Nation's best coming to Columbus
Columbus is taking center stage in the world of girls volleyball.
USA Volleyball announced last summer that Ohio's capital city would play host to the 2012 Girls Junior National Championships, which features nearly 9,500 of the sport's top athletes from across the country.
The annual event, which starts Thursday, June 28, and runs through July 7 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, is expected to draw more than 20,000 spectators. Though Columbus has been host to top adult tournaments for USA Volleyball in the past, it had been pursuing the chance to play host to the girls junior tournament for years.
"Every year, USA Volleyball puts out a bid," Ohio Valley Region commissioner and president Bob Price said. "We have been trying for 15 or more years to host this championship. It all comes down to if the convention center is available when we need it."
USA Volleyball and Columbus enjoy a strong relationship, as the Greater Columbus Convention Center plays host to the most USA Volleyball-sanctioned tournaments each year, at times as many as 62 courts for an event.
The national governing body for the sport, USA Volleyball currently boasts more than 12,000 teams and 5,300 clubs nationwide. Teams and clubs are divided into regional associations, and Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania are in the Ohio Valley Region.
Yet, the Ohio Valley Region was not alone in its attempt to bring the girls junior tournament to Columbus. The city ultimately was chosen once the region and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission put forth a joint bid.
Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, believes the partnership with the Ohio Valley Region was essential in finalizing the bid.
"They host more volleyball tournaments than any region in America," she said. "We couldn't have done it without them."
Ohio has long been a hotbed for the some of the nation's top volleyball talent. While other areas of the state traditionally have had more success, Max Miller, director of the Columbus-based volleyball club Mintonette Sports, believes central Ohio will be well represented in this year's girls junior tournament.
"Columbus has shortened the gap. Our clubs have really helped promote the sport and make some noise," he said. "There have been some changes; we are able to compete now. We're making a name for ourselves throughout the country."
Mintonette Sports, open for ages 10 to 18, set a precedent in 2012, becoming the first volleyball club from Columbus to produce four qualifying teams in the girls junior tournament. The club's 13-, 14-, 16- and 17-year-old teams each will have a chance at a title, Miller said.
"We have gone from a new club six years ago to a top club in the region," he said. "Our 16s last year took the podium with the bronze medal. We think the 13s and 14s are solid for their age group, and our 14s won their National Division bid title. No team has ever done that before. To be one of the top clubs in the region, that's pretty neat."
This year's girls junior tournament will have 19 champions, with each age group divided into the American Club Division or National Division. A National Division bid is awarded to the top team -- sometimes more -- per region based on its qualifying results and its record against other national tournament opponents. Other teams will compete in the American Club Division, where bids are awarded through at-large selections based on the size of the region.
There also is the Open Division, which is for ages 14 to 18. Its bids are awarded through a variety of at-large circumstances.
The Ohio Valley Region will be well represented in each division, Price said.
"The quality of volleyball in Ohio is outstanding," he said. "We have 30 to 40 teams that are participating in this event. We are well represented by our members."
Expected to be among the spectators are hundreds of the nation's top collegiate coaches, looking to evaluate top high school talent in hopes of finding future stars. Miller believes Ohio's location in the country allows for greater coverage and exposure.
"Anybody from the top dog, the Big Ten, on down to Division III will be there," he said. "There is going to be a lot of attention put on our kids, just because the majority of those smaller schools that wouldn't go as far are now going because it's close to them. It definitely creates more opportunities for players in our region."
According to Price, college coaches love the opportunity to watch a variety of talent in one location.
"With these large events, a coach can go watch 10 to 15 players at a time instead of traveling across the country to visit a player here or there," he said. "You can come to Columbus, spend four or five days, and look at 150 kids. It's very beneficial for the college coach."
The Greater Columbus Sports Commission estimates that more than 44,000 hotel rooms will be booked during the 10-day event and that the tournament will generate around $25 million in visitor spending. According to Logan, the event is the largest the commission has booked in its 10-year history. She said the hotel community was essential is planning a tournament this large.
"It has certainly been a challenge," she said. "With this event, there are over 70 hotels that have contracted rooms for the events. We are getting community support all across the board."
Price said Columbus is the smallest city to play host to a volleyball event of this size, but he believes Columbus is a perfect fit.
"I think the city has a lot to offer," he said. "USA Volleyball has some pretty deep roots in the central Ohio area. Our regional volleyball association is the largest in the country. I think this tournament will put Ohio on the map."
"We are small but mighty," Logan said. "We feel like this is a very big fish in a small pond."