TAMPA — Three years ago, when the NCAA awarded the Tampa Bay area this week's Division I women's volleyball national championships, that year's same event, held in the volleyball hotbed of Nebraska, sold out in two hours — nine months in advance.
Some have waited since that announcement in January 2006 for this weekend, the first time the event will be held in Florida. Others have been waiting 25 years, when the roots of a strong volleyball foundation in the bay area were beginning to grow.
The extensive high school and club volleyball community will undoubtedly be there for the event, Thursday and Saturday nights at the St. Pete Times Forum, but whether the mainstream public embraces the event remains up in the air. Organizers hope to pack the St. Pete Times Forum with 12,800 fans. Tickets still remain for both nights, Times Forum spokesman Bill Wickett said, but he said sales have picked up the past two weeks. And NCAA associate director of public and media relations Cameron Schuh said Friday that sales are expected to increase once teams clinch their spots (which were determined Saturday).
"I'm excited because we've been waiting for this for three years," University of Tampa coach Chris Catanach said, "but at the same time there's a little apprehension because the event sells out in Nebraska and the assumption is it will do well in Tampa."
This isn't the bikini-clad beach brand of volleyball that used to fill the Times Forum's parking lot with sand. And Tampa isn't the college hotbeds of the Midwest and West Coast. College volleyball here is a relative unknown.
"There are a lot of variables to measure success, including social and economic impact for our community," Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said. "And ultimately it will depend on the feedback from the NCAA. If young girls and boys pick up a volleyball for the first time at out clinic, that's one way. I think one of the reasons we were given the opportunity to host was the charge to grow the game and expose the game to a new audience."
Randy Dagostino, who has won 13 high school state titles at Berkeley Prep and founded the successful Tampa Bay Juniors club team in 1984, said those newcomers will be sold easily.
"Anyone who comes to see it will be impressed with the play and see what kind of incredible athletes these women are," Dagostino said. "This is the pinnacle of college volleyball. To have an event like this in Tampa Bay will hopefully serve as a springboard for the sport."
Dagostino said he has allotted 90 tickets for his club players. Plant High coach Leanna Taylor, who won her fourth straight state title last month, said her junior varsity players will attend together. Catanach said six of his players and six USF players will work the floor for the matches.
"I think it will definitely be an eye-opening experience for people who live in Tampa who really don't know what college volleyball is all about," said Plant senior outside hitter Maddie Martin, a Penn State recruit who will play in next Sunday's Under Armour All-American match.
Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, said the event isn't about selling tickets.
"There are two things you're trying to do," she said. "One, you're trying to provide the best championship experience, and for that you need good, competitive teams, good officiating and a good crowd.
"Then there's a secondary purpose, to showcase the sport to the community that doesn't think it's a no-brainer," DeBoer continued. "But for it to be successful, we're going to need the fan who says, 'Hey, this looks interesting.' "
The AVCA hosts its annual convention in correlation with the national championships, and DeBoer said the number of coaches attending will be an all-time high of 1,500 to 1,600.
As part of the convention, held at the Tampa Convention Center, there will be a club tournament next weekend, a kids clinic and an AVCA showcase — a combine-type event expected to draw about 200 to 300 college coaches.
There is one thing all members of the volleyball community agree on. If fans watch the caliber of play, they will be sold.
"It's not a knock on my program or USF, but the level of play that's going to be showcased here has never been seen here," Catanach said. "…I don't think there's any other women's sport in which someone can show this kind of athletic prowess."