Specialization costs women two-sport opportunities

by Ben Goessling

Before she could reach the kitchen counter, Kelly Roysland was bumping volleyballs around her house.

Kind of a hard habit to break when your mother is the local high school volleyball coach and your grandmother used to have the job.

So it seems natural that Roysland, who led Fosston High School to its second consecutive state volleyball title while winning Miss Minnesota Volleyball honors last fall, would follow in her family’s footsteps straight onto a powerhouse college volleyball team.


“Volleyball has always been my first love,” Roysland said. “But I’m extremely happy with my decision to play basketball at Minnesota next year.”

Immediately, the words sound all wrong. Roysland was supposed to stroll onto a college campus in September thinking about jump serves, not jump shots.

The 5-foot-10 Roysland, nationally rated as a top-75 basketball recruit, made a decision that’s becoming increasingly difficult for a slew of high school girls: whether to play volleyball or basketball in college.

Roysland’s predicament is not uncommon. When you are tall and athletic, high school basketball and volleyball coaches trip over themselves waving spots on their teams in front of you.

By and large, however, college coaches avoid the two-sport collegiate athlete like a John Travolta movie, which means Roysland and the rest of this year’s high school seniors were likely forced to make decisions about their futures two or three years ago – sometimes even dropping one sport to concentrate full-time on the other.

“It’s becoming less and less common to see kids play both sports,” said Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer, who has coached five volleyball players in her 18 years at Stanford. “They both go year-round once you figure in Amateur Athletic Union and club teams, and the constant wear and tear is detrimental.

“Sometimes a kid who is talented enough to play both sports in college might be good enough to make the Olympic team in one. If you’re playing both, you’re taking away from the one you could make the Olympics in.”

Coaches’ objections

Ask Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert about his complaint with potential Gophers volleyball players dabbling in basketball during high school, and he responds with a story.

“When (NBA Hall-of-Famer) Wilt Chamberlain was in Los Angeles, he would go down to the beach to rehabilitate his knee, and he got involved with beach volleyball,” Hebert said. “I was around when he said that volleyball was much more difficult than basketball.

“He wasn’t that good at volleyball.”

Hebert uses the anecdote to illustrate his point; if recruits are serious about becoming first-rate volleyball players, they had better put down the basketball.

“I’ve been around dozens of girls who have played volleyball and basketball and almost to a person, they all said volleyball was more difficult to learn,” he said. “Volleyball requires more time in the gym to be proficient, and basketball kids are typically behind in their volleyball development.”

For outside hitter Erin Martin, there is no question: Volleyball is the tougher sport.

“It’s not just something you can pick up and learn,” she said. “You’ll never see parents starting their kids in volleyball until about seventh grade. It’s just so much more detailed.”

Eight of the 15 players on Minnesota’s volleyball team this season played high school basketball, and Hebert will add two hoopsters next season in Kelly Bowman and Meredith Nelson.

But at least for Nelson, Hebert holds some trepidation.

Nelson, the 10th-ranked recruit in the country according to StudentSports.com, is in just her second season of club volleyball and still plays on her high school basketball team in St. Croix Falls, Wis.

“If I were to recommend what Meredith should do, it would be to play volleyball every day between now and August,” Hebert said. “That’s how much training she needs. Like most kids, she’s expected to do everything in high school. But she’s really underdeveloped.”

Where players fit

Eight of this year’s 12 American Volleyball Coaches Association first-team All-Americans were basketball players in high school.

Three – Nebraska’s Greichaly Cepero, Hawaii’s Kim Willoughby and Stanford’s Sara McGee – compete on their college’s volleyball and basketball teams.

When McGee, a 6-foot-3 junior middle blocker for Stanford’s volleyball team, heard from some of her roommates – all Cardinal basketball players – that the team was low on post players, she knew she’d found an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

After talking to VanDerveer, McGee started her first season of college basketball after Stanford lost to Southern Cal in the NCAA volleyball championship match.

“I was finished with volleyball in December, so I decided to take on a new challenge,” McGee said. “You’re only young once, so you might as well load your plate.”

McGee, who was named conference MVP in both volleyball and basketball during her junior year of high school, warns only a dedicated few can play two sports in college.

“If it’s what you want to do, you can make it happen, but you have to budget your time with school and having a life outside of it,” she said. “You have to sacrifice a lot of other things.”

Since most players aren’t willing to run the same gauntlet as McGee, they choose the alternative – mortgaging their futures on either volleyball or basketball, all the while hoping they made the right decision.

“Just being in Williams Arena for the state basketball tournament last year kind of sealed my decision,” Roysland said. “Now, going to the games and seeing the place packed, I’m getting excited to get there.

“But volleyball is my favorite sport, and it’s definitely going to be different next year.”

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]