Volleyball has always been a sport for both men and women, but in many American high schools, there is only a girls’ team, making it seem like it’s only for them. For South Iredell boys volleyball coach Kerry Baker and others, however, they look to change that.
And certain aspects of the sport tend to appeal to the boys on the teams, their coaches say.
“Volleyball is a sport that includes a lot of power,” Baker said. “This biggest challenge for me, I can only speak for my program, is getting rid of the PE volleyball mindset, getting the rewiring done, and teaching them legitimate volleyball.”
“It’s also a sport with a lot of finesse,” Baker said.
After starting with meetings to gauge interest 11 years ago, Baker manages 40 Vikings players now, which means there are plenty of players to scrimmage against each other but only so much playing time to divvy out.
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“I was upfront with some of the guys that they might not see the court much this year,” Baker said.
That’s a good problem to have in a way, considering when the South Iredell program started, they had nine players and played other faculty and staff at the school.
Now they play more than 20 matches a season and face schools up and down the road to Charlotte and down to the state line with South Carolina.
“If you look at where we are, we’ve taken gigantic steps, gigantic leaps,” Baker said.
Building a team
For Baker at South Iredell and other coaches around the state, it can be a challenge to both get a team going as they have sometimes to overcome the idea it’s a “girls” sport and the more practical problem of starting a team from nothing.
The power part of the game is something the boys often love, Maria Peel, coach at Liberty Preparatory Christian Academy, said.
“The way you get a guy to love volleyball is you toss them a ball and let them slam it over the net,” Peel said. “It’s such stress relief and satisfaction that comes with slamming the ball.”
For teams at smaller schools, particularly private ones, that task can be even harder. But once the idea is in their heads, according to coach Hahna Hayden at Woodlawn School, they don’t need too much prodding. She said after the initial meetings to gauge interest at the school two years ago, the boys started asking their friends and classmates to join.
“The guys actually did a lot of the legwork themselves. They were really into it. They asked classmates if they would join the team and we had 14 guys for our first year which was pretty big cuz we’re a pretty small school,” Hayden said. Several other coaches agreed that once a player and their parents get into it, it isn’t hard to get the ball rolling.
And while like many other coaches she had coached girls’ teams before, there were some small differences in how the boys approached the sport compared to the girls she had coached.
“The guys just want to get out there and play. The girls they want to know exactly how to do everything and they want the technical training first and then they’re willing to play,” Hayden said. “They’re like when you have your first day of practice (with the boys), just throw the ball up in the air and say, let’s play. Their energy is just like crazy high.”
Harnessing that energy and molding the boys into proper volleyball players is the challenge for many of the coaches as they teach some of the boys the intricacies of volleyball.
“They were just doing all kinds of super illegal stuff and they just felt like they were doing an amazing job. And I was like I love the energy guys, but yes we’ll get into all that technicality later,” Hayden said.
She said that the boys were often hard on themselves and each other in a way that was different from the girls she had coached, but they also were surprisingly sensitive at times as they made mistakes and dealt with the learning curve of learning to play volleyball properly .
Sometimes, the boys’ volleyball team may be the players’ first sport, the first time they’ve been in a team atmosphere.
“Part of that is teaching them structure and discipline and accountability. Not just on the court or in the gym, but off the court as well,” Baker said. “There has to be a level of accountability there when you’re wearing a South Iredell Vikings shirt.”
But there are rewarding aspects to building a team from scratch too, Baker said. Whether it is a player acclimating themselves to playing on a team or just the social aspects of being around their teammates as they come together as a team.
“They’ve truly built this bond and brotherhood that without volleyball, they wouldn’t have had,” Baker said.
There are frustrations that come with learning the sport, of course, as players might believe they know how to play, but they quickly learn that their games of volleyball in PE class are nothing like the proper way to play the sport. Baker said the growth of players is rewarding as now he can barely put his bag down for practice or open gym before the players have set up the net and start facing off against each other.
But once they do, it tends to build on itself quickly, according to Baker and coaches like Sarah Conklin, the boys’ coach at Marvin Ridge until this upcoming season, where she will take over at Weddington.
“It’s really just getting guys in the gym, it’s catching fire very quickly. I haven’t coached a single guy that hasn’t fallen in love with it,” Conklin said.
More than a club
This season ended with a “state tournament” with more than 20 teams involved, a chance to find out who is best among the teams gathered.
“I look back at that state tournament that we just went to, with all the kids there, the players and coaches, the officials. I just walked around in awe and thought it was incredible. How can someone say there’s no interest?” Baker said.
And while having their own sort of state tournament put a nice cap on the end of their season, coaches would like to make it more official.
“That’s our goal, as a group of coaches, to get it sanctioned,” Baker said.
Baker said scheduling would be much easier if the sport is sanctioned by the state, as it wouldn’t be a matter of coaches trying to lineup dates with other teams while also handling their usual coaching duties. Currently, the teams have to pay for their own transportation, so that would be another task coaches wouldn’t have to manage either.
And of course, a state championship would be how the year ended.
Ginning up interest in the sport is still part of the challenge for Baker and others as they look to have the North Carolina High School Athletic Association sanction boys volleyball.
According to the NCHSAA bylaws, when 25% of the total NCHSAA membership offers a sport (participates/fields a team), the NCHSAA will sanction a championship in that sport. Another way the association would sanction a championship is when 50% or more of one of its four classifications offers a sport, the NCHSAA will sanction a championship in that sport.
Currently, there are more than 50 club teams in NCHSAA schools, but that number would have to more than double to get to the 25% threshold as there are 432 schools in the athletic association.
Conklin said that despite there being a decent bit of talent and history with boys volleyball in the state’s metro areas, it still can be a challenge to convince athletic directors that boys volleyball is on the rise.
“It’s definitely a chicken-and-egg kind of situation. I’ll talk to some athletic directors and they’ll say ‘we’ll have it when it’s sanctioned’ and then the state will say ‘we will sanction it when you have a chance number of teams,’” Conklin said.
However, Baker and other coaches feel it’s a matter of time, and a little support before it will happen thanks to grassroots efforts.
“If you build it, they will come,” Baker said. “Every year now, students keep coming to me earlier and earlier in the school year asking when open gyms are going to start or if there will be teams this year,” Baker said. “It truly is if you build it, they will come.”
While the sport itself is worth the time and effort he puts into it, Baker said seeing some of his players earn scholarships is a reminder that the sport can be a launch pad to college for some of his players. Whether it’s a scholarship, playing on a summer league team, or simply being able to pick up the volleyball at a sand court at their college to make new friends, Baker sees volleyball as another tool for doing more and experiencing more things in his players’ lives.
“To see kids who have never touched a volleyball before, and now they are playing in a summer league, trying out for travel teams, and then you look at all the life experiences they are going to have from that, just from stepping in at the gym at South Iredell. You can’t beat that.”
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