Ryan Tolman knows his program is in a unique position.
For the second year in a row, the Desert Vista boys volleyball team has a freshman feeder program.
There were so many players — 60 — at the preseason tryouts that instead of cutting a large group of freshmen wannabes, the Thunder had them stick around, practice, learn, gain experience and play a few matches against the junior varsity programs from other schools.
“Instead of having them go a full year of not playing and trying out again next year, we decided to create this team,” Tolman said. “A lot of the kids from last year’s (freshman team) are contributors to the JV team this year.”
It’s a great situation to be in as Tolman gets to hold onto some young talent roaming the halls of one of the state’s biggest schools.
Some of the teams Desert Vista will be competing against in the upcoming state tournament might be interested in knowing that the Thunder program is overflowing with bodies as it gives more credence to those coaches who are not in favor of the new one state tournament format.
Boys volleyball went from two divisions to one division before this season, with money issues being the company line behind this change.
Higley (enrollment 1,441), Williams Field (enrollment 1,382) or Seton (enrollment 542) will have to play powerhouses and 2,500-plus-enrollment schools such as Gilbert, Corona del Sol, Highland, Brophy, Mountain Pointe, etc., during the regular season to fight for one of the final state tournament spots.
Then the smaller schools would have to win against those big schools in the state tournament.
“Had we come in under the current one system against 5A schools, there’s no way we’d have a program,” said Seton Catholic coach Andrew Guthrie, who started the program just three seasons ago. “I don’t think the school — or most schools starting a program — would have done it.”
As it stands, “What’s the point?” reactions from kids makes it tougher to get kids interested in boys volleyball, especially at the smaller-sized schools where they often already play another high school sport or two instead of club volleyball. Seton has 18 players combined between varsity and JV, with nine of those seniors and five kids who’d never played volleyball before.
“It’s hindered the game from growing,” Guthrie said.
Higley won three consecutive region titles and was a state tournament quarterfinalist the past two seasons in 4A-2A.
This year, 25 kids were in the tryouts, and with injuries to a couple key players and other snafus, the Knights are down to an eight-man rotation.
Smaller schools are unhappy about more difficult schedules against schools two- and three-times its own enrollment size, the bigger schools have griped about the schedules being softer because the division consolidation and geography has meant more unbalanced matches.
Beyond the computer schedules, smaller-sized schools have a chance to play the bigger boys in the Wolf Howl Invitational, or Brophy’s annual tournament last weekend, so it’s not as if schools are trying to weasel out of playing above itself. The only two non-playoff teams from 2011 on Seton’s schedule are Dobson (enrollment 3,081) and Combs. Higley has beaten Perry, Basha and Desert Ridge, and played others (Corona del Sol, Hamilton) in tournaments. But many of those schools aren’t currently projected to be playoff teams.
“How do you expect to compete for anything with one division? It allows no room for anything,” said Higley coach Nick Lujan, also a member of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) sport advisory committee for boys volleyball. “I definitely think there should be two divisions. There were enough schools to compete for two divisions in Phoenix and Tucson schools alone. Eventually, you can’t overcome numbers.”
So the immediate goals for these schools is to improve, stay healthy (or get healthy) and try to earn one of those final playoff spots.
“We definitely weren’t fans of it but there wasn’t a lot of choice,” Lujan said. “So it’s play with what you have and go forward. We’ll fight as best we can.”
What about that “forward” part? The voices trail off quickly, both in what’s expected to occur later this spring, and when it comes to future growth for the so-called “little guys,” two of which (El Mirage Dysart and Tucson Santa Rita) dropped its programs.
There’s a reasonable chance a move back to two divisions occurs in the next couple years. But if not?
“Others are going to at least look at doing the same, because what’s the point of getting your butt kicked like that?” Guthrie said. “Had we come in under the current one-(division) system against 5A schools, there’s no way we’d have a program. I don’t think the school would have done it, and I doubt many others would have either.”
East Valley Tribune sports editor Mark Heller contributed to this story.
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