Boys’ volleyball is among the fast-growing sports at the high school level. There are more than 20 states across the country that have sanctioned the sport and almost 70,000 individuals participating.
The buzz, however, has not caught on in the Quad-Cities yet. It isn’t sanctioned by the Iowa High School Athletic Association and most of the Illinois schools which offer it are located in the Chicago suburbs.
Austin Beaird and Austin Kerker are hoping that can change.
Beaird and Kerker, who graduated from Erie and Alleman high schools, respectively, this spring, were members of the High Flyers 18U volleyball club based in Lincoln, Neb., that captured a USAV Boys Junior National Championship earlier this month in Las Vegas.
“Boys want to play volleyball, but it is hard to find the outlets to do it in this area,” Beaird said. “Finding a club here, without having any connections, is very difficult.”
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Iowa Select, a club based in Davenport, offered a 16U and 18U boys team this year. Platform Elite, also out of the Quad-Cities, had 14U and 15U teams.
But as established players, Beaird and Kerker were seeking more. They wanted a higher level of competition. They wanted college exposure.
Beaird started following Liam Lutz, a member of the High Flyers program and a Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln student, on Instagram after competing against him in a tournament his junior year. They formed a friendship and played in a sand tournament in Omaha.
“I started getting connected with him and we talked about getting a team together to play together,” Beaird said.
The initial idea was to have a team based in the Des Moines area, which would be halfway for both parties. That fell through.
“Once we realized that wouldn’t work out, we threw out the idea if we drove out there and joined High Flyers,” Kerker said.
After playing for Iowa Select the past couple of years, Kerker and Beaird made the decision to join the High Flyers last fall.
Starting last October, Christina Groesch — Beaird’s mother and the head girls volleyball coach at Davenport West — drove the boys to Lincoln (approximately 5 hours each way) for weekend practices twice a month.
They would leave on Saturday morning, take part in a three-hour afternoon workout with the High Flyers, spend the night with teammates and then have another three-hour practice Sunday before heading home.
It was a major commitment.
“I spoke to the parents and said, ‘Hey, this is their senior year. You’ll understand once you see them playing at a higher level, how excited they get and how happy they are,'” Groesch said. “If they don’t play at the next level, then this is the last year for them to play a sport they love.”
Kerker had to create a PowerPoint presentation for his parents on why it was a good idea for him to join a club program more than 350 miles away.
“The first tournament my mom went to, she saw our team playing together and she was like, ‘Oh, I understand now,'” Kerker said. “Once you actually see it in person, it is completely different.”
The High Flyers 18U squad, which was comprised of six seniors and two juniors, finished second among 68 teams in January at the national qualifier in Chicago.
Beaird missed more than three months of action in the spring recovering from knee surgery. He returned to the court for the pre-nationals tournament in June.
At the national tournament in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, the High Flyers were the fourth overall seed.
They went undefeated during the first two days of competition, had a hiccup on the third day of pool play but won a tiebreaker match and then a challenge match to get into the eight-team gold bracket.
On the final day, they beat AJAX (Beaverton, Ore.) 25-22, 25-22 in the quarterfinals and SNVF (located in the greater Seattle area) 26-24, 25-22 in the semifinals before knocking off Santa Monica Beach Club West (Calif.) in the finals, 25-22, 22-25, 17-15.
“I had been dreaming of winning a national championship since January,” Kerker said. “If I was spacing out in school or wherever, there was a 50% chance I was thinking about volleyball or playing at nationals.
“It was a wonderful experience.”
Kerker was around volleyball in his upbringing. He had two older sisters play and he watched his father compete in some local sand events.
He’ll be attending Princeton University this fall majoring in astrophysics and walking on to the men’s volleyball team.
“My college process wasn’t focused on college volleyball,” he said. “If I got the opportunity after selecting a college, then yeah, why not?”
Beaird, meanwhile, has had an inkling to play volleyball at the highest level for more than a year. He emailed every Division I men’s volleyball program in the country trying to get his name out.
He considered the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Long Island University and Lees-McRae in North Carolina.
“When I got to Lees-McRae, it felt like my home away from home,” Beaird said. “The team was perfect and they were people I could be best friends with. It was important to play at a high level, but the culture of the team needed to be great.”
Pono Yin, a former assistant coach with the Drake University women’s program, is the head coach of the men’s team at Lees-McRae.
Beaird is scheduled to move to North Carolina on Aug. 12 and major in sports management, with the aspirations of becoming a college coach. Kerker heads to Princeton on Aug. 26.
They’ll head there with plenty of confidence and positive memories from their club experience this past year.
“After an entire season and winning a national championship, it is so worth everything we did,” Kerker said. “Just a big thank you to all the coaches for being so accommodating to us and the High Flyers family for really making us feel part of their circle.”
Groesch is trying to find a way to help grow the boys game in the Quad-Cities. She had two boys attend her Davenport West camp recently and has reached out to several Mississippi Athletic Conference coaches about possibly putting together a boys team.
“This is an opportunity,” Groesch said. “Volleyball is not just a girls game.
“It is cost effective, and the start-up costs are minimal. Sanctioning it in Iowa would be a big deal.”
Groesch is confident things will trend toward that direction in the next five years.
“Some clubs are scared to take a chance on boys volleyball because it might be a loss of profit,” Beaird said. “The Midwest and South could grow the game a lot if they put their minds to it and decided to take it on.”