Head coach Erin Appleman made history at the Yale volleyball team’s season-opening tournament in early September, flashing a yellow cardboard rectangle at the referee to initiate one of the first replay reviews at the Bulldogs’ home court.

The original verdict on a touch by a Clemson player stood, but the dynamics of refereeing and replay review in the sport are rapidly changing. But for now, the Ivy League is straddling the technological gap, with Penn and Yale at the vanguard of the new practice and the rest of the League still weighing its options. In the Elis’ 3–0 sweep of Brown last Friday, the replay system was no longer available, with the League’s decision on whether to allow it in Ancient Eight play postponed until next season, pending further review.

“The NCAA is moving towards having [replay review] in all postseason play,” Appleman said. “I wanted to make sure we had at least done it, if we have the chance to play in the postseason. I also hope that the Ivy League adopts it next year, so I wanted to do a test run so we knew [whether] we needed another camera or if we had all the other angles covered.”

At the national level, the idea of coaches’ challenges only started to be discussed three years ago, said Lisa Peterson, the deputy athletic director at the University of Oregon and the Division I volleyball committee chair.

Peterson said that the increased interest in instant replay stemmed from complaints from teams vying for the NCAA championship, over a series of calls that they felt have negatively impacted their ability to win.

By 2016, instant replay was widespread enough to be employed in the semifinals and finals of the tournament.

“[Replay] became a topic of conversation through the coaches association to the committee, that they felt it should be used at the national championship,” Peterson said.  “We had the ability to use ESPN’s plethora of cameras, so we had a lot of different angles.”

Well-funded programs that already had a review system in place for basketball were the first to adapt it to volleyball. Last season, former Penn head coach Kerry Carr was the first Ivy League coach to install cameras. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that Penn and New Hampshire were the only northeastern teams to have replay capabilities in 2016.

This summer, Appleman approached Evan Ellis ’12, the video producer for Yale Sports Publicity, and Assistant Director for Sports Publicity Sam Rubin ’95 about implementing the system.

Ellis followed the same four-camera “infrastructure” used for basketball replay: In addition to the broadcast camera, there is one aimed at each end line from the Ivy Lounge Level and lobby, and another locked on the net from the filming platform used for television broadcasts.

Justin Cong ’20, a student employee of Sports Publicity, handled control-room duties for five of the six games at the Bulldog Invitational. The referee communicated with Cong through a headset to ask for the appropriate angles.

“I think it went as well as expected,” Ellis said. “I do not foresee any massive expansion [of replay technology] unless the Ivy League makes the decision to go to required officials’ instant replay for league contests. Making the jump from four angles to the next step — which would be eight angles — is very expensive. For next year … getting a small camera on the net, like a GoPro, is the one major change we would most likely make without a large upgrade in equipment.”

The Ivy League, however, has made few signals regarding that decision. Appleman said the conference emailed her and other Ivy coaching staffs in August, informing them that a decision on officials’ instant replay would be tabled for next season.

Matt Panto, assistant executive director for digital media and communications at the Ivy League, said the Ancient Eight will conduct a “comprehensive annual review with the athletic directors” about instant replay across all sports.

According to Panto, factors at play include feedback from coaches and officials, as well as “technology and facility constraints on each campus.”

On Sept. 2, Appleman and her counterpart at Clemson, Michaela Franklin, combined to challenge three calls in the first set, with none of the calls overturned. According to Appleman, she fared better in her reviews against Delaware and Rhode Island, at the three-game nonconference tournament.

Reviewable plays include disputes over whether a ball was in or out; whether the ball or a player touched the antenna; whether a player touched the ball; and whether a foot or net fault occurred. As in football, the referee must determine that the video proof is indisputable to overturn the call on the court.

“I really like the system,” Appleman said. “It takes the pressure off the refs [and] it takes my focus off of being mad at the line judge — [from] ‘Did you not see that call?’ to ‘Hey, I’ll just challenge it.’ Even in our match against Brown, a couple of the players [asked me to] challenge, and I was like, ‘We don’t have it.’”

Still, for as fast-paced a game as volleyball, coaches’ challenges have the potential to be intrusive. According to Peterson, the prolonging of games has been the biggest source of negative feedback about the system. One possible solution to “get back some of those minutes” is to eliminate the 10-minute intermission between the second and third sets.

The cost of instant replay systems — including the operator along with the cameras — represents another drawback for smaller-market institutions, but momentum continues to build in favor of coaches’ challenges. Next season, all host sites of NCAA Tournament games will be required to support replay infrastructure.

“It’s the way of sports nowadays, and volleyball has just become the next one in that line,” Peterson said. “It’s a mixed bag of feedback, but … at the end of the day, we want the right team to be winning. If this can prevent that, then I think it’s worth it.”

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu