The lone tenants of the Bloomington Kennedy High School gymnasium drift in slowly after school on a Tuesday afternoon and gather on one of five full courts.
Minutes later, all that's heard is the swish and echo of racquets, as practice begins for the school's newest varsity sport. Bloomington Kennedy is in its first season as an official Minnesota State High School League badminton team, becoming one of the latest suburban schools to latch onto the growing sport.
The team's first competition is set for April 8. Coach Todd Kennedy is not sure how his team will fare competitively, but he said he's enthusiastic about the opportunities the new sport provides.
"We have a lot of girls out here that normally wouldn't be able to participate in a traditional school sport for whatever reason," Kennedy said. "Now they get to participate in a school sport, they get to play something they love, they get to have some fun with it."
The Eagles had 13 players at practice on Tuesday, and only two said they had played another school sport. Kennedy said he will likely end up with 15 to 18 players, but he hopes to double or triple those numbers in the next few years.
By comparison, St. Paul Johnson, which has won five of the past six state championships, has about 75 girls in its program this year.
Bloomington Kennedy is one of three suburban schools to add badminton this spring, along with Park Center in Brooklyn Park and Math and Science Academy in Woodbury. There are 24 teams in Minnesota, up from 20 last year. Seventeen are from Minneapolis or St. Paul schools.
Interest in a varsity team started with Kennedy's school club program, founded by school staff member Hung Phung, an Asian student advocate. The club drew draw about 40 to 50 boys and girls, and Kennedy estimated nearly all the girls on his team played in it.
"The club wasn't really that competitive. It was just come after school and then play around and go home," junior Chusang Nhasang said. "But now the actual team at the school is very competitive since we have to play against other schools, and that's very exciting."
Nhasang, the team's best player, is also one of its best recruiters. She convinced her friend Angela Taing to join.
"It's a fun sport to play," Taing said. "It can make your heart beat and [give] you a lot of energy."
The school has faced logistical issues after adding badminton to its spring offerings. Some girls who had never played another sport needed help filling out forms and getting a physical. Language barriers also have arisen for the multicultural team, but Kennedy has leaned on the school's student advocates for help.
The sport's relatively low cost has helped get members of the team involved, with only an activities fee required that can be waived if a student qualifies for free or reduced lunch. The school provides racquets for players, though about half the team members have their own.
"We have a lot of different kids from different backgrounds, cultures, nationalities," Kennedy said. "I'm really proud of these girls. They love playing."
Kennedy said he can see the sport continuing to grow in the suburbs.
"It attracts a population of girls that a lot of them don't [play other sports] and as a school I think it's our responsibility, our obligation to get them involved in extracurricular activities," he said.
Benjamin Gotz is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.