By Tim Nazzaro
For the first time in 12 years, Fitchburg State University will be fielding an official women’s volleyball team next year.
A sport that originated in Holyoke, Mass., famous throughout the New England region, it was only a matter of time before administrators saw it fit to add women’s volleyball to its fall schedule.
For years, women’s volleyball has been a staple of the MASCAC schools around the region. This begs the question as to why it took so long for the sport to reach Fitchburg State.
The process is not as easy as it may appear. When starting a new sport, “we have to keep in mind Title IX,” Athletic Director Sue Lauder says. According to NCAA regulations, Title IX is a federal law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In short, it requires schools to give equal opportunity to both males and females. “Equal opportunity” is based off population percentages. “We have about 60 percent women on campus and we have about 60 percent opportunities for men,” says Lauder, “so it’s a little backwards.”
With that in mind, Lauder set out this summer to even the odds, even if that meant going a bit off script. “Our typical procedure is that a club needs to show sustained interest for five years. But because of the circumstances [interest, compliance with Title IX and the fact Fitchburg used to have a volleyball team] we fast-tracked it and did it one year [club] then varsity the next.”
Due to the fact that fast-tracking a sports team is a bit unorthodox, finding a coach was a bit of a scramble. “It wasn’t an easy process,” Lauder confesses, “but we were fortunate.” And fortunate they were, because Fitchburg was able to hire decorated volleyball coach and player Victor Wirkkala.
A former member of the U.S Army Reserve, Wirkkala started his volleyball career at Westfield State in 1986. He was a back-row specialist and became captain of the team his junior and senior year. He still continues to play semi-pro ball. His coaching career started at Leominster High coaching boys’ volleyball. From there, he went on to coach at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute men’s volleyball team for two years, where they went to the national championship in Kansas City during the 2014-2015 season.
“I’m one of those ‘everything happens for a reason’ kind of guys,” Wirkkala says. “I’ve always wanted to coach Division 3 volleyball and with Fitchburg, it was just good timing.” A resident of Leominster, Wirkkala is excited to start coaching.
The Fitchburg State Women’s Club volleyball team will play a six-game schedule with the hopes of adding two more games to round out their season. While the other Division III competition has played together for the past four years, the Fitchburg women will have been playing together for three days. Despite their non-traditional varsity schedule, Wirkkala still has high expectations for the team this season. “We are a bit behind the 8-ball this season,” he admits, “but we’re going to be a competitive team because I won’t allow us not to be.”
With his vast knowledge and experience of the volleyball world, Wirkkala is looking to pump some life into this team to set them up for future success.
The women’s club volleyball team will play their first game Sept. 22 against Nichols at home.