ST. GEORGE — Tyler Awerkamp and Lucca Mamone watched on as the newer players of the Southern Utah Boys Volleyball Club scrimmaged on Thursday night. Mamone stretched out and got prepared for his upcoming match. Awerkamp, nursing a recent leg injury, kept him company and took a seat on one of the Nets on Fire stools.
Some basketball players filtered in and out of the Be More Complex gym onto the other court, with a small, rollout passenger stand moderately filled with parents and family the only thing in between the two.
No matter the affiliation, this preseason practice would not draw a large crowd. But the half-hearted cheers from the dozen or so family and friends left them pondering what it might look like if they were able to play for their own schools with the fanfare of a full varsity event surrounding them. While crowds can get sizeable for bigger tournament events, they still yearn for the student sections, the cheerleaders and to bear their school’s colors.
That dream will have to wait at least another year, after both Awerkamp and Mamone have moved on following graduation and after the Utah High School Activities Association voted against sanctioning the sport of boys volleyball.
“It would be awesome if it was a high school sport,” Mamone, a senior at Pine View High School, told St. George News. “Even though I didn’t have the chance to play in high school, I still want all these kids to have the chance to play in high school. I went to all the girls games this year and I was like, ‘Just think of how cool it would be to have a student section behind you while you’re playing volleyball. That would be so sick.”
Mamone said that the Utah club team travels as a unit. On Thursday night, one week since the UHSAA’s decision, Crimson Cliffs, Snow Canyon, Pine View and other locals had students represented. When they travel, they wear a generic Southern Utah Boys Volleyball Club kit or that of one of the schools. They miss the school pride and the fanfare of facing off against rival Region 9 schools with local bragging rights on the line.
But there are more implications than just the environment. They get limited reps, especially when the club season ends. They face similar competition in practice and play fewer games. They might not get facility access, like to weight rooms, as easily.
It sets Utah behind the 20-plus states that have already sanctioned the sport, despite hosting a collegiate powerhouse in men’s volleyball at BYU. Awerkamp is a nationally-recognized player, named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America watch list. But the Snow Canyon student said it’s harder to get colleges to pay attention to you when you’re not playing for a school.
“Me personally, I’ve gotten some,” Awerkamp said. “But as a club, it’s a lot harder. You don’t have as many opportunities to go and show colleges how good you are. Sanctioning the sport would make it a lot easier… As a club, I don’t think you get taken as seriously.”
Awerkamp said he’s hoping to play for Utah Valley’s club for a few years with a dream of ultimately landing at BYU. But there are plenty of others, some in the St. George area, that are getting overlooked or lack the development to move on to the next level.
With these in mind, advocates pushed for the sanctioning as the sport just passed the minimum set by the UHSAA, with two more schools having participation in the state than what was required.
The Utah Boys Volleyball Association conducted an interest survey and generated more than 4,500 signatures in support of sanctioning.
In Southern Utah specifically, Snow Canyon has the only Washington County School District recognized club, but students from all eight schools in the region have participated. Club coach Donovan Martinez was also recognized by the American Volleyball Coaches Association with a diversity award for his efforts growing the game locally.
“That’s the hard part,” Martinez told St. George News. “We’re not sanctioned right now, so it’s hard for people to want to commit to a club thing. If it’s something they can represent their school in as far as sanctioning, actual games at home and what not, playing for a region title, playing for the state tournament, it might not catch on but there are a few schools here that would be able to field a team with the amount of interest we’ve had. But not everybody wants to be under the umbrella of a different school.”
Momentum is building and there is a belief the game will continue to grow with sanctioning. So why wasn’t it approved by the UHSAA Board of Trustees?
According to Larry Bergeson, Superintendent of Washington County School District and the 4A/3A representative on the board, there were issues with staffing events with supervising personal and transportation. Bergeson also said there was another factor, unique to this year.
‘The other problem with it this year, and the timing wasn’t good, was the COVID year,” Bergeson said. “Overwork, but all the extra duties. A lot of people expressed concerns over taking one more sport.”
Bergeson also expressed general concerns over adding too many sports to the calendar and overworking staff, even in non-COVID 19 times. He said the issue wasn’t about facility use, but coordinating supervision and transportation in the spring, volleyball’s preferred season to align with the collegiate calendar, adding they’d like to offer every possible sport but “it’s just difficult.”
The Association added girls wrestling last year and competitive cheer this year, but also rejected esports this cycle as well.
However, there may be hope on the horizon still for Martinez, his players and the rest of boys volleyball enthusiasts. The sport can be reconsidered next year and Bergeson is optimistic that sanctioning boys volleyball is a very real possibility, even within the next two years.
“I think next year has got a better chance, for sure,” Bergeson said. “But if we can get COVID behind us, that will help a bunch… That was a major part of the decision, quite frankly. It’s just not the year but down the road I believe it will be. I really believe there’s a strong possibility within the next year or two that that would happen.”
For now, club volleyball is the avenue. Snow Canyon will play in a Wasatch tournament at the end of April and a larger tournament in May. However, the desire to move to sanctioned prep is still there. Interested parties can visit Snow Canyon’s club volleyball website for information on joining or supporting.
“We’re not going to give up,” Martinez said.
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