total of 18,113 fans filled the seats of the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Dec. 16.

The city and arena weren’t playing host to the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves that Saturday night, but, instead, a sold-out crowd ready to watch the NCAA women’s volleyball national championship.

The red and white sea of colors filling the arena ironically resembled the Target logo plastered front and center of the downtown, as fans of the two participating teams, Nebraska and Stanford, stood to cheer.

While the team’s colors meshed together, more block N’s shimmered than that of the renowned Stanford “S.”

The crowd formed what was the third-largest attendance in NCAA volleyball championship history and the second largest for a single championship match.

“We were talking with a girl from Canada, and she said the sport there is just beginning to grow,”  said Megan Helberg, a high school volleyball coach from Nebraska. “She said this is amazing, and this would never happen in Canada, but she is hoping one day. It’s just amazing to see that growth of the sport.”

Only two nights before, the arena filled to what is considered a sold-out crowd with 17,808 present to watch the tournament’s Final Four round which brought Illinois and Bringham Young University.

With the two championship nights, it created a combined crowd of 36,863, the second-largest total attendance in championship weekend history.

“It’s incredible. Those are the type of numbers you will see at an NCAA Final Four that will compete against any other sport,” said Nebraska alum Tyler Wolken. “Even if we had a bigger pavilion, I think we could have even filled that up more.”

Based in the Midwest, Big Ten Conference fans of Illinois and Nebraska overwhelmed the arena on their playing nights.

“It’s so exciting because those are the people who really, really care,” said Andrew Martin, a leader of the Illinois volleyball Spike Squad fan base, which traveled nearly 520 miles to the event. “Even Minnesota fans who unfortunately got knocked out a little earlier than they were anticipating, there are still many of them here, and I’m glad they are here for the love of the sport.”

Known around the country as the NCAA’s elite conference for women’s volleyball, Big Ten teams have been well represented in the tournament’s past, with Nebraska making it to the Final Four round for the fourth year in a row.

Overall, the Big Ten Conference had a tournament-high seven teams make an appearance in 2018, and to the fans, that means growth.

“In Nebraska, we have been blessed with volleyball popularity for many years,” said Nebraska fan Billy Dunbar, who was making his fourth straight trip to the Final Four round. “This is a sport we have loved forever, and it’s awesome to see the country get behind the sport. It’s great to see this (arena) filled up.”

Over the past several years, ESPN has been involved with the broadcasting of the tournament’s Final Four matches, with sister stations ESPNU or ESPN2 getting the bulk of the coverage.

During 2017 and 2018, however, the semifinal matches cracked the main station’s lineup. The regional semifinal round, also known as the Elite Eight, made its way from ESPN’s strictly streaming site to its ESPNU.

“It definitely has the potential to grow,” Martin said. “It is wonderful that it is on ESPN. In the community, in Champaign-Urbana, it is growing.”

For many fans, a large point of emphasis expected to steer the sport toward growing popularity is the style of play.

A game that wraps up in three to five sets, normally of 25 points each, with fast-paced action is said to be the draw.

“The sport of volleyball is such a great game to watch,” Helberg said. “It’s fast-paced, its high energy, and I love what it does to promote teamwork.”

Darin Perth, a longtime Nebraska fan who once lived near the University, started playing volleyball nearly 20 years ago. His involvement in the sport and close proximity to a powerhouse program quickly turned him into a fan.

Now, living in Minnesota with the Final Four in his backyard, he is happy to see the sport trending upward.

“Watching the volleyball and the level … these women are so tall and so amazing. They’re so good at what they do. It’s great for the sport anywhere,” Perth said. “Florida is good, Texas is good, Penn State, it is all around the country. The sport is just going to keep growing.”

The athleticism expressed by the sports’ athletes is something that awes many fans. John Fronczak, a 2016 graduate of the University of Illinois, works near the University of Wisconsin, the home to another successful Big Ten program, and has run into several who are continuing to discover the sport.

“I would tell people I was going down to a volleyball game and a lot of people were like, ‘I’ve never been to a match before, but I went this year and it was great,’” Fronczak said. “So I think that a lot more people are getting into the sport and seeing how fun it can be watching it.”

The NCAA tournament brings in 64 teams to compete, this year having schools that span across 27 of the country’s 50 states. Those states were balanced throughout the U.S., with programs from California to Connecticut in the tournament. The tournament drew fans to one of the four host regional sites that included Stanford, Brigham Young, Minnesota and Illinois.

However, while some fans traveled hundreds or thousands of miles during the tournament, with more than 330 Division I volleyball programs stretched across the United States, most people don’t have to travel far to catch a closer look at the sport.

For die-hard fans like Martin, he will continue to strongly encourage it.

“Anyone who does not think volleyball will be an amazing experience should just come watch it,” Martin said. “It’s astonishing the athleticism of those players to take all those jumps and swings. Oh, my gosh.”

@Schuster_Elias

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