From humble beginnings to the national stage — the story behind women’s club volleyball’s rapid growth

The Rams boarded the plane to Kansas City, Missouri to compete in their first-ever NCVF National Championships last week. PHOTO CREDIT: @uriwomensclubvb on Instagram

From forming a loose team of six women in 2018 to competing in a national championship last week, the University of Rhode Island’s women’s club volleyball team has experienced rapid growth from humble beginnings.

The team traveled to Kansas City, Missouri over the weekend to compete in the National Collegiate Volleyball Federation (NCVF) Championships. They traveled with a roster of eight women, finishing third in the silver consolation bracket over three days. It was the first time the team had taken a trip of such magnitude in their four-year history as a recognized club sport at the University of Rhode Island.

The club’s story began in 2018, with four friends who began playing volleyball recreationally on their own time at Tootell Gymnasium. According to one of those friends, 2020 URI graduate Taylor Kammerman, the group began gauging interest through social media, flyers and any other method they could find to spread the word around campus that year in an attempt to grow what was not yet even an established club.

“The interest was literally insane, we filled an entire room in the [Memorial] Union”, Kammerman said. “It was full of people who were interested in playing, it was great to see.”

Towards the end of 2018, the club began picking up momentum, according to Kammerman. They began holding small practices in Tootell which they would organize through their Facebook group. Despite the growth in interest, Kammerman said that it was still a struggle finding time where everyone could play.

“It was slim pickings at the beginning,” Kammerman said. “People would always have their other obligations, they had school going on, so it was just a very small group at the beginning.”

The next year, interest continued to explode. Working in collaboration with the men’s club volleyball team, which was already established, the women’s team held their first-ever tryouts in the fall of 2019. Kammerman was a third-year student.

“We had at least 150 girls come to tryouts,” Kammerman said. “It was me and my friend Brady with two clipboards and a bunch of Post-It notes with numbers on them…it was super hectic.”

At the time, the team had to organize practice time off campus at the South Kingstown Recreation center. This came after they were “kicked out” of Tootell, who couldn’t schedule a regular practice time for the team that was not yet recognized officially, according to Kammerman. Previous to the experience, the team had been showing up to the facility to practice on a first come, first serve basis. Now, they had outgrown that, and needed a site that could facilitate regular practices.

The next step for the young team: finding a coach and regular competition. They found their first head coach in 2019 in men’s volleyball alum Jack Vaccarro, who offered his services for free. Soon after, they began working with representatives from the Northeast Women’s Volleyball Club League (NWVCL) to schedule matches and join tournaments as a non-league team. From there, the team created their first website, and launched all of their social media pages. At this point, they were still not even a recognized club sport at URI.

“We saw the direction that this was going, we saw there was interest…we wanted it to be more than what it was,” Kammerman said. “We wanted it to be a community where incoming freshmen looked forward to meeting new friends on the team and had this community to really involve themselves in if they didn’t have anything else coming into school.”

The team eventually participated in their first-ever tournament in October of 2019, hosted by Providence College. They finished undefeated in three matches of pool play before losing to Providence in the semifinals. The results can still be seen on the club’s first website, something Kammerman says she created out of “thin air.”

“We weren’t really getting a lot of recognition from the school,” Kammerman said. “I felt like the only way to show them that there was a real interest in starting a club volleyball team that was recognized by the school was to gain a presence on social media, was to have this silly little website.”

Eventually, URI women’s club volleyball finally became a recognized club sport in the fall of 2020. With a full roster, many tournaments under their belt and an attempt to travel to nationals underway that year, the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the United States, essentially halting all of the progress the team had made in the two years prior. Despite the setback, the team continued operations to the best of their ability, hosting socially-distant and masked practices in the fall of 2020.

“It was tough for a while, the only thing that really kept it alive I think was the dedication and the passion that all of the people on our team had to really see this program through,” Kammerman said. “I think everybody who was in it at the beginning really saw the potential it had to be something really great.”

Now, the team has only continued to grow, eventually taking their first-ever trip to a national tournament over the weekend.

The team took part in competition in seven matches over the course of three days, eventually finishing third in the silver consolation bracket. Despite an injury setback on day one and a roster of only eight women due to financial constraints, third-year treasurer Chloe Demaio still enjoyed the experience.

“We had fun and we made the most of it,” Demaio said. “Considering the circumstances, I think we did as well as we could.”

The team competed in three matches on Thursday, losing to the University of Tampa, University of North Carolina (UNC) – Chapel Hill and Miami University to open up pool play. Not to be deterred, they moved on to consolation play on Friday, taking two wins vs. the University of Texas San Antonio and San Francisco State University.

The final day of tournament play on Sunday saw URI split their final two matches to take third place in the Silver Consolation Bracket – winning their rematch against UNC before dropping their final match of the weekend to Marquette.

Despite not getting the win in the majority of matches, the tournament represented a huge step for the program, according to Demaio. In partnership with the men’s team, she said that money through fundraisers, concession stands, local clinics with club teams and support from families of players allowed them to raise the funds to take the trip out west for the first time.

“I think we’re pretty on track to bring a roster of 12-14 next year, [of] which the maximum you can take is 14,” Demaio said. “We’re pretty excited about trying to build our program so that we can keep going every year.”

For the University of Rhode Island club women’s volleyball team, members agree that persistence and dedication have given the team an identity – and with upwards of 80 women attending tryouts this year, they show no signs of slowing down.