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Prep volleyball for boys? Organizers hope to make it an official varsity sport

Spending ample time inside gyms watching his two older sisters play volleyball, Wesley Hart has caught the itch himself. He's taken to badgering his dad, Derek Hart.

"When can I play?" Wesley will ask.

"Hey, I'm working on it, bud," the elder Hart responds.

By the time 4-year-old Wesley is ready to dive into the sport, his dad just might have a team for him. While boys volleyball is, at best, a novelty in the Northland, Hart hopes to change that.

Buoyed by the successful launch of the Minnesota Boys High School Volleyball League in the metro area last spring, Hart — like others around the state — is trying to drum up interest locally. His goal is to have 8-10 teams up and running in northern Minnesota when the season starts in March. He knows how lofty that sounds.

"I don't think it's far-fetched," said Hart, the girls coach at Floodwood. "It's ambitious, but if you're not shooting high, then what are you doing?"

This whole thing started when Walt Weaver, a Hall of Fame coach who guided girls teams at Apple Valley and Lakeville North to state championships, crossed paths with Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon, who led the U.S. men to gold at the 2008 Summer Olympics and the women to silver in 2012. Minnesota has earned a reputation as a volleyball hotbed, but what about the boys, McCutcheon wanted to know. It's a question that had vexed Weaver for decades.

The two set about forming the boys league, which enjoyed a robust debut. More than 400 players, on 38 teams from 22 schools, competed in Year 1. Those numbers are likely to be dwarfed by next spring's turnout. Hart said as many as eight teams could sprout in the Rochester area alone.

If the expected growth materializes, Weaver believes it's only a matter of time before boys volleyball is sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League. He noted the year 2020 as a possibility — or, at least, as a goal.

"It should wake up everybody to the fact that this is going to happen," Weaver said.

Currently, 23 state organizations around the country sponsor varsity boys volleyball.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, volleyball is the second-most popular prep sport, behind only track and field, among girls nationwide — though it's No. 1 in Minnesota. And its growth among boys trails only soccer and cross country.

"If there are enough kids interested, let's give them the opportunity," Weaver said.

While the initiative largely has been well received, pushback predictably has emerged. Aside from worries about facility time and funding, the most common concern is that many schools simply don't have the student-athletes to support another athletic offering. Boys volleyball would be contested in the spring alongside baseball, lacrosse, track and field, golf, tennis and trapshooting (not an official MSHSL sport, but it warrants inclusion here because of its massive participation numbers).

But, Weaver claims, of the 400-plus participants in the boys volleyball league's inaugural season, more than 300 never had played a spring sport.

"I'm not trying to swipe kids from other sports," Hart said, but rather provide another option.

He said feedback from prospective players has been overwhelmingly positive.

"The boys that I've talked to are like, 'Oh my God, that'd be awesome,' " Hart said. "These kids want to do it."

One of them, Floodwood senior Gavin Clark, wishes he'd had the opportunity sooner.

"A lot of guys want to play; we've just never had the chance to because there hasn't been a league," said Clark, who also does football and basketball at Floodwood.

Clark believes it will catch on, mentioning "quite a few" of his friends are excited to test their hitting — or setting, or digging — prowess. It's a lot tougher than it looks, he admits. Clark has had a blast playing volleyball recreationally in the summers.

That's no surprise to Weaver.

"The sport sells itself," he said. "It's going to explode."

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