Roseville senior Peng Su Thao has heard it often from his father.
"He always says 'I wish I was [young] now,' " said Thao, who is of Hmong descent. " 'I would be dominating on the court.' "
The court being the volleyball court, where Thao is a setter/right-side hitter for the Roseville boys' club team.
"It's a family sport," he said. "I've been playing since I could walk."
Boys' volleyball is not a sanctioned high school sport in Minnesota — but it could be very soon.
The MSHSL Representative Assembly meets Tuesday, and one of its primary tasks will be to vote on a proposal to add boys' volleyball the league's inventory of officially supported sports.
Should it be approved, it will be following in the league's stated beliefs in promoting inclusion in school-sponsored activities and embracing diversity.
"The interest is there," said Jenny Kilkelly, president of the Minnesota Boys' Volleyball League. Kilkelly and Vice President Krista Flemming run the day-to-day operations of the league, which is currently considered a club activity.
"Boys are coming out in droves," Kilkelly said. "Partly because we're offering something that has never been offered before."
A powerful connector
A significant portion of its attraction lies in its appeal to under-served communities of color, largely Asian. The sport is already hugely popular in Hmong and other Asian communities and offers participants an opportunity to connect with their school in ways other spring sports — such as baseball, golf and lacrosse — do not.
Kilkelly said that, according to participation numbers, nearly one-third of the players in the league come from diverse backgrounds. "We didn't expect that," she said. "But it's been incredibly rewarding. A lot of these kids have never really felt a part of their school. We've had so many kids come up and thank us for this opportunity."
Michelle Yener, the school board chair for North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district, also votes on the MSHSL Representative Assembly, representing Region 4AA, and is an unabashed volleyball fan. She believes the time has come to fold the sport into the fabric of the MSHSL.
"Our district is 60 percent students of color, mostly Asian," she said. "A lot of them don't play a sport in the spring. This should be passed. When I hear people speculate why so many diverse students don't participate in school activities, I want to say, 'Are we even listening to them?' "
Having a boys' volleyball team at the school is more than just another activity, according to Thao. It's a way to reach out to others who have not felt a bond with their school.
"I think it's the most fun sport out there," he said. "And it's more than that; it's kind of a lifestyle. It connects other people, no matter their race or ethnicity."
Roseville assistant coach Christian Karalunas, who is Filipino, said the inclusionary aspect of boys' volleyball was evident immediately. "Volleyball is ingrained in the culture of many of them," he said. "It allows them to step into a sport where they feel comfortable. It sends the message that they feel included."
Timing couldn't be better
This is the first time that boys' volleyball has come up for a vote before the Representative Assembly. In April 2019, the MSHSL's board of directors rejected it for consideration.
It is being proposed as a spring sport, with the support of Hall of Fame volleyball coach Walt Weaver and the backing of Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon. It has grown quickly since its first organized season, from 400 participants in 2018 to more than 1,200 in 2020 before the season was canceled due to COVID-19. As with most spring sports, the pandemic has siphoned off some of the players this year, but roughly 800 players registered this season.
According to Kilkelly, a survey done in 2018 showed that 75% of the boys playing volleyball had never played a spring sport. That number, she said, has risen to nearly 90% this year.
"There are coaches that are worried that volleyball will take athletes from them," Kilkelly said. "These are mostly kids that aren't playing spring sports but would like to."
McCutcheon said the timing of this proposal is significant.
"This is a very real issue speaking to the idea of inclusion, especially for minority populations," he said, adding that the impact of COVID-19 on students, forcing many into distance and hybrid learning, only heightens the need to reach out to students. "It's a compelling proposition to allow these young men the opportunity to maintain the social connections and interactions at a time when there is a need to feel connected."
The where and the when
Pushback arguments include budgetary needs at a time when the MSHSL is still struggling to recoup revenue lost to COVID-19. And while supporters are pushing volleyball as a spring sport, some school officials say they believe that season actually makes that proposal less feasible.
"I'm fine with it for the fall," North St. Paul Activities Director Jed Helwig said. "All we have in the gym then is girls' volleyball. But in the spring, there's a lot of demand for gym space: baseball, softball, lacrosse. Some schools have badminton. And in the fall, we could promote doubleheaders, with a girls' match followed by a boys, something like that."
That's not to say Helwig counts himself as a skeptic. Anything that provides more opportunities, he says, is fine by him.
"Giving opportunities to kids, I'm in favor of," he said. "If we have to schedule gym time from 2:15 p.m. to 10 at night, that's what we'll do. We'll make it happen."