For a state known for hockey, a steady rise in another sport has garnered Minnesota a reputation as one of the best. That sport? Volleyball. While this might be a surprise to rink rats, for another loyal and enthusiastic crowd, volleyball has a firm foothold and it does not look as though that enthusiasm will wane anytime soon.
Minnesota has repeatedly been called a “hotbed” for volleyball, and is at the top vying with California and Texas for most collegiate and international players. Four years ago, ESPN Magazine titled an article about the state of the sport here in Minn., The Land of 12,000 Volleyball Players (And Counting), noting the high level of players. Five years later participation is still on the rise as evidenced by a 2017 article in the Star Tribune stating, “Volleyball is now Minnesota’s most popular sport, drawing more participants (16,222) last school year than track & field, basketball, softball or hockey” (12/1/2017).
What accounts for the steady stream of talent and enthusiasm for the sport is the consistently strong club scene here. Burnsville’s Northern Lights volleyball club has been around the longest (1993) with Bloomington’s M1 club following in 1998. Both clubs have produced collegiate- and international-level athletes throughout the years and might have contributed in drawing former Olympic coach Hugh McCutcheon—whose men’s Olympic 2008 team won gold and women’s team won silver in 2012—to lead the women’s volleyball team at the University of Minnesota.
Most of the girls on the volleyball team at Edina High School (EHS) began at one of the clubs in the area. Mark Nelson, also a South View math teacher, is their coach at Edina. The team had the top seed last fall in section 6AAA going into the State Tournament. From his team this past season, “Four seniors will play in college,” he says, attributing the strength of the volleyball program to the clubs which is “so good,” affording players many chances to play year-round.
Outside of the high-level club options, other opportunities to play exist. Edina Volleyball Association director, Stephanie Chapek, provides fall programming, winter club season and summer camps for students of all ages. “I have even first and second graders playing,” she says of the program that is run at EHS and doesn’t require travel out of the metro area although some teams choose overnight travel for a tournament. “This past fall, we had 105 kids involved,” she says, noting that playing is versatile, fast paced, team-centric, fun and often passed down from parent to child.
Tiffany Bushland, a supervisor at Edina Parks & Recreation, mentions the improvements made to the sand volleyball court at Rosland Park as a sign of growth in interest in play at all levels and ages. She also plays the game and says, “It is such a fun sport to watch and play; it is very fast paced.”
Deb Smith has been working for nearly 30 years for Metro Volleyball which schedules officials for boys’ high school volleyball, park and rec teams and off-season club volleyball. Her involvement with the Edina Women’s rec team began when she helped start the program over 10 years ago.
A more recent addition to the club scene is Vital Volleyball Club, founded in 2012 and run out of Champion’s Hall just across the highway from Braemar ice area. Native Californian Ryan Stuntz (two-time All American and a 2003 National Championship winner) and his wife Kelly Bowman (two-time hall of famer from Osseo and a Minnesota State Player of the Year) began the club in response to the continued growth. Shortly after the club launched, they held an open gym. “When we held our first open gym 100 girls showed up to play,” Stuntz says. “We signed up a phenomenal coaching staff from the beginning,” helped by their connections to the volleyball world with plans for more clinics and growth in the future.
When asked about what makes volleyball a sport that draws such a vast group of players, Nelson says, “It is a good team sport, such a fun sport to play and there is a lot of action. Constant things are happening and there is scoring on every play. It is fast paced and competitive.” Stuntz says, “From the collegiate standpoint, Minnesota is a top five program in the country. Coach McCutcheon has added even more magnetism to the game since he came to the University of Minnesota, but there are excellent D2 and D3 options here, as well.”
“McCutcheon puts a quality team out there every year. But, with so many chances to play for a Minn. college or university, a lot of people want to support their hometown girls,” according to Stuntz. The tide is undeniable. It is almost a catch-22. More kids want to play as they see more high quality play happening at the club and college level. Having a world-respected coach like McCutcheon has only added to the enthusiasm. Stuntz believes Concordia University St. Paul also has a lot to do with the rise in interest in volleyball. “Their coach Brady Stark has helped them win 9 championships in the past 11 years,” Stuntz says.
According to McCutcheon, and likely why he is such a high caliber coach, is his view of what makes volleyball such a great sport, “Volleyball is a very technical and tactical team sport. Learning the skills and understanding the nuances of the game appeals to lots of people and the risk of injury is low. I think the team part of our game is very special. There’s a real connectedness in our sport that you can’t find in other team sports. Generally three people have to contribute to the play before you have a chance to score a point. That, combined with the rotational aspect of the game, make it almost impossible for the sport to be about any one individual. It’s all about the team!”
And, what about the boys? Nelson is gunning for a team at EHS and is the high school boys’ coach in Prior Lake. He says 2017 was the first year there was high school boys’ volleyball in the state. There were about 22 varsity programs. “I’d love to double that,” he says.
Both Nelson and Stuntz began playing in junior high after being exposed to the sport by family members and fell in love with it. “Once these kids see the game, they want to get on the court and touch the ball, they start playing,” Stuntz says. He left baseball behind for the intensity of the game, for the challenge and athleticism of it. “I saw Jason Voorhees (beach volleyball player from Calif. who also played volleyball at Stuntz’s high school) and I thought, ‘I want to be that guy,’” he says.
The boys that do play often come to the game after being a spectator for an older sister and find they want to get out there as well. It’s only a matter of time. Minnesota might seem an unlikely place for this sport to flourish, but time has shown that it is not going anywhere. The many options for play at all ages and levels of experience are sure to keep volleyball a hometown tradition.
Special thanks to Edina Hornet volleyball for participating in our feature photo shoot.