1200 Weimer Hall | P.O. Box 118405
Gainesville, FL 32611
(352) 392-5551

A service of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.

© 2024 WUFT / Division of Media Properties
News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Gainesville Juniors Volleyball serves through merging trend

Gainesville Juniors co-director Eric Marshall tosses the ball to his middle hitter. "Girls volleyball has exploded over the last four or five years to where I read that it's the fastest growing girls sport there is," he said. "So we need that to be also in Gainesville." (Julianna Reichenbach/WUFT News)
Gainesville Juniors co-director Eric Marshall tosses the ball to his middle hitter. "Girls volleyball has exploded over the last four or five years to where I read that it's the fastest growing girls sport there is," he said. "So we need that to be also in Gainesville." (Julianna Reichenbach/WUFT News)

For years, Gainesville Juniors and Vision Volleyball Club were local youth club volleyball rivals. 

“They would qualify a couple of teams, we would qualify a couple of teams, and there would always be competition amongst the girls,” Gainesville Juniors co-director Stephanie Wyatt said. 

Over time, Wyatt noticed they were diluting the talent.

In August 2021, the two clubs merged to form a united Gainesville Juniors and record the club’s most successful year ever — a record-breaking six Gainesville teams qualified for USA Volleyball Nationals. Gainesville Juniors’ prior record was four teams, while Vision’s was two — but never in the same year. Joe DeLuca and Eric Marshall led Gainesville Juniors, while Wyatt led Vision.

Volleyball has become the fastest-growing girl’s sport in the United States, and the merger represents a trend of clubs combining. Merging allows clubs to pull from a larger pool of resources and talent. 

For Gainesville Juniors, this decision was a long time in the making. Marshall said he always saw having talented players separated as bad for Gainesville volleyball players. 

“You're not helping them for their future, in my opinion,” he said. “Because we need these kids to get looked at if we want to get them college scholarships. And they're going to get looked at if the team's competitive.”

Case in point, the club had two 16-year-old teams qualify last year.

“What that showed us is that we have the talent pool to develop all girls,” Wyatt said, “not just the first team, but the second team and the third team too, so that everybody's becoming more competitive, and having that opportunity to compete at the highest level.” 

The trend to consolidate teams isn’t new.  Ocala Power merged with Marion County Juniors in 2013. And further south, Orlando Volleyball Academy merged with Tampa Bay Volleyball Academy in 2015 to form Orlando Tampa Volleyball Academy. The club fielded 58 teams from 2020-2021. Orlando Tampa Volleyball Academy eventually expanded to station teams in Orlando, Tampa, Clearwater and Jacksonville. 

A popular volleyball fan Instagram account conducted a statistical investigation considering the ratio of teams qualified to teams in the club. Gainesville Juniors ranked as the third most improved club in the nation.

“We don't want to be trendy,” Marshall said. “But we do want to be competitive. In order to compete, you got to be willing to change with the times.”

This isn’t the first change the directors have adapted to over the years. When Marshall started coaching at Gainesville Juniors, the club held tryouts in November. But big clubs around the state moved them up to July or August -- before the first serve of the high school volleyball season.

Gainesville Juniors followed suit.

“If you're not willing as a club to change with the times, then you're not going to be competitive,” Marshall said. “And then people are going to go somewhere else because they want to be competitive.”

Two years before the union, Wyatt said she talked to University of Florida volleyball head coach Mary Wise a lot about the potential merger. Wise encouraged it. Some of her staff members now coach at Gainesville Juniors.

Combining forces helps produce these training opportunities.

“In today's club environment, the larger clubs are having more success,” Wyatt said, “because they have a larger pool of money to work with.”

This allows them to bring in more qualified coaches and offer more training.

“That's one of the things that we really wanted to do in the first year, we struggled to make it happen,” Wyatt said. “But this year, we're doing a lot of position training.”

And with more teams per age group, Gainesville Juniors can host scrimmage nights, a club tradition, but now among its own teams from the same age group.

“By bringing both clubs together,” she said, “we can expand our resources and then expand our opportunities and then expand our success in the nation.”

League One Volleyball co-founder Kevin Wong said he also sees the value in creating a larger volleyball community to achieve bigger goals.

“That’s a really amazing job for [Gainesville Juniors] to find that partnership and to be able to create more value for their club members,” said the 2000 U.S. Beach Volleyball Olympian.

Wong’s organization League One Volleyball is building a network of local volleyball clubs as it aspires to create a women’s volleyball professional league from the ground up. There are currently 30  League One Volleyball locations, including in large markets like Atlanta, Houston and Seattle. League One Volleyball wants to build lasting connections with club directors who may be swimming in administrative work as solo small business owners.

“A club director's life is really lonely because you're kind of surrounded by other clubs,” he said. “You're recruiting the same players a lot of times, including the same coaches.”

Wong worked with one club director whose floor was splintering. The floor became a safety hazard, but the director put it off because fixing it would cost a few years of their daughter’s college tuition. 

Possessing a greater resource pool provides League One Volleyball the security to invest in a club’s floor. League One Volleyball also offers a head coach and a head recruiting coordinator to guide people in those positions at its club.

“There's infrastructure, there's investment, there’s scale, there's a lot of things that when you're one club, you don't get to do,” Wong said. “So for Gainesville, doing their merger, they're starting to taste some of that.”

Working under the same organization allows club directors to share their best practices instead of recruiting the same players and coaches. The Gainesville Juniors co-directors entertained this idea for years. Finally, Marshall said, the timing was right for everyone’s careers.

While Gainesville Juniors competed nationally, it lacked multiple teams per age group. Girls in the Gainesville community were spread between two, three or even four existing clubs. 

Wyatt founded Vision in 2012. For a long time, it was her passion, and she succeeded. But she also saw the next step was to merge. 

“We just sat down and said, ‘This isn't about us,’” Marshall said. “We think for the city itself, it's better that we merge together. Because if we're doing this for the kids, then that's why we should be doing it.” 

Parents no longer have to decide where their child plays based on club loyalty instead of what would be the best fit for their child.

The teams that qualified for nationals in Phoenix reflected a fantastic destination. But the first year of the merger did come with bumps along the way.

“We've doubled in size. So that means uniforms have doubled in size,” Marshall said. “That means everything. Facility-wise, now we've got to run 16-17 teams through here. So how do we do that?”

They also had to get used to three people making these decisions. With DeLuca and Marshall coming from Gainesville Juniors and Wyatt being the founder of Vision, they came with different mentalities.

At Vision, Wyatt said she liked to intentionally build athlete character through journals, quotes and service projects. At Gainesville Juniors, character-building was not done the same way.

“What we came to find out is that they were doing the same thing, it was just being interwoven into their practices,” Wyatt said. “So even though we both went about it in a different way, we really had the same goal.” 

As Gainesville Juniors began practice this week with a mutual understanding and a lightened logistical load, the directors have their eyes set on qualifying for USA Volleyball Nationals again. Marshall expects more teams to qualify. 

One team stands out to him.

Four girls on the 18 Black team have committed to Division 1 schools (Coastal Carolina, UF, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the University of Southern California), while Marshall said the libero is a sure bet to join that group. 

USC-commit Brooklyn Tealer began playing at Vision and eventually moved to Gainesville Juniors. She said she’s glad she experienced the different styles of both clubs.

Now she’s enjoying the two clubs coming together. 

“It was like the best of both worlds, the coaching was awesome from both points of view,” Tealer said. “You got a lot of different points of view and perspectives, and a lot more input.”

Her 16 Black team qualified for the 16 Open division at USA Volleyball Nationals last year. Girls from Gainesville Juniors, Vision and Ocala made up the roster. While her team was competitive the year before, the new team chemistry developed quickly.

“I don’t think if we just stayed two little clubs that didn’t have such a great blend, I don’t know if we would’ve gone as far,” the Gainesville High junior said.

Open is the most competitive division in club volleyball. Playing Open in national tournaments gets players seen by top college volleyball coaches who attend these games.

“We're going to have a team in the Open division, not just playing in the Open division this year, but having a chance to win,” Marshall said. “That's the next step to where we're not just playing in Open, we're challenging on the last day.” 

While Marshall, the two-time Santa Fe High School State Champion coach,  is competitive, he also sees that success goes beyond wins. He’s seen volleyball explode in popularity over the past four to five years and wants to do the volleyball community justice.

“For me, success is seeing kids get better. Parents buying into the fact we're making their kids better,” Marshall said. “Because if you win, but parents aren't satisfied with what you're doing for their kid, in particular, then you're failing some. Is it easy? No, it's hard to do that, but we're trying our best.”

Success also goes beyond serving a volleyball. Tealer said she’s glad the community aspect of Wyatt’s Vision has come over to Gainesville Juniors. All 18 teams will come together for club day on Sunday, bringing goods to fill up backpacks to serve the Gainesville community -- united under one club.

Julianna is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.