Fans flocked to John Paul Jones Arena to passionately root on Virginia in a tightly contested Smithfield Commonwealth Clash matchup last weekend. However, the Cavalier faithful were not there to support the men’s or women’s basketball teams as usual — instead, they were treated to an intense five-set victory for Virginia’s volleyball team over rival Virginia Tech.
Ahead of the match, Coach Shannon Wells said she anticipated attendance to be somewhere around 1,500. In total, 3,162 fans attended the first volleyball match ever hosted at JPJ since its opening in 2006. The number nearly triples the previous attendance record of 1,089 for the team, also set against Virginia Tech in 2019. The former record was set at the program’s typical home court, Memorial Gymnasium, which has a maximum capacity of 2,500. The feel ahead of the match was simply different for Virginia’s players.
“During warmups and when we ran out, I just kept looking up,” junior middle blocker Abby Tadder said. “It was crazy… At [Memorial Gymnasium] you don’t really have to look up, we just look out. Here I was looking up and there were people everywhere which is so awesome.”
While credit for the victory belongs to the team and coaching staff, the fans were just what the Cavaliers needed after going down two sets to none against the Hokies. On the brink of a three-set sweep, chants filled the arena, getting louder as momentum built for Virginia before silencing during crucial serves for the Cavaliers in the match.
“When you score a lot of points in a row, which we were doing, it… gets the crowd involved,” Wells said. “I think that's what you saw for momentum.”
The crowd — particularly the student section and band — played their part to perfection and had fun with it as “Let’s go Hoos!” rang out through the rafters of the arena after impressive spikes, digs or aces. The wave worked its way through JPJ lower bowl throughout the affair, and the whole arena — minus a smattering of Virginia Tech supporters — stood holding up a single finger when the Cavaliers were a point away from clinching a set.
Virginia completed the electric reverse sweep with massive community support behind it. The win was the Cavaliers’ second five set victory of the season, a dramatic ending fit for the crowd. After the final set was won, fellow student athletes rushed onto the court to celebrate with their friends, and Wells personally thanked the crowd for their encouragement as fans began to exit.
The September announcement that the match would be held in JPJ came on the heels of Nebraska’s volleyball team smashing the attendance record for a women’s sporting event, playing in front of 92,003 fans at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. Earlier this month, Iowa’s women’s basketball team played an outdoor scrimmage in front of 55,646 fans at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, nearly doubling the record for the most attended women’s basketball game.
Wells called the announcement a “dream come true” and a goal of hers since joining the program in 2021. Despite a difficult season overall for Virginia, the match meant more to Wells, the team and the fans.
“Seeing all the people that came out to support us…. it was really heartwarming to be able to play in that environment,” graduate student middle blocker Verisia Yion said.
Within the context of this season, the win was much needed. Ahead of the marquee matchup, the Cavaliers had dropped eight matches in a row, with its last win coming exactly a month prior. Though there is not much season left, building momentum in the final stretch ought to pay dividends for the program.
The environment and energy in JPJ meant much more than just a bounce back after a slump for Virginia. In a college athletics environment defined by recruiting, the transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness revenue, Virginia showed to future Cavaliers the depth of support and exposure they can receive in Charlottesville. In addition to the venue and crowd, the match was also televised nationally on ACC Network. It signified a massive leap towards success for Wells and company.
“We keep just talking about getting one percent better every single day and I think that this was a really big step for our program,” Wells said. “We believe that this season, we got so much more for this program and we’re excited. This is a big stepping stone for us.”
It was an eventful weekend for fans of women’s sports at Virginia beyond just the volleyball match at JPJ. Virginia announced Saturday that ticket sales for women’s basketball were higher than they had been in nearly 30 years. Additionally, attendance for swimming and diving’s dual meet against No. 2 Texas at the Aquatic and Fitness Center set a new program record, with 1,223 fans rooting for the men’s and women’s teams. The first home meet of the season saw the Cavaliers unveil the banner for the women’s teams’ third straight national championship in front of a raucous crowd.
Wells was sure to give credit to University and athletic department administration for the successful event.
“[Thanks] to Carla Williams and our administration for making this happen, the numerous amounts of people that go into video, concessions, RMC [Events] and security,” Wells said. “All I asked was that this felt like a first-class event, and I think you guys can all agree that it definitely was. It was a really tough match between two gritty teams, fighting for so much more than just a win today.”
As the community of fans and students have shown more support for Virginia’s women’s sporting programs than ever before, Athletic Director Carla Williams has energized the masses with exceptional promotion of events, superb coordination and the construction of programs that are giving Cavalier fans plenty to cheer for.