How men's volleyball found its roots in Arizona
December 8, 2019 by Hunter Hippel, Arizona State University
Hunter Hippel is an ASU student at the Cronkite School assigned to cover Gilbert Christian for AZPreps365.
At Gilbert Christian High School in 2016, a junior walked into the athletic director’s office, a big room with two desks. At the time, one of the desks belonged to Adam Rasmussen, who was the school's head of athletics.
A group of seniors trailed the junior, figuring their "magnetic field" (as it was called by current AD Matt Johnson) would help the cause.
This was not a boycott of a coach or a protest. There was no hazing incident either. It was quite the opposite.
The group asked for a men’s volleyball team. And they weren’t asking for some afterschool, extra-curricular activity or gimmick. They weren’t asking for the sport to be added to the intramural circuit. They wanted a full-on, varsity-level, AIA-sanctioned team.
They were told to get 10 players and a team would be launched. Three years later, the school 30 minutes east of downtown Phoenix is now close to adding a JV squad.
Men’s volleyball is not the first sport that would come into one’s mind when brainstorming what a high school would have to offer. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 26 states during the 2018-19 school year had men participating in volleyball. The numbers fluctuate wildly. California leads the group with 944 schools, while states like Delaware only show 11. Maine has five teams.
Arizona has 111, one of the higher marks in the country.
It has taken awhile to get there, according to the AIA Executive Director, David Hines.
"In the beginning, we ran it as an emerging sport for two-to-three years," he said. "As teams decided to jump in, we got to a point where we said ‘OK, we can have a state championship.’"
That was about 25 years ago.
For a sport that's long been dominated by females, the allure to the men's game might be surprising. But real reasons for it exist. Most are simpler than one would think.
“I think the best way to teach or show someone how fun volleyball is is to get them to play," Braxton Bradbeer said, an Arizona State University freshman and member of the school's men's club volleyball team. "Especially sand volleyball. Even if you’re terrible at it, you can have a good time versus the skill-based sports like golf. You just have to show them what a good time it is.”
The biggest key to it all: the sport is fun.
"As people are watching, they started going, ‘Man I want to be a part of this,'" Hines said.
According to Hines, the existence of a men's team at the Olympic level has been monumental for the sport's breakout.
"They see men’s volleyball and Karch Kiraly and all these big time volleyball players," he said. "They were very athletic guys."
That means anyone who is a decent athlete can play it. One sport in particular makes the transition seamless, leading to even more growth.
Kevin Lee was a basketball player growing up, dominating the outdoor courts of elementary and middle schools in Livermore, California. He was small, sure, but his quickness and shiftiness allowed him to maneuver anywhere he wanted on the court. Lee was a classic, tiny yet fast point guard.
When one of his friends in sixth grade asked whether he'd want to play some volleyball for a change, the current ASU freshman and Bradbeer's teammate on the school's club team didn't think anything of it until a coach was drawn to him.
"He said I could probably go far in it," Lee recounted. "Then more coaches kept saying that if I kept working on it outside of practice that I could be pretty good."
Lee made varsity as a freshman at Granada High School, about an hour east of San Francisco. By senior year, he was all-league and playing on a top 10 club team in the country.
"We had players going D1 to Pepperdine, Loyola-Chicago, UCLA, Stanford," Lee said. "The league was pretty competitive."
Lee was one of a few friends who stuck with it after the thought of playing volleyball arose.
"My friends played other sports like baseball, basketball and football," he said. "I decided to do both basketball and volleyball because in basketball there’s a lot of jumping so it helped me with my athleticism and jumping higher.”
It's the same parallel that Gilbert Christian – led by Johnson – is trying to follow. Hines noticed it immediately.
"They had kids that were pretty good basketball players," Hines said of the Gilbert Christian program. "They had some background growing up playing volleyball. There was the interest in the families to go, ‘Hey, let's jump in and help them play.’"
Johnson is an Ohio native and a graduate of Ohio State University. After school, he moved to Georgia to take a teaching and coaching job at a local high school before landing at Fountain Hills High School in the Valley to teach math and coach basketball. In 2013, Johnson shifted to Skyline High School.
There, one of his players was a good shot-blocker. At 6'8, junior Charlie Watkin had the skills necessary to protect the rim and used his size to make layups no easy task. He ranked in the top 10 of Class 6A in shots blocked per game during the 2014-15 AIA season. But Johnson felt he had a higher ceiling.
So, Watkin started playing volleyball and saw his timing, among other attributes, develop significantly.
"He learned how to jump and block shots without contact," Johnson said. "He would catch it right as it left his [the opponent's] hand. He didn’t have to hit somebody. He only fouled out of two games the whole year. For a big guy, that’s amazing.”
His senior year, Watkin was up to second in the state in blocked shots. Atop the leaderboard? Brandon Clarke, now of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.
“For my left-handed big guy to be second to him, I’m gonna call that OK," Johnson said with a laugh.
The progression that Johnson saw in Watkin went a long way with the AD.
"I actually encouraged my basketball players to play volleyball because it helps so much with their timing," he said.
But it took awhile for Johnson to get to that point. It wasn't until the men's volleyball coach at the school approached Johnson about getting his basketball players involved.
"He said, ‘Any chance that I can get an open gym with a bunch of your [basketball] guys and get them slid over to volleyball?,'" Johnson recalled him asking. "I was like ‘How many guys do you have?’ He was like 'Ten.’ I was like, ‘Woah, OK. Yes.’
"That's where I found out that men’s volleyball was a real, legit thing."
Johnson said a player would be removed from his program if they were playing volleyball over attending offseason basketball activities in the past. That script has certainly flipped.
"Men’s volleyball is usually fed by basketball," Johnson said.
The AIA's launch
Around 20 years ago, those atop the AIA had a decision to make. Participation in men's club volleyball in the state had exploded. Schools were coming to the organization with a pitch for a team.
"There was really good interest for those schools that had the kids," Hines said.
Gilbert Christian's story is charming and inspirational, but according to Hines, it wasn't the only one.
"That’s typically how schools come on," he said. "It’s the interest of the kids. And if it’s not the kids talking to the AD, it’s the parents of the kids saying ‘Why don’t we have this sport?'
"That is exactly how we start adding teams."
The AIA decided to debut men's volleyball as an "emerging sport" – defined essentially as a one year trial run to see how the pieces come together.
The trial run lasted longer than that. More schools than the initial 20-or-so joined over the next two-to-three years. Finally, a championship was added.
"As long as we have a conference that has 23-24 schools, we’ll add it as a state championship," Hines said.
"Usually we run it [an emerging sport] on a shorter schedule because we don’t have as many teams," he added. "Instead of a 10 or 12 week schedule we may run it as an eight week schedule. We have them be able to get anywhere from 10-14 matches, and then have some type of end of season tournament."
After awhile, a second division came. According to Hines, a third division is on the way soon, which'll help some of the smaller schools (Like Gilbert Christian) involved face more balanced competition.
Despite sometimes daunting foes, things at the East Valley school are looking up in the program's fourth year. The Knights are expected to have around 14 players on this year's roster, and enrollment of this year's freshman class was the school's largest ever. Johnson hopes that will lead to possibly a larger, more developed program.
Of course, talent will play a part, too.
"We’ve had four players now join a club," Johnson said. "It’s going to have an instant impact."
He pointed to the limited yet promising success the group has had against much larger, more intimidating schools. Last year, Gilbert Christian took schools that were five-to-six times bigger than it to five sets.
"Going to five sets with those [schools] in big games... we win one or two of those and we’re in the playoffs," Johnson said.
He added: "They have a 1,000 guys to choose from when we have 150."
Hines said that with small schools "you got to start somewhere. Build a program." Johnson is trying to do just that.
"We’ve watched this program go from our first year to where we didn’t win a single game to the second year where we won a game and last year we went .500 and barely missed the playoffs," he said. "So the success is happening."
None of this happened – or is happening – without issues blipping on the radar.
Launching any new sport in a state association requires a massive effort. But launching a men's line in a sport long played by girls was a different animal – one that provoked coaches of other men's sports rather than those in the AIA building. It's also another item on the calendar for an AD, no matter the game’s popularity.
"There was some resistance from one camp: ‘Why do I have to add something more? As an AD, I have to stay one more night, two more nights. I have more things I have to do. And it’s going to cost more,'" Hines said.
But the counter was stronger, and proved Hines right.
"'You already have girls volleyball,'" Hines would say. "'You already have balls. You already have the net. You already have the gym. The nets go up six inches higher. All you really need is uniforms and a head coach.’”
ADs pushed back as hard as they could, picking any nit they could find in the argument against adding the sport. They didn't think there'd be enough players, Hines said. Then there was the coaches, who, if the ADs were sold on adding it, took issue with the choice of a spring season.
"That means that my track coach says, ‘That was one of my high jumpers,'" Hines said imitating the coaches. "Basketball kids I’m going to have to give up because they want to play another sport (volleyball)."
Hines just wanted to get everyone involved. At smaller schools, that was difficult. Most students were already involved with something. Those that remained left a very small pool to pull from.
"I was worried when we first started the team here that it would decimate one of our other programs," Johnson said of Gilbert Christian.
And operations is just one side of it. Effort and money is going into something that isn't yet mainstream. At all.
When Bradbeer and Lee show up to club volleyball games on ASU's Tempe campus, they aren't turned off by the lack of fans.
"Not really," Bradbeer said. "My freshman year I was like 'That’s kind of weird. Normally I thought varsity sports were more popular than this.’ But I just guess that’s part of the growing stage.
“In California, men’s volleyball at the high school level can bring together a crowded gym. In Arizona, you might get grandparents, parents and coaches.”
Lee didn't experience the harsh nature of a newer sport as prominently as Bradbeer did, but understands it's growing and that the culture in Arizona is different than on the coast.
Playing a sport known by most as a girls game also comes with its own drawbacks.
"There’s definitely been some heckling," Bradbeer said.
But he's got the comebacks, and he doesn't have to speak them.
"I think it’s funnier when they heckel you and then you dunk on them, because you can jump higher than them," he said.
Bradbeer said there was light, friendly teasing from the men's basketball team at Chandler, but that a stigma isn't something that he believes exists anymore.
"Definitely before my time," he said. "I’ve never had to deal with that. I can’t speak for my dad though.”
Both of Bradbeer's parents played and his mother coached. He said it's a huge reason why he's involved in the first place.
"They just took me out in the backyard one day," he recalled. "I was like, ‘This is really fun.’
“Having two parents that coached helped me cultivate a love for the sport."
Bradbeer is trying to be a part of the group that pulls out of his father's era and dives into the next one.
"It’s not normal," he said of men's volleyball. "It’s still fringe. But you can definitely find pockets of people."
The pockets are there. Hines cited a state championship game between Gilbert High School and Gilbert-Highland which drew more than 2,900 people in 2013, stuffing one of the state's largest gyms completely full.
"One of the most electric environments for a sporting event that I’ve been in," he said. "Kids on both sides. The play was phenomenal. Went five sets. And the place was as loud as you could get."
But then there's Bradbeer's state championship season his senior year.
"There were fans at the last couple games, but other than that no one was showing up just to watch the games," he said monotone.
Gilbert Christian is experiencing similar attendance and popularity issues. The sport is attracting players, just not those to watch them play.
"Hopefully it will start to expand out," Johnson said. "But it’s going to be a problem with baseball and softball and all these other sports going on at the same time."
The Knights don't even charge for fans.
“We were even at the point where we usually charge to come to every game," Johnson said. "It’s free to come to a boys volleyball game. It took our population up maybe two or three kids. The parents obviously come because they want to watch their kids but it’s tough. It’s tough right now for a lot of our sports that don’t have JV programs, which give you sort of an automatic amount of support. It’s tough for them to get that support that they need."
In California, that support and talent-base is almost automatic.
"They don’t really disrespect any sport," Lee said of his home state. "More people are starting at a younger age. It gets more competitive [at a younger age]. When I was 14 years old, it wasn’t as competitive. But looking at the 14-year-olds now, some of them are really good."
And in Southern California, it's practically a different world.
"So-Cal has always been a powerhouse for promoting men’s volleyball," Bradbeer said.
Lee, a California native, upped the ante.
"If you want really competitive volleyball, you go to Southern California," he said. "They don’t mess around over there."
Arizona has leaps to make – plenty of them. But the sport has established a root in the state that can't be denied. Other places haven't even planted the seed.
“I’m from Ohio, and we did not have men’s volleyball," Johnson said. "It wasn’t even a question. Of all the things our gym was used for it would never be men’s volleyball.”
Johnson had the same worries that ADs and coaches expressed to Hines. But after doubting the growth of beach volleyball in Arizona, he wasn't as surprised when things took off.
"I’ve been wrong twice," Johnson said. "I didn’t know beach volleyball would continue and now it’s huge."
Still, the doubts about how schools like Gilbert Christian would survive with the men’s game plagued him. It was the second miscalculation.
"It was really ironic because I was at the other school for two years and I got here and here they started the program.” he said. "I was like ‘So this men’s volleyball thing isn’t going to go away?'"
At ASU, Bradbeer and Lee see huge potential in the Sun Devils club team. Bradbeer expects the team to be "pretty good" and Lee emphasized the team's competitive nature. Yet, it’s laid-back atmosphere is exactly what the two wanted in college.
"Everyone is in it just to have a good time and play some volleyball which is super fun," Bradbeer said.
Men's volleyball has stuck a pole in the Arizona desert. And the attraction is stronger than ever.
"I think a lot of it comes from another opportunity to play," Hines said. "Over time, kids are choosing a sport early on and less kids are playing multiple sports all the time, so it’s giving kids that may not have an opportunity to play an opportunity to play now.
"So they start finding it.”
Johnson is confident his initial suspicion was wrong.
"The success is happening," Johnson said. "And with anything, when you have success, it becomes magnetic."