Every point matters: 20 years later, rally scoring in volleyball remains a game-changer

Oct. 28—MITCHELL — It's been 20 years since a fundamental change was made in how volleyball is played in high schools around South Dakota.

And it's hard to find anyone who wants to go back to the old days.

In 2002, high school volleyball in the state went to rally scoring, the format that means a point is scored off of every serve, either for the offense or the defense. Previously, volleyball at nearly every level of play was played with side-out scoring, meaning only the team that possessed the serve could score a point. Sets at the time were played to 15 points instead of 25, but it meant matches could stretch on for hours at a time.

"It was definitely not fan-friendly," current Mitchell High School assistant coach Christina Siemsen said, who played in the side-out scoring era. "You could go a whole rotation and not score a point. I would remember that we would have a best-of-three match and we'd play for two-and-a-half hours before there would be a winner. It took so long."

Today, nearly everyone in volleyball points out the same thing: every point matters.

"Before you could make a mistake and you might be able to get away with it," Dakota Wesleyan University coach Lindsay Wilber said. "You can't dwell on it now because you've got to be ready to go, otherwise one point can turn into two or three points pretty quickly. It makes it more entertaining."

It was a whirlwind of change, as the scoring change came at essentially the same time that South Dakota moved high school volleyball to the fall and girls basketball to the winter. The switch was made to fall in line with other states and colleges, as the South Dakota High School Activities Association decided to avoid legal challenges and move the sports, despite a majority of the schools wanting to keep the seasons as they were.

Today, both girls basketball and volleyball are thriving in the state, with the latter riding a national wave of excitement at all levels built on youth engagement and talented athletes.

"I think the thought process was around how long these games potentially took to play," said Jo Auch, who currently serves as assistant executive director for the SDHSAA overseeing volleyball and who was a former coach and officiated volleyball at the time of the scoring change. "It was OK, we had volleyball around the state but to the fanbase, it just wasn't exciting enough. Moving to rally scoring, it picked up the pace of the game and it really improved the game in every way. The athleticism and the skill, everything just improved."

Even if it's been two decades, side-out scoring now stands a relic of a different time and a different game.

"It is funny explaining it to the girls," Burke coach Billie Jo Indahl said. "Sometimes in practice, we'll say, 'OK, let's play like I used to play when I was in high school,' and the girls are like, 'Wait. What is this?' Then you tell them that you couldn't score unless you served. That's what a side-out was, a true side-out."

South Dakota played with the side-out scoring format until winter 2002, with the final side-out tournament taking place March 7-9 and then the first rally scoring tournament in November of the same year. Under the side-out format, South Dakota played matches as best-of-three sets at the state tournament. Some regular-season matches were played best-of-five, adding to the lengthy battles.

The change to rally scoring came around the same time as collegiate volleyball's move as well. In 2001, NCAA and NAIA volleyball each moved to rally scoring, playing sets to 30 points and later moving that down to the current 25 points in 2008.

Aside from the scoring, there have been other rule changes since then. There were no net serves, meaning if the ball touched the net, it was a service error and the serve went to the opposition. Officials like Auch kept their hand on the net from the chair position and if the ball ticked off the net, they could feel it and make the right call. Today, tactically, serving has to be sharper because serving errors rack up points for the opposition.

"I remember it was a tough habit to break (after the change)," Auch said. "That was one of those things you forget about now."

In addition to not having the libero position, substitutions were limited much more than they were now, with only three substitutions for a player during a match. Defenders also could attack or block a serve, a rule that Mitchell coach Deb Thill said she wouldn't mind seeing return.

"The way that the serve is such an attack now, I wish that the defense had a way to counter that," Thill said. "That is a way-back thing that you used to be able to do."

Siemsen has fond memories of playing volleyball in the late 1990s for Huron High School. The former Christina Schilling was a senior on the Tigers' 1998 Class AA state championship squad. How the Tigers got there is not soon to be repeated, reaching the semifinals before losing to Sioux Falls Washington. Huron then played back through the consolation bracket to set up another meeting with Washington, needing two wins to claim the state title. The Tigers did just that, closing out a 22-10 season with a state title.

"During (the pandemic), Huron was replaying a lot of the state championship games and they showed the volleyball championship from that year and the final match was like three hours," Siemsen recalled. "It was a long night and a very long tournament."

From 1992 to winter 2002, the state volleyball championship series was decided over two matches 14 times out of 33 brackets across the three classes, including eight times in the last four years before the change. Auch said the move away from a double-elimination format occurred because schools didn't believe it was right for a team to have to beat an opponent twice to win the state title and the double-elimination format isn't used in any other SDHSAA tournament.

"Giving them the opportunity to lose and still come back and win the title, that didn't seem quite right," Auch said. "We don't do it that way in other sports. ... All of the other changes we had helped move (state) volleyball in line with our other sports, too."

That policy remains in effect, Auch said, and interestingly, it's something the SDHSAA won't do for its newest sport this year — softball — despite softball having a tradition of being a double-elimination tournament sport at various levels of play.

Interestingly, participation figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) show that South Dakota's total number of high school volleyball participants has leveled off and dropped over the past decade. Participation peaked at 4,078 athletes in 2006-07 and then tapered down to a low mark of 3,411 12 years later in 2018-19 — a decrease of 16% — with 10 fewer schools offering the sport than a decade earlier.

Nationally, volleyball continues to surge among girls sports, and was the only top-10 sport to register an increase in participation over 2018-19, the last year that the NFHS conducted a participation survey before the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than 450,000 participants, volleyball is only behind track and field for the No. 1 participatory sport for girls in the nation.

Thill, in her 32nd year coaching the Kernels volleyball program, believes rally scoring has been good for the game. But she wouldn't credit that change as to why volleyball is growing in popularity around the region and country.

She said the fact that girls are starting younger and have more opportunities to play volleyball and get introduced to the sport is a big factor. She noted her program had 90 participants in grades K-6 earlier this year learning the game at a youth level. The Corn Palace Area Volleyball Club, which has been in operation since 2011, has more than a dozen teams in action over the winter and spring for girls ages 10-18.

While noting she had some terrific athletes in the side-out scoring era, Thill noted that athletes today are also taking more pride in getting stronger and being in the weight room, saying they relish the chance to "really kick some butt in there."

"In the past, there weren't the club opportunities that there are now, and they can start in third or fourth grade or maybe even be introduced to it earlier," Thill said. "Club volleyball (locally) originally started in seventh grade and now we're going younger. ... They love the sport, the excitement of it, being part of a team. A sport that doesn't necessarily have the physicality that you might see elsewhere."

Wilber, the coach of a top-10 Tigers program at the NAIA level, sees that in the way her players are looked up to as role models from young girls.

"To have little kids involved and coming out to our games and get a chance to see how exciting this sport can be up close, it's great," Wilber said.

With sports recognizing the 50th anniversary of Title IX this year — which was the civil rights law that prohibited sex-based discrimination in schools or educational programs and helped jumpstart women's sports — Auch said she was recently discussing with her SDHSAA predecessor Ruth Rehn about the major changes in girls high school sports.

Auch said they both agreed that when it came to volleyball, no change was bigger than the rally scoring move.

"It's one of the best things that ever came about for the sport of volleyball. ... The level of play and the skill set has come so far," Auch said.

Auch said one aspect of the current game that resonates with her is how every mistake matters and how well players handle the mistakes that cost points in the game — whether it's ball-handling or receiving errors — and come together for the next play.

"It's mind-blowing to me how they handle it," Auch said. "There's great spirit and enthusiasm for every play. The teams get in that huddle and they regroup and they keep playing. It's such a game of momentum and it always has been but it especially is now. Seeing how players handle that is a great part of the game."

For those who have seen the game then and now, rally scoring is still delivering results for high school volleyball.

"This is more fan-friendly and I think it's more exciting to watch," Siemsen said. "This advanced the game of volleyball and it just keeps getting better and better and better."