President’s Day weekend in Nebraska is one of the busiest times of the year in high school girls sports.
College coaches from around the country travel to watch the best of the best compete against each other at the first major Midwest regional tournament for most Midwest club volleyball teams.
However, this setup also presents a major conflict for potential multi-sport athletes as most Nebraska high school girls basketball district finals fall on the same weekend.
Some of the top athletes in the state have to choose between helping their high school team get to the state basketball tournament or gaining national exposure on the volleyball circuit.
This one-weekend tournament is a small sample size of a much larger issue.
Participation numbers in high school girls basketball across Nebraska have declined nearly every year since 2003 and overall, there are over 1,700 fewer players than 17 years ago.
Volleyball has seen a similar drop over this span, but it hasn’t been to the same extent in recent years. In the last four years of data, girls basketball has lost 557 participants, while that number is 168 for volleyball. Girls basketball’s drop of 305 participants between 2019-20 and 2020-21 is the biggest of any between the two sports in over a decade.
The decline has made it challenging for small high schools across the state to have enough members of the varsity basketball team to scrimmage in practice. For example, Red Cloud, a D-1 school, made the girls state basketball tournament in 2017 with just six players on its roster.
However, when it comes to large high schools across the state, the conversation is different. The best girl athletes in the school are having to choose between playing in club volleyball tournaments and playing girls high school basketball because games and practice often coincide.
Coach Kristen Booth of Creighton volleyball sent out a tweet on Feb. 21 that helped spark a major conversation about how club volleyball is negatively affecting girls basketball.
Booth’s oldest daughter, Reese, who is a sophomore in high school, had to choose between the two events.
With a daughter in high school, middle school and elementary, Booth is getting firsthand experience of raising multi-sport athletes. She said she loves high school sports but that there needs to be a world where club volleyball and girls high school basketball can co-exist more efficiently.
“The fact is club is here, so I think we can sit and beat our head and say high school should be the priority, or we can try to make these worlds mesh and that’s what I was saying with this tweet,” Booth said.
Booth said she believes one of the reasons numbers in high school girls basketball have declined is the continued success of Coach John Cook’s Nebraska volleyball program, which is perennially a top-10 team in the country.
John Cook declined to comment for this story.
“And again, you don’t just look at Division I, we’ve got incredible Division II. NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics), junior college, and I rope Iowa Western a little bit into that,” Booth said. “You’ve got such great volleyball in the state so little, little girls see great volleyball.”
She said not one girl on the Nebraska, Creighton or UNO volleyball team didn’t play club volleyball so if a high school girl dreams of playing division one volleyball, they have to play club. Booth also said the fact that club volleyball has been a more social atmosphere in her experience and that basketball is more physical could be other factors.
Sean Forbes, current coach of Wahoo girls basketball, has over 20 years of coaching high school girls basketball. Forbes said he believes that the decline in numbers is due to specialization of sports in youth.
“That’s the domino effect of that when they get to high school, since I haven’t played for a couple years, then they’re a little bit scared to go out, even though maybe the club volleyball thing didn’t work out as well as they thought,” Forbes said.
That sentiment was repeated by Elkhorn North girls basketball coach Ann Prince, who most recently won back-to-back Class B state championships and has a daughter, Britt, who is one of the most coveted recruits in the country.
“There’s a lot of people pushing that, if you want to play a college sport, that you really have to specialize in that,” Prince said. “But there’s also people saying, ‘Hey, if you do that and specialize, you’re a lot more prone to injury.’ So, you know there’s two sides of it there.”
But Prince was also quick to point out that having club volleyball at the same time does hurt the sport creating hurdles that many kids, parents and coaches have to maneuver.
“I definitely think the club (volleyball) pulls away,” Prince said. “Club volleyball is going at the same time as girls basketball is going on. You have numerous kids on my team that do both and we make it work. But there’s got to be give and take. I will give some and the club coach gives some.”
Prince also mentioned that it’s a very delicate balancing act for most of these high school athletes as they have to juggle the obligation of being part of their high school basketball team as well as club volleyball. However, it’s also up to the coaches to be understanding about the situation their athletes is with balancing both sports. Luckily for Prince, she hasn’t ran into problems with club volleyball coaches.
“So, I’m lucky, that’s not always the case,” Prince said.
On the other side, Maggie Griffin has a much different perspective.
The owner and director of Volleyball Club Nebraska which began operation in 2011, Griffin supports the sentiment of Booth’s tweet. Griffin said she’s aware of the problems that having club volleyball and girls basketball run at the same time presents. Being on a national scale, volleyball clubs in Nebraska have no control over when national tournaments take place further accelerating the problem.
For example, VCN’s top high school team travels all around the country for tournaments including Chicago, Orlando and Minneapolis. Additionally, VCN had a national tournament in Kansas City on President’s Day which is also in the middle of district basketball in Nebraska.
However, in terms of how athletes handle the two sports, Griffin and VCN help out with whatever their athlete wants.
“We don’t necessarily encourage it or discourage it,” said Griffin regarding if VCN supports athletes doing multiple sports. “We just say, ‘Hey, whatever. If you want to do this, we’ll do our best to help you balance the two. If you don’t want to do other sports, we want to give you the resources to reach your goals that is volleyball in your future.’”
Griffin also said this problem may be specific to Nebraska, considering the volleyball talent that the Cornhusker state produces, but also the emphasis families put on playing high school sports.
“I grew up in Chicago, so in the state of Illinois, it’s so big that you have to specialize if you want to have a future in sports,” Griffin said. “Basically, if you didn’t play volleyball outside of high school, you might not make your high school team because it was that competitive.”
Additionally, Forbes also said that he thinks there’s a problem with some youth athletes today because they’re not willing to develop if they aren’t the star player. Forbes said it may be from parents paying a lot of money for their child to play club sports which gives the athletes a lot of satisfaction. That level of immediate satisfaction is something they might not get in high school.
“The development of a role player and being willing to stick it out and wait your turn I think has kind of went away in our culture,” Forbes said.
Even though there are instances where club coaches make a high school athlete choose one or the other, Booth said it’s uncommon, and she personally hasn’t encountered it.
“I think most of these people that are in club sports are passionate about their sport, but they are most passionate about supporting the kids,” Booth said. “If their sport happens to be their lifelong passion, great, but I think sometimes these club directors get an unfair paintbrush that they’re not in it for the right reasons.”
Forbes, like most coaches, encourages multi-sport athletes. He said club volleyball overlapping with the girls high school basketball season clearly isn’t ideal, but it’s something the athletes shouldn’t have to worry about.
“It makes it tough on the girls when they’re having to choose one over the other,” Forbes said. “We don’t encourage it, but we understand that’s something they like to do, so we don’t hold it against them if they go do it.”
Taylor Luben of Wahoo looks to pass the ball around the Norris defender to an open teammate. Photo courtesy of the Lincoln Journal Star.
Forbes also said a lot of the decisions he makes as a coach comes down to how to make life easier for his athletes and helping them make the best decision. He said he hopes the athletes he coaches get the same treatment in club sports too.
“I think a lot of it has to do with how well the relationship you have as coach with your players,” Forbes said. “You want the players to trust you that you have their best interests at heart and that you’re going to do everything for them to make it as easy as possible.”
Jennifer Wragge, coach of the Elkhorn High girls basketball team, said she doesn’t know how to fix it but that the club programs likely won’t budge their start date.
“I definitely think that to go to a volleyball tournament, whoever organizes it and ask them to move it, I don’t see that happening,” Wragge said. “For high school girls basketball, I don’t I don’t think they’re gonna do that. There’s too much money involved that they’re making.”
The solution to Forbes is simple: Get the leaders together.
“Hopefully, in the future, the leaders of the two, the people that really make the decisions, can get together and kind of work together to find a solution,” Forbes said. “I think that’s the only way that it’s all going to come full circle and be best for the kids.”