WU and St. Louis prepare to host NCAA volleyball championships

| Sports Editor

Sportcourt being installed for the NCAA Div. III Volleyball Championships to be held in the WUSTL Fieldhouse.Joe Angeles | WUSTL Photo Services

Workers install the Sport Court surface for the NCAA Division III Volleyball Championship, which will begin in the Wash. U. Field House on Friday at 12:30 p.m.

The defending champion Washington University women’s volleyball team has been a fixture in the NCAA Division III Volleyball Championship game for years, but this year marks the first time since 1992 that the final rounds of the playoffs will occur at the Wash. U. Field House.

As part of the NCAA Championship City pilot program, created to help cities provide a more enjoyable championship experience for both student-athletes and fans, Wash. U. will partner with neighbor Fontbonne University and the St. Louis Sports Commission to host the finals this year,

The Field House will also host the 2011 championship.

The Championship City pilot program, is also working with Cleveland, Indianapolis, San Antonio, San Diego and Cary, N.C. St. Louis was selected as a host for these two years after an initial bid for the 2009 and 2010 championships was unsuccessful.

“The Sports Commission came to us and said, ‘We know you have a history of hosting,’” said Joe Worlund, Wash. U. associate athletic director and tournament director for the championships. Worlund cited championships hosted by Wash. U. in the 1980s for men’s soccer, tennis and cross country.

Because of scheduling conflicts with the women’s basketball’s Tip-Off Tournament, Wash. U. initially had to reject the NCAA’s offer. The Sports Commission then reached an agreement with Fontbonne to host the championships, but because of limited seating availability, Wash. U.’s basketball teams rearranged schedules so that the school could host in partnership with Fontbonne and the Sports Commission.

Worlund cited a number of reasons that Wash. U. and the city of St. Louis are attractive hosts.

“I think geographically, [the NCAA] likes being in the center of the country,” Worlund said. “We have a good reputation for putting on good events. I think we do a reasonably quality job, so I think they like going to places with a history of doing championship play.”

These advantages are even more pronounced when placed in the context of Wash. U.’s prestigious volleyball program, which leads all NCAA volleyball programs in all divisions with 10 national titles.

“They know that we have a nice facility for this type of volleyball event,” Worlund said. “We have a volleyball history, so the crowd could be good. With Washington University in it, this is the first time since it’s been at a neutral site that there’s been a true possibility of the host team getting in.”

The championship was moved to neutral sites in 2004.

The third-ranked Bears lived up to their end of the bargain and will be fighting for a national championship on their own court—where they haven’t lost since Sept. 11, 2009, and have won 32 matches in a row.

“One of the most important factors will be if we can attract a large crowd,” volleyball head coach Rich Luenemann said. “There’s no doubt our players will play better in front of a large crowd, and what a great opportunity for the Wash. U. community and the greater St. Louis community of this area to support the volleyball program.”

In terms of preparing for the tournament, Worlund said most of the work is going toward the activities outside of the matches themselves.

“Just running the tournament itself isn’t really that much different than what we normally would do for a tournament,” Worlund said. “The challenge is balancing the project in the things that you have to turn over to the Sports Commission.”

According to Worlund, much of the role of the Sports Commission, which controls things such as hospitality for the incoming teams at their hotels, is geared toward boosting ticket sales.

Fontbonne will also run a youth clinic on Saturday morning to attract these children to the tournament.

“The detail things—a banquet for 300 people, that’s not something we do every day,” Worlund said, referring to the NCAA Championship Banquet held Thursday at the Hilton Ballpark Hotel in downtown St. Louis. “It’s those things that become bigger. You’re trying to make it an event for these teams.”

But even with these events, the main attractions are the matches themselves, and the Bears hope that the Wash. U. community comes out in full force to see it. Back in 1991, the Field House held 3,423 in attendance—a Division III record, according to Luenemann—for the championship match. This year, that record looks to be tested.

“We’re challenging the crowd to come out,” Luenemann said. “Washington University holds the record for the largest crowd in Division III history, and we’re challenging them to come out and beat it.”

Play begins at 12:30 p.m. Friday when No. 12 University of St. Thomas faces No. 3 Juniata College. Wash. U. will face No. 15 New York University at 8 p.m.

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