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Let’s Talk About: The Exceptional Substitution

Updated: Oct 20, 2023


What is an exceptional substitution and how does it work? No, it is not a team sending in their bestest most exceptional player in the 11th hour when they’re down by 3 in the bottom of the 9th with the bases loaded and they only need one touchdown to win before they run out of injury time. An exceptional substitution is used ONLY for an ill or injured player AND has used ALL 18 substitutions OR has no other legal substitute available. Wow, that is a lot of “ands” and “ors.” No problem. For posterity, the reference for the exceptional substitution is Rule 10 SEC 3 ART 6 which reads:

When teams have exhausted their 18 team substitutions or when no legal substitutes are available, an exceptional substitution is permitted only for an injured/ill player…

If you read the blog post on substitutions there is a brief reference to the exceptional substitution. Let’s dig deeper.


Keep your rules book handy. You might even want to bookmark this particular page (page 45). If you encounter a situation where a team needs to utilize this rare type of substitution you will be well-versed, prepared, and confident if you need to assist a team in explaining what the procedure is and who qualifies as a legal exceptional substitute.


It is important to note that the exceptional substitution is based on a hierarchy model. I feel that this makes it easier to understand and apply. The consideration for an exceptional substitute works from the top of a list of qualifiers to the bottom.


Let’s take a drink from the fire hose for this one and wash away some of those “ifs,” “ands,” “ors,” and “buts,” and break down this entire exceptional substitution phenomena:

IF a player is injured or becomes ill WHILE ON THE COURT and play is stopped (either because it was the end of the play or the ill/injured player), AND there is a team substitution available AND a legal sub available there is NO exceptional substitution. It is a team substitution.

IF a player is injured or becomes ill WHILE ON THE COURT and play is stopped, AND there are no team substitutions remaining (all 18 have been used), AND there is a player that HAS NOT played in the set OR in the ill/injured player’s position, exceptional substitution.


IF there is NO player that HAS NOT played in the set OR in the ill/injured player’s position BUT there IS a legal NON-LIBERO teammate who is NOT assigned to REPLACE the active libero regardless of position played: exceptional substitution.


If the previous criterion is not met, AND no other possible substitute exists THEN a LIBERO may be REASSIGNED to the vacated position. The libero may no longer play as a libero.


I made a flowchart to help make it… easier..? Oh, but I must mention that IF an exceptional substitution is used due to illness or injury AND the team DOES have a team substitutions remaining AND no LEGAL substitute available, BUT does fit the criterion listed above, the exceptional substitution is approved AND the team is charged a team substitution.


Exceptional Sub 2.0
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Want to add anything? Have a comment or suggestion? Leave it in the comments section.


See you on the court!



Disclaimer: My opinions are my own and my individual idiosyncrasies and nuances should be taken as such. It is up to the individual referee to be exhaustively familiar with the rules and apply them in the spirit of the sport. Comments are always welcome, but if you have a question about a rule interpretation or are confused about a rules application, please seek the guidance of your association rules rep,mentor, rank representative, NFHS section rules committee chair, or other knowledgeable source.



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