A Growing Sport: Boys Volleyball Popularity Rising in Texas
TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS FANS ARE AWARE – the Lone Star State's girls' volleyball is among the best – if not THE best – in the world.
Recently, there's been a movement for Texas high school boys' volleyball.
While the exact number isn't confirmed, there are less than 100 boys' Texas high school volleyball teams in existence today.
The Southwest Preparatory Conference has nine teams that include Episcopal, Kinkaid and St. John's in the Houston-area and St. Andrew's and St. Stephens in the Austin area. There are 20-30 more teams (mostly private schools) in the Dallas Metroplex area, but none are sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League (UIL). Compare that to over 1,200 UIL-sanctioned girls' teams.
The approach to high school boys' volleyball in Texas is the "club" space – a group of teams that play at the high school level, but in the private sector. Think lacrosse, which is sanctioned by the Texas High School Lacrosse League. Or hockey, which has a few club organizations.
Boys' volleyball has a lot of growing to do on a national scale. On the collegiate front, the NCAA has only 45 schools that compete.
"The boys' game has a ways to go," stated Butch Hart, the "Godfather" of Texas volleyball media. "There's some really good talent out there. In my opinion, Nathan Lietzke (St. Andrews High School; Austin Juniors Club Volleyball) is the best player in the state – he's going to Stanford on scholarship.
"The key to growing the boys' game will be finding a time period when they can play. Texas high school sports is packed – football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball, track, soccer and lacrosse in the spring. There must be a time when you can get boys to play volleyball."
Nathan Lietzke's father, Glen, believes he has the answer to that.
"You probably have to do the boys' volleyball season in the spring," stated Glen, leader of the Austin Juniors. "Everything (baseball, lacrosse, track) is outdoors in the spring so the inside courts are available."
Joe Lind, Club Director at the renowned TAV Houston Volleyball Club, agrees.
"If we're going to grow the boys' high school game, they'll have to play in the spring season," stated Lind. "After basketball season, the (indoor) courts open up. Plus, there's a bit of time between basketball and the spring sports, where you can possibly get the boys to come into the gym and try the game. What we've seen is that when they try it, they like it. Volleyball gives them another option for a sport, plus it's pretty safe."
Lind alertly points out a "stigma" that may be tied to boys' volleyball.
"Everyone thinks volleyball is a girls' sport," Lind explained. "Plus, with the popularity of football, basketball and other sports, there's a bit of 'masculinity' tied to those sports."
That's not always the case.
Episcopal's Tanner Witt is a monster on the mound for the Knights' baseball team. The 6-foot-5 Texas Longhorn pitching commit plays volleyball in the fall. He helped lead his team to a third-place finish at the SPC state tourney.
"I play volleyball in the fall because I love the sport and the competition," Witt said. "It is a lot harder than people think and a lot of the footwork and communication helps and correlates to baseball."
Both Lind and Lietzke started their clubs' foray into boys' volleyball with the same approach – open gyms.
The Austin Juniors started their program in 2009, and led by Nathan Lietzke, Merrick McHenry and others, have fared well in regional and national tournaments.
"We started the program with an open gym," Lietzke revealed. "We worked on developing the talent, plus brought in very good coaches who know the boys' game. Nathan's team is pretty good. We went out to California and finished in the top 15. We're good, but we have a ways to go to be really good."
That statement says a lot when you consider that Volleyball Magazine just listed Merrick McHenry (Dallas area) as the No. 4 recruit on it's Fab 50 list. Nathan Lietzke is tied for fifth.
The two play together on the Austin Juniors' boys' 18 Mizuno team, which has eight players heading to play Division I men's collegiate volleyball.
Meanwhile, TAV Houston Volleyball started a 14U team last year and is seeing rapid growth.
"We just started our club team this past year," Lind explained. "We hope to keep the momentum and to have two to three teams next year."
Hart believes once the game picks up steam, it will catch fire.
"There's obviously a lot of talented athletes in the state of Texas," Hart said. "It will take a commitment from those athletes to eventually put a priority on playing volleyball, as opposed to football, basketball, baseball or other sports. Nathan Lietzke is a prime example of the talent that's here. He's not just the best boys' player in the state – he's one of the best players in the nation."
"The skill level of our one 14U team has grown exponentially," he said. "Just by getting reps in practice, playing in open gym and playing in tournaments, those boys have shown dramatic improvement."
The open gym approach seems to be the formula to grow the high school game in Texas.
"We've had about 100 kids in Austin come out for open gym," Lietzke said. "About 65 of those were high school-aged and 35 were middle school kids. They were excited about it and showed a great desire to play."
Just as with the girls, Lietzke believes the "pride" of Texas will help the boys' game grow quickly.
"We see what they're doing in California, Colorado and Minnesota," he said. "They have mini-seasons in some states. The talent and skill level is phenomenal. Minnesota is up to about 40-50 teams at this point. I believe once we get this thing going, we'll have the foundation for a great boys' program here in Texas."
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More information about Texas high school boys' volleyball can be found online, www. texasboysvolleyball.com