A new wave of high school volleyball players are taking the court this spring, and with it bringing new, exciting challenges for the coaches who are working with them.
Eight local schools are offering boys volleyball this spring, including six schools from the St. Vrain Valley School District. So far, the interest in the sport is there based on numbers.
"I wasn't sure what to expect, but it's been very exciting," Skyline coach Susan Karimi said. "I know the boys have come to support the girls program and have come to our open gym practices so we could use their height and aggressiveness to help the girls play at a high level. They bring a lot of enthusiasm."
The SVVSD has seen the most interest in the sport with their six schools offering the program. Their teams include Skyline, Silver Creek, Longmont, Erie, Frederick and Niwot. Boulder and Broomfield are also fielding programs this spring. The interest has been so high that many schools are splitting their program into two teams to get as much playing time as possible for all of their athletes.
This spring marks the second year that boys volleyball is being offered in high schools across the state as the sport is moving towards becoming a sanctioned sport offered by the Colorado High School Activities Association. The sport was approved by the Equity Committee in January and supported by the Sports Medicine Committee in February. In April, it will be taken by the CHSAA Board of Directors and then voted on by the Legislative Committee to determine if it will move forward as a high school sport. It is believed that boys volleyball will be approved, along with unified bowling and girls wrestling, by the committee.
Seeing the interest from the boys that play has been a good sign for the coaches working with them, as they admit to some hesitations about how well boys volleyball would flourish at their schools.
"I was hesitant to take on the role of head coach of a boys program, partly because I have never coached boys but also partly because I knew it would be time consuming," Niwot coach Tricia Grafelman said. "Niwot had a boys program several years ago, but it's been a while since we have put a team together. I hesitated when I knew it was still a club sport, but my daughter, who is a senior, convinced me to do it. She played on the girls varsity team and she offered to help me."
Some teams have players that joined programs from playing in the club volleyball circuit and come in with experience and a good knowledge of the game. But for many, this program is the first time they are playing organized volleyball and look to hone their raw skills with the fundamentals.
"Most of our players are from the Boulder Valley School District with a wide variety of volleyball skills and knowledge," Boulder assistant coach Kari Basey said. "We have a couple players that are playing organized 6s for the first time, multi-sport athletes, outdoor doubles players transitioning to the indoor game and four club players who have a lot of experience and play year round."
Since many girls who play volleyball at the high school level have played the sport growing up the majority of their lives, coaches with the high school teams can typically hit the ground running with more complex drills and establishing plays.
With the boys, coaches are having to take steps back and start from the beginning, drilling the basic fundamentals and teaching the game to their male athletes.
"The only skills they know are what they learned in PE, so we have to go back and re-teach the basics," Frederick coach Suzanne Robison said. "All of those things have to be taught and we have to break down the skills they have learned incorrectly. You also have to teach them offenses and defenses, how to rotate, and other things that come second nature to the girls."
Karimi and Laura Doran, the head coach for the Skyline Gold team and assistant to Karimi, have talked plenty about swings, positioning and communication with the boys on their team during drills. The two have even pulled players to the side to teach techniques from diving to dig up shots to set passes and serves.
One thing all the coaches say the boys do have, however, is an eagerness to learn.
"I think they have a steep learning curve but have addressed the fundamentals quickly," Karimi said. "To go from not playing to being ranked seventh in Class 3A is very exciting. We have a lot of practice time and they are quick learners who are grasping the fundamentals. Having that high IQ is very surprising."
Karimi added that as a coach, she could challenge the boys more and be harder on them because of their willingness to learn the game.
Another door that has been opened with boys volleyball is having players from the girls team come help the boys in learning the fundamentals and working in drills. Many of the local programs are using these players as assistant coaches to give them a chance to get more time on the court in the offseason while helping a new crop of players develop.
"We are using the girls to play against them and to teach those skills," Robinson said. "These girls have been able to be involved with the program and help teach, and you learn more about yourself doing that. We've done that here to get the girls involved and it's been great. It benefits us in many ways."
Why the boys have come to play
Parker Steed, a senior captain at Skyline, is like many of the boys playing volleyball this spring in terms of watching the sport but having little experience playing it. That did not stop him from taking the court to help the Falcons get off to a 6-2 start this season.
"Ever since my freshman year, I've always wanted to go and be on a volleyball team," Steed said. "I'm a little upset it's starting now, but I'm glad at the same time."
Steed grew up around volleyball with his sister playing the sport and helping her in practices, but he never got the chance to shine under his own light until now. When the program was offered, he wanted to show his skills in the game he had seen others in his family play.
From day one, the sport has been everything he has hoped for.
"I remember our first practice, I was so excited about it," Steed said. "After it, I was up in the clouds. I was loving it so much, especially playing with people that are taking this seriously like we are."
The serves and play above the net have made Steed a key player in the rotation for the Skyline team. As the season has gone along, the players have learned their positions and found where they can contribute on the floor, one of the reasons he feels the team is off to their strong start.
While they have grown on the court with their skill set, it's the mental challenges and handling runs within the game that he says the team has had to learn to overcome and manage in order to take their game to the next level.
"Sometimes you get a couple of points behind and you have to make sure you don't get mad at your team for little mistakes here or there," Steed said. "I think that's the most important part."
Even though he is a senior, Steed hopes to see the sport become sanctioned for the boys and for it to continue growing in the next few years.
"I can't wait to see what it looks like when kids from all over the state are playing this sport," Steed said.