If you had stumbled into Reynolds Gymnasium a few years ago for a women’s volleyball game, you would have seen a few spectators scattered across the stands. This year, if you walked in a few minutes late on opening weekend, you would be turned away at the door due to a sold-out crowd.
After years of coaching-related disruption, the Wake Forest women’s volleyball team has finally come to a place of stability. They have also seen a large increase in spectators and fan interest that reflects a growing appreciation for women’s sports nationwide. With more eyes comes more pressure, but this team is ready to rise to the occasion.
Until recently, most of the cheers that volleyball players heard was from their teammates. As one of the older players on the team, Franke remembers a time when there was much less fan engagement.
“We used to have smaller crowds when I first got here…this year, we really made a shift,” she said. “Our opening weekend we had to turn people away from the door because we didn’t have enough seats…which has never happened since I’ve been here.”
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“I think this has been years in the making,” said Head Coach Randi Smart. “The players in the past who graduated, some who are still here, have started putting in that work toward building the chemistry of this team.”
This chemistry has played a role in the team’s 9-2 start to the season, with a perfect blend of veteran and young players that support and learn from one another.
“Our team is really close knit, and that really helps in games,” said freshman middle blocker Dior Charles. “This is what my coach said — we pack a parachute for everybody else on the team.”
“What our culture boils down to… is unconditional and hard work,” Smart said. “I think you see things like the winning, the crowds coming because they’re starting to see it’s a culture that they want to be a part of.”
This program has never made the NCAA tournament, and we want to be the first. We will be the first to do it.
— Head Coach Randi Smart
This was not always the case at Wake Forest. Prior to Smart, two coaches left the Demon Deacons’ program in turmoil. As previously reported by the Old Gold & Black in 2016, Coach Ken Murczek resigned following the newspaper’s investigation of a Title IX complaint regarding alleged verbal and psychological abuse towards players — with a losing record to show for his three seasons as head coach.
In an interview with HBO’s Bryant Gumbel, former player Maggie Sinkler claimed Murczek called team members “f*cking r—ds,” among other choice words.
“I hated [practice]; I was scared,” Sinkler said in the interview. “We had girls crying in the locker room after every practice. Everyone was terrified.”
Just years later, Coach William Ferguson became embroiled in the “Varsity Blues” scandal that involved wealthy families paying their children’s way onto teams at elite schools they would otherwise be unable to attend. Ferguson was arrested and indicted due to his connections with the scheme, which investigators said enabled one student to gain admission to the university as a volleyball wait-lister.
It was then that Smart was named the interim head coach by Athletic Director John Currie. Since then, the program has turned forward with high hopes of long-term success and the continued cultivation of a supportive team environment.
“Volleyball is a game of momentum and energy,” senior middle blocker Olivia Franke said. “Putting all that energy and effort into cheering and hyping each other up makes a world of difference.”
This change at Wake Forest reflects a broader shift seen across the nation. Just weeks ago, University of Nebraska volleyball set the world record for women’s sports attendance, with almost 92,000 fans filling up football’s Memorial Stadium. To those already invested in the world of women’s volleyball, the enthusiasm for the sport isn’t surprising.
“It’s growing nationally, and people are realizing how great a sport it is and how these female athletes are competing at amazing levels,” Franke said. “Nebraska being able to do that was amazing for Nebraska, but it was amazing for volleyball, for female sports.”
Volleyball is a game of momentum and energy. Putting all that energy and effort into cheering and hyping each other up makes a world of difference.
— Blocker Olivia Franke
At Wake Forest, the team knows what its role is when it comes to furthering the sport.
“We need to put a good product on the court because nobody wants to go watch bad volleyball…the more and more the word gets out, the more people we get,” Smart, whose team went undefeated through its first six matches, said. “Once we get them in there, then it’s our job to keep them there.”
The team swept a season-opening invitational that it hosted. The Demon Deacons then swept Central Florida’s 2023 UCF Challenge the following weekend.
And the team’s performance this season has fans coming back for more. Recently, Smart was stopped by two fans who told her that they loved watching the team and asked her when the next home game was. That’s never happened before. Weeks ago, Wake Forest Basketball Head Coach Steve Forbes mentioned the team’s success in a press conference.
“A lot changes, but the goal is the goal,” said Smart. “This program has never made the NCAA tournament, and we want to be the first. We will be the first to do it.”