When the Juneau High School Boys Volleyball Club Team took the court in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, last weekend for a tournament the players looked through the net and saw a rare sight -- players their own age.
The club team is used to playing against adult teams in the Juneau Parks and Recreation's volleyball program, competing in Men's Division Two. Many of the players on the other side of the net are twice the age of the boys, if not older.
So the Juneau boys relished the chance to play in the Early Bird Whitehorse Boys High School Tournament, held Oct. 13-14 at Porter Creek Secondary School. It was the first time the Juneau boys have seen action against players their own age since the team started three years ago, co-coaches Becky Robertson and Phil McMurray said.
"I've been waiting three years for this," Juneau-Douglas High School junior Craig Kitka said.
"It's a lot funner playing kids your own age," Juneau junior Eric Peterson added.
Kitka and Peterson were two of the nine boys who went to Whitehorse with the team. The others were Juneau senior Aaron Larson, junior Ryan Monagle, sophomores Andrew Croan, Adam Peterson, Collin Reilly and Kyle Thibodeau, and freshman Bryan Diebels.
The Bears posted a 2-2 record in the tournament, which used international rules. Juneau defeated a team from Dawson, Yukon Territory, 25-14, 25-13, then lost to F.H. Collins of Whitehorse, 11-25, 25-14, 15-10. Juneau beat Porter Creek 26-24, 25-17, then lost to Vanier Catholic of Whitehorse, 25-15, 19-25, 15-11.
"They were a lot quicker and more athletic," Kitka said of the three Whitehorse teams and the team from Dawson. "There were different rules, like rally scoring (points are scored on each play, not just when the winning team served the ball). They had a lot more coverage (on defense)."
The team plays two matches a week on Tuesdays and it practices every Wednesday night. For the tournament, the boys team scrimmaged a couple of the other men's teams to prepare for Whitehorse.
"They play in middle school, but then the boys get to high school and there's no outlet for volleyball," Robertson said. "We play in the adult league, but technically nobody younger than 15 is supposed to play with the adults. We've been able to get a few younger players in with our team."
Kitka and Peterson both said they'd love to see boys volleyball become a high school program, but they know it's unlikely.
The only boys able to play high school volleyball in Alaska are those playing on mixed-six coed teams in some of the state's smaller villages. The mixed-six coed volleyball program is designed for those schools so small they can't support an all-girls team.
Right now, only 20 of the country's 50 states have boys high school volleyball and Title IX restrictions make it difficult to add more boys programs. Title IX is the 25-year-old gender equity bill that requires schools to have as many opportunities for female athletes as they do for males.
For the most part, Title IX has been a good bill as it's increased the number of opportunities for women. But it's had a detrimental effect on some male sports. Many schools are so gun-shy about being taken to court over the gender equity issue, they won't add any boys programs without adding a corresponding girls program.
In many colleges around the country, especially those with large football teams eating up many of the spots for male athletes, Title IX has actually contributed to the demise of some minor sports for men. Since Title IX passed, 41 NCAA Division I colleges have dropped baseball because of a combination of budget and Title IX issues, 13 of those in the 1990s.
Wrestling and swimming are other programs that face the ax, and the University of Alaska Anchorage cut its men's swim program last year. College wrestling programs actually get cut more frequently than baseball, Baseball America associated editor John Manuel said.
While Alaska doesn't have boys volleyball at the high school level, it has produced some top players and coaches through the club program. University of Michigan head coach Mark Rosen got his start with the Midnight Sun volleyball program in Anchorage, as did current Dimond High School coach Bryan Stenehjem and former Chugiak High coach Mike Vincent.
Robertson said the Juneau team may play in some club tournaments this spring and summer, and it plans to play more Canadian teams where high schools have boys teams. Peterson he thinks boys volleyball would be a perfect addition to Juneau's list of high school sports, even though it would be difficult to find a spot for it in the budget.
"I'd like to see a high school program," Peterson said. "It's not just about hitting the ball over the net. There's passing, and it takes intelligence and hand-eye coordination. I think there are a lot more boys who'd like to play."