No one would dispute that Seattle is football crazy right now, as Seahawks fever reaches epidemic proportions. The local passion for soccer is long-standing and indisputable. At various junctures, baseball and basketball have captured the fanatical fancy of the region.
But another sport has sneaked up on us, and outsiders can’t help but take notice. As the nation’s top four college teams converge for the NCAA women’s tournament semifinals Thursday at KeyArena, the Puget Sound has a rising reputation as a volleyball hotbed.
The event is a virtual sellout (98 tickets remained Wednesday morning), an outcome that was well in motion before the Huskies’ stirring comeback win over USC last Saturday punched their ticket.
But with the buzz from that match going viral, sales accelerated this week to ensure the 15,000-seat arena will be at capacity for both sessions.
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“Everyone is talking volleyball here this week,’’ said Jennie Gilbert, associate athletic director at Miami (Ohio) University and a member of the NCAA volleyball committee. “That’s perfect timing.”
Added Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission, “If we had a 20,000-(seat) arena, we’d probably sell that out, too.”
But Seattle didn’t suddenly discover volleyball this week. The sport has been establishing itself in our sports hierarchy for years.
That growth has been fueled by a vibrant club scene and accelerated by the runaway success of Jim McLaughlin’s Husky program. It coincides with a national trend that leaves volleyball close to surpassing basketball as the pre-eminent sport for women — if it hasn’t already.
“Seattle is indicative of what is going on across the country,’’ said Kerri Walsh Jennings, who teamed with Misty May-Treanor to win three Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball. “The growth hasn’t stopped for the last 10 years. I love the fact that no matter where you go, it’s huge. Seattle is a place you can point to as far as the demand, desire and passion for the sport.”
And virtually everyone points to McLaughlin as the pied-piper of the local volleyball scene. In 2001, he inherited a Husky program that had finished last in the Pac-10 the previous year and turned it into a perennial power, winning an NCAA title in 2005.
McLaughlin remembers the warnings before he moved from Kansas State: “Don’t do it. You’ll never get kids from Southern California. The kids aren’t good enough in the Northwest.”
But a three-hour meeting with legendary Washington football coach Don James helped convince him otherwise.
“He said, ‘If you know how to teach and develop people, this could be a top 10 job,’ ’’ McLaughlin said. “He was right.”
Washington products like Courtney Thompson and Christal Morrison helped power the revival. The Husky roster has continued to be peppered with local players. Western Washington University coach Diane Flick is also cited as a pioneer in getting girls in this region to play volleyball.
“It’s so different now,’’ McLaughlin said. “More tournaments, more kids playing, the talent pool is bigger, the coaches are better. And I still think we can upgrade. I think we can even improve more.”
Washington is one of only 19 states where more high-school girls played volleyball than any other sport in the past two years. According to Matti Bishop of Puget Sound Region Volleyball, 72 clubs from Bellingham to Olympia field 350 teams, with roughly 5,000 participants at all age levels.
Husky recruit Courtney Schwann, who led Bellarmine Prep of Tacoma to its second-straight Class 4A state title last month and repeated as Gatorade’s state player of the year, is immersed in the volleyball scene.
“I play almost every weekend,’’ she said. “I can find a ‘four’ tournament every weekend. I can find a beach tournament. For me, it’s really easy to find places to play.”
The Huskies averaged 638 fans in 2001, McLaughlin’s first year. By 2004, that swelled to 3,211. This past season they drew an average of 2,678.
It’s not on a par with the volleyball team at Nebraska, which averaged more than 8,000 fans this year at the revamped Devaney Center, but it’s a far cry from McLaughlin’s first year. “I remember there were about 50 people in the stands at our first match,” he said. “When we beat Stanford for the first time here, there were 7,000. The vibe is great. We have a good culture here.’’
Volleyball is a sport that sells itself, a combination of grace, power and teamwork that can be intoxicating.
“I just think the more people start seeing our sport, the more they get excited by it, and the more they want to try it,’’ said Husky assistant coach Leslie Gabriel, who as Leslie Tuiasosopo played at UW in the mid-1990s. “Once you get into it, you fall in love with it.’’
“Once you learn the intricacies of tactics, and the ebbs and flows of the game, you get sucked in by it,’’ added Bill Neville, a former Husky and national team coach who operates a club in Bellevue.
Journalist Jack Hamann produced, along with his wife, Leslie, a riveting documentary on former Husky star Courtney Thompson entitled “Court & Spark,” that premieres Friday night. He believes that one underrated appeal of volleyball is that, unlike in basketball, the men’s and women’s games are closely related.
“In basketball, a huge part of the game that has audience appeal is played above the rim,” said Hamann, who operates Volleyblog Seattle. “Volleyball early on recognized the same thing. The vast majority of volleyball is played above the net.
“Unlike basketball, they raised the net for men. You can watch men and women side by side, and there’s no difference … You can leap up and crush it, whether you’re male or female. In basketball, it doesn’t look like the same game.”
All the appealing attributes of volleyball were on display Saturday at USC. Stephanie Rempe, Washington’s senior associate athletic director, said that when the school contemplated bidding for the NCAA tournament 2½ years ago, they wanted to be sure the Huskies had a chance to make it.
“The coaches sat down and planned out who would be juniors and seniors, what commitments they had from recruits, are we stacked enough to make the Final Four? We felt we were,’’ she said.
But that outcome hung in the balance when USC went up two games to none.
“Even when we were down in the fifth game, I felt so strongly there was something special about what was happening this year,’’ Rempe said. “When you get that far, you just believe something special is going to happen.’’
It did, and more magic will happen at KeyArena: Volleyball at center stage in the Seattle sporting world (at least until the Seahawks take the field Sunday).
“The coolest thing about it — we have the NFL, Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll,’’ McLaughlin said. “We have MLB. We had NBA, and it’s probably coming back. We have WNBA and the Sounders. And volleyball is still big.
“There’s no place in the United States where it’s like that, where volleyball has such an identity in a major city.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry