Two years into her volleyball life, Jenna Grutzmacher was progressing steadily, if unspectacularly, playing in the Rosemount community volleyball club.
After seventh grade, a teammate migrated to Northern Lights, the most renowned volleyball club in the state. When Grutzmacher ran into her at a tournament a few months later, the difference was startling.
"You could tell how much better she had gotten, just over the course of a couple of months," she said. "I was like, 'Wow. Maybe I could do that, too.' "
Grutzmacher did just that.
During the fall, the 5-7 junior middle hitter enjoys playing for the Rosemount High School team. But her first love is Northern Lights.
As soon as the high school season is over, she heads back to the Midwest Volleyball Warehouse, a sprawling building in an industrial park in Burnsville that is home base for the club and a second home for Grutzmacher.
The season there starts in November, the day after the high school state tournament ends, and runs well into June and often July. Players on top teams often play volleyball 10 or 11 months out of the year.
"I really want to play college volleyball, and playing club volleyball is the way I get recruited and the way my skills get better," Grutzmacher said.
Her story has played out hundreds of times across the metro area, where basketball, baseball, soccer, softball, hockey and lacrosse have all seen an explosion of private, for-profit programs dedicated to youth sports.
Barely 20 years ago, clubs and organizations devoted to a single sport were few. Today, it's become increasingly rare for an athlete to join a high school team in the most popular sports without having extensive, and often expensive, training from a club program.
In many cases, the club season has, for athlete exposure and recruiting purposes, become more essential than the high school season.
"It used to be you did club to get ready for high school," said Tom Weko, Mounds View volleyball coach. "Now you do high school to get ready for club."
It wasn't that way when Leah Dasovich grew up a basketball player in St. Cloud, graduating in 1996 and going on to play at St. Cloud State.
"Clubs were just getting started," said Dasovich, who coached Minnetonka to the 2016 Class 4A girls' basketball state championship. "There wasn't anything north of the metro, and if you wanted to play, it was a big time commitment and a lot of money."
Dasovich recalled one high school teammate who played club basketball, but she was an exception. Now, playing for a club team is largely the rule.
"Back then, you had to be invited to play," she said. "Now, there's an AAU club program for anybody and everybody. You almost have to play on a [club] team."
'Wild, wild west'
Competition for spots on the local high school teams has escalated to the point that athletes and their parents feel it necessary to train outside of the prep season to just to keep up with others. Athletic clubs fill that need.
"Parents say, 'We have to do it. There's no way we can't,' " Lakeville South volleyball coach Stephen Willingham said. "I call it FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. If I go to play basketball, while in the meantime 15 or 20 classmates go play winter volleyball, am I going to miss out on that training? What's going to happen next fall? Am I going to make the team? People are fearful of stepping away from a sport and not being able to catch up."
Ground zero for the explosion of club sports was in the spring of 1989. Basketball players in other states were congregating under a club banner and competing in AAU tournaments outside of the high school season, from which Minnesota players were prohibited.
Tartan boys' basketball coach Mark Klingsporn was one of the first to see the potential in out-of-season competition. He said the impetus for the rules change was an AAU tournament in Kentucky.
"Larry Ronglien, a close friend of mine, calls me up," Klingsporn said. "He said 'We've got to do something like this in our state.' "
Inquiries were made, proposals developed. Eventually the Minnesota State High School League agreed to relax its rules and allow athletes to play for organized teams in the offseason.
"Ten, 15 years ago, there was one baseball club," said Dan Klinkhammer, executive director of the Minnesota Youth Athletic Services, which oversees most youth baseball and basketball clubs and tournaments in Minnesota. "Now, there's 25 to 30. There are a zillion basketball clubs.
"Once the high school season is over, it's the wild, wild west."
Nick Storm started the Minnesota Fury girls' basketball club in 2007 with just two teams. Now, a decade later, the Fury program has grown to 24 teams.
"It's staggering," Storm said with a chuckle of incredulity in his voice. "It's gone from only elite kids trying to play in college basketball to a situation where a kid says 'If I want to make varsity, I better find an AAU team.' "
When Willie Vang began the Minnesota Heat basketball club in 2006, he was simply looking to fill a void in the north metro area for kids who wanted to play. "Everyone was driving to Bloomington or Hopkins," he said. "My reason was supply and demand."
The Heat began with 19 teams that year. This past season, Vang said, his club program had 106 teams — 87 for boys, 19 for girls — and more than 1,000 athletes, making it one of the largest basketball clubs in the nation. Once Vang's sideline venture, now it's his full-time job.
Paying to play
The costs of playing for a for-profit club go toward paying for coaching, facilities, tournament fees, administrative costs and travel, which eats up a significant portion.
At Northern Lights, the single-season cost to play for the program's top level is $4,775. For the beginners, it's $2,230. A season of play for Midwest Speed, the state's top softball club, runs about $3,600. The Minnesota Baseball Academy, which runs the Minnesota Blizzard Elite program, charges $3,150 annually for players ages 12 to 18.
Often those fees don't include camps and clinics.
"It's a business," Klinkhammer said. "We refer to it as 'Checkbook Baseball.' "
Despite those costs, Vang said he was surprised how many families make club sports a priority.
"When we had the semi-recession a couple of years ago, I was worried that numbers would drop," he said. "But parents were willing to do whatever it takes, even when things were crashing around them. Our numbers did not drop at all."
A payoff for high school teams is that athletes come into the season better prepared than ever before.
"The game has really advanced and the training has accelerated,'' said Willingham of volleyball. "And the kids have shown they're capable of getting it."
Dasovich said her basketball team now spends little time on traditional early-season conditioning and fundamental drills. "There is no question that the level of play has gotten better," she said. "We're able to hit the ground running."
“Players, more often then they used to, show up at high-school tryouts somewhat mentally and/or physically burned out on the sport than they used to. There is less enthusiasm for the sport because they do it all the time, so every session is just another practice, and most games are ”
To specialize or not
As a coach, Dasovich has seen firsthand the benefits of the increased skill development. With an 11-year-old daughter, Emma, trying on sports for size, Dasovich also is familiar with the parental challenge of finding balance. Last year Emma, already immersed in basketball clubs, said she wanted to try club volleyball.
"She really liked it, but learning volleyball and basketball skills, it's like apples and oranges," Dasovich said. "It takes a considerable amount of time and money. We couldn't make it work. At 11 years old, it was already too difficult."
The tug on young athletes to specialize in one sport runs counter to youth sports organizations, athletics governing bodies like the High School League and health care professionals that support playing multiple sports, citing growing concerns about overuse injuries related to sport specialization.
"Most of the research shows that specialization is negative," said Kevin Merkle, who recently retired after 16 years as a league associate director.
Most coaches agree that playing multiple sports results in a more well-rounded athlete. "That's what kids should be doing in life — exploring different things," said Dave Platt, boys' soccer coach at Benilde-St. Margaret's.
Clubs often mention the chance to play in college as a sales pitch, but they stress exposure rather than scholarship money. Most compete in regional and national tournaments that attract teams from around the country. For college recruiters, it's one-stop shopping.
"The biggest thing is the exposure they get," Klingsporn said. "You get 10 kids from 10 different high schools, put them on a team and coaches get to go see them all in a gym in Las Vegas."
Weighing the commitment
Adam Beamer, director of volleyball for Northern Lights, watched with pride as Team USA competed in a televised international volleyball competition in August. Five players — Lauren Gibbemeyer, Tori Dixon, Sarah Wilhite and sisters Paige and Hannah Tapp — were Northern Lights alums.
"Years ago, that never would have happened," Beamer said. "Little girls see that and say, 'Wow, she's from Minnesota.' If that's what you want your daughter to become, we can do that."
Many of the top club programs justify their approach when looking at the participants in high school state tournaments. Last November, 42 volleyball players from Northern Lights competed in the state tournament.
For some, however, the added commitment, intense focus and hefty tab is too much.
Kaitlyn Pond and Estella Acevedo are seniors on the Eden Prairie volleyball team, routinely among the state's top programs. Both pondered playing for a larger club in the offseason but opted instead for Eden Prairie's community program.
"The clubs are more intense and they probably give better training, but I have broader interests," Acevedo said. "I've gotten what I want out of volleyball."
Pond concurred, adding that cost was a factor in her choice to remain with the community club.
"I get to know a lot of the girls in the community, even the younger ones, and I love that," said Pond, a 5-9 middle blocker. "And it was cheaper. The cost was about $1,800 last year and that included some travel."
Chasing college dreams
Two nights after the Minnesota Twins season ended, club baseball was being played at the University of Minnesota's Siebert Field. The Siebert Fall League brings together the best teams from 10 local baseball clubs for a five-week, eight-game schedule.
On this night, the Minnesota Blizzard Blue played the HTP Sports Academy. At first base for the Blizzard was Roseville senior Teague Bogenholm, who began playing with the Blizzard when he was 12. He gave up hockey recently after feeling the pressure to play both all year.
"He didn't want to skate year-round, do the 3-on-3 league, summer camps, that sort of thing," said his father, Garin. "All his friends were doing it, and he was at a disadvantage when tryouts came."
Baseball is now his focus, nearly year-round. "It's his passion," Garin said. "It's what he loves."
Garin said college baseball is the goal, but scoffs at the notion of chasing a scholarship.
"There no scholarships in baseball," he said with a laugh, knowing he's exaggerated the point a bit. The NCAA allows just 11.7 scholarships per Division I baseball team, which often has as many as 35 players. "He does want to play at the next level, but it doesn't matter what that level is."
Not unlike volleyball player Jenna Grutzmacher.
"It's what she really wants to do," said John Grutzmacher, Jenna's father. "It's really just giving her the opportunity to do what she enjoys."
Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737
Survey of coaches about offseason sports
How much have offseason club sports and training changed the high school sports scene? The Star Tribune asked metro-area coaches to describe how their sport has changed in the last 20 to 25 years with regard to the offseason. In survey responses from about 140 coaches, here's what they said:
• Most varsity athletes in volleyball, soccer, basketball, hockey, softball and baseball spend as much time on their sport during the offseason as they do during the season.
• Volleyball and soccer lead the way when it comes to varsity athletes playing with offseason club or organized teams. But more than half of those who play hockey, softball and basketball also play for nonschool teams as well.
• Offseason training with specialists working on skill and strength development is most common in hockey, where about 60 percent of boys' and girls' players participate. In other team sports, many average about one in three athletes who train this way for part or most of the offseason.
• With no club teams to speak of in football, the high school experience appears least-affected by offseason team play. But nearly one in three players working out in some fashion to support their development for the high school varsity team.