Three Games or Five?

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.11, November 2005,

After a 28-11 season and victories in the first three rounds of the state tournament, the Ironwood Ridge High School Nighthawks were one match away from the 2004 Arizona 4A championship. Facing top-seeded Scottsdale Chaparral High School, they expected a battle. What they didn’t expect was that their hopes would be dashed in disturbingly short order—they were swept by Chaparral in a championship match that lasted just 35 minutes.

Perhaps it was fitting that the contest was roughly the same length as a television sitcom, because for Ironwood Ridge’s players and Head Coach Bill Lang, it seemed like a bad joke. “You’d think that to reach the state championship and drive two hours to compete for the title, it shouldn’t be over in half an hour,” Lang says. “Who benefits from that? It’s not benefiting the coaches, or the parents who came all that way and paid to see a match. And it’s certainly not benefiting the kids.”

Arizona is one of a handful of states that opted to make all its varsity volleyball matches follow a best-of-three format beginning in 2004, the year the NFHS made rally scoring mandatory. The state had switched to rally scoring in 2003 and used the best-of-five format, but the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) Legislative Council voted after the season to adopt best-of-three after some administrators said matches were running later than necessary. This was especially problematic for visiting teams that had long drives home.

Armed with the support of over 90 percent of Arizona high school volleyball coaches, Lang is leading the charge to convince the AIA to switch back to best of five. In a presentation to the association’s 4A Executive Board before this year’s vote, he offered some compelling figures. He pointed out that, according to national averages, the typical best-of-five match lasts just 60 to 75 minutes (shorter than an average contest in most other sports), and a five-game match usually lasts 90 minutes. In Arizona during the 2003 season only 13 percent of matches were forced to a fifth game, while 68 percent were over in three games. He also told the board that with less playing time to go around, fewer student-athletes—particularly bench players—have the chance to compete.

Lang’s effort came up one vote shy of the three-fifths majority needed to adopt the longer match format when the board voted in March, but he says the fight isn’t over. “When you have such a large majority of coaches, players, and parents who want this change, it isn’t something we’re going to give up on,” he says. “Our players train just as hard and put in just as many hours as the participants in other sports. They see basketball, softball, and soccer games last an hour and a half, and football games last three hours, and they wonder, ‘Why are we only playing for 30 minutes?’”

In states that have chosen the best-of-five format, there has been occasional grumbling from parents or school officials that matches are running later than they had under side-out scoring. But John Dzubay, Head Coach at Stewartville (Minn.) High School, where best-of-five has been the law of the land under rally scoring for three years, says that the biggest impact on match times is that they are now more predictable.

“Before, you had no idea when a match would end—if nobody could win points serving, nobody would score,” he says. “You could have a five-game match under side-out scoring go an hour and a half, or it could go three hours. Now, somebody scores a point each time the ball hits the floor, so it only takes a certain amount of time before one team reaches 25. Even if a match goes to five, you know about how long it’s going to take.”

Dzubay says that with matches taking on a more uniform length, one of the biggest changes for his team has been a decrease in the importance of endurance. “We have always worked hard on conditioning, so if we ever went five long games under the old system, we knew we were going to win,” he says. “I remember two state championships where we lost the first two games but forced a fifth, and we won because we were in better shape than the other team. With match-length more uniform now, I think we’ve lost some of that advantage.”