Okimura Blog: Boys' and Men Volleyball Growth Depends on "Experience, Investment, Loyalty"

By Lori Okimura | July 11, 2018, 5:11 p.m. (ET)

Bay to Bay 17-1 wins the BJNC 17 Open Division
The USA Volleyball Boys' Junior National Championships had a lot to celebrate, including championship finishes, growth of boys' volleyball, past stars of the game giving back to the sport often making it a family affair and more. Lori Okimura, chair of the USA Volleyball Board of Directors, blogs about her experience at BJNC.

From the moment I landed in Phoenix for the USA Volleyball Boys' Junior National Championships, there was no mistaking two key things: 1.) Phoenix is HOT; and 2.). Boys’ volleyball in the USA is alive and well. The USA Volleyball Boys’ Junior National Championships (BJNC) set all-time records with 577 teams competing, the most ever. Teams from the USA, Puerto Rico and Canada lined the halls of the Phoenix Convention Center for eight days of national championship volleyball. That’s 6,000 players and counting, some as young as 10 years old.

Special thanks to Irina Damy of USA Volleyball, and her team of event staff, volunteers, officials, court crew and others who make the magic happen at the Boys’ Junior National Championships. And thank you to all of the USA Volleyball sponsors and partners whose support of boys’ volleyball teams and events year-round allows events like the national championships to continue. Some of the staff have been working these events all year, and for many years, and their experience running high quality events, investment of time and resources, and their loyalty to USA Volleyball is what makes the Boys’ Junior National Championships such a special tournament.

Jersey Trading at BJNC

Andy Hein coaching his club teamThere is a unique dynamic to boys' volleyball, and a special vibe at the BJNC. From the jersey trading tradition which I don’t quite understand but always love to watch, to the camaraderie of 18s cheering on 12s in their final, BJNCs is a place to reunite for many, and a place for club and college coaches to build the foundation for men’s volleyball in the USA. And just as in Detroit at the girls’ national championships, there were many examples of past players giving back by using their experience to pave the way for these boys to learn and grow. Take for instance Andy Hein. Andy is U.S. National Team alumni from West Chicago, one of the few players at the time that did not grow up on the West Coast. Andy’s experience includes an All-American collegiate career at Pepperdine before joining the U.S. Men’s National Team from 2003 through 2009. Now, he’s drawing upon his experience in men’s volleyball to give these junior players an experience of their own. He is the head coach of the Southern California-based Sports Academy Volleyball Club 17-Legends team, and also an assistant coach at Pepperdine.

Then there’s the Rochester Pace Bootlegger Volleyball Club out of the Western Empire Volleyball Association (WEVA) in New York, one of the longest-running clubs in the U.S. Established in 1979 by Cal Wickens, this club has produced dozens of top collegiate players over the years and continues to provide the best possible experience for its athletes by bringing back alumni to share and contribute to the physical and mental training of the next generation of men’s volleyball players from the East Coast. Rochester Pace Bootlegger has proven that you don’t have to come from California in order to play men’s volleyball at the highest levels in college.

Chip McCawAnd just as I expected, I ran into a lot of past players who are now parents of aspiring volleyball players. Some are coaching from the bench, and the rest are biting their nails from the sidelines for sure and the commentary is amazing! A quick glance at the rosters produced a lot of father-son, coach-player combinations. A quick glance at the courtside seats revealed even more. Team Rockstar 17-1 from Long Beach, Calif., had a few familiar last names in players Aiden Knipe and Auden McCaw. Aiden’s father, Alan, just won the 2018 NCAA Men’s Volleyball National Championship as head coach of Long Beach State University, and back in 1991 won the school’s first championship as a player on the team. Alan was also the men’s volleyball head coach of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. Auden’s father, Chip, started as a member of the U.S. National Team in 1995, was an alternate at the 1996 Olympics and competed on the U.S Olympic team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics before turning to a pro beach volleyball career through the mid 2000s. He was also a freshman at Pepperdine University when he led that team to the 1992 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship, a year after Knipe’s victory at Long Beach State. Now, their sons play on the same team with McCaw on the bench alongside head coach, Matthew Fuerbringer, the club’s director and assistant coach of the bronze-medal winning U.S. Olympic Team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Over in the 13s, one of the most entertaining age groups, I met Brendan Hom and Donovan Ivie from California. Dads are Lawrence and Pat, two old friends and NCAA national champions from the University of Southern California. Lawrence was a member of the 1988 national championship team under Bob Yoder, and Pat on the 1990 national championship team under Jim McLaughlin. Both have returned to the club volleyball world now as parents. What a great thing to be able to experience this with their kids, albeit there must be a big difference from winning national championships to fetching sandwiches and Gatorade from Subway.

Hom and Ivie father-sons with Lori Okimura

As I was handing out medals in the 17 USA division, I was happy to see another old friend in assistant coach, Chris Young. Chris was known as ‘the Chief’ during his successful pro beach volleyball career on the AVP Tour and played at Loyola Marymount University, which has since eliminated men’s volleyball. I had the honor of presenting both a bronze medal and a USA Volleyball All-Tournament Team plaque to his son, Ethan. Ethan’s teammate, Jack Walmer, is the eldest son of former Association of Volleyball Professionals President, Tim, who also coaches for the MB Surf Club alongside another AVP alum and club director, Michael Boehle. Sons and fathers all continuing the traditions.

There were a number of clubs at the BJNC, whose parents were eager to share, that provide an experience for their families beyond playing time that keeps them coming back, including recruitment of coaches with outstanding teaching and leadership traits, selection of tournaments for optimum exposure, and club administrators’ relationships with college coaches. When speaking with parents about clubs they felt had built a loyal customer base, they named clubs like Austin Juniors from Texas, The Academy Volleyball Club from Indiana, Milwaukee Sting from Wisconsin, and EPIC Volleyball Club from California among them. It was great to see large clubs like Ultimate Volleyball Club from the Great Lakes Region in Chicago, who brought 13 teams to BJNC. And smaller clubs like TAVA with one 17s team competing that traveled all the way from my home state of Hawaii, representing the Aloha Region. And I definitely enjoyed meeting teams from Puerto Rico, where natural disasters and unstable circumstances didn’t deter them from putting teams together and making the trip to Arizona to compete in nationals.

HoulihansOne club in particular that gained a lot of attention in Phoenix was the Bay to Bay boys’ volleyball club from the Northern California Volleyball Association (NCVA). Matthew & Arielle Houlihan manage both club director and coaching duties expertly with newborn daughter (and the youngest USA Volleyball member I’ve met this season), Rylie, logging more courtside hours than most coaches. With 18 teams participating in the 2018 BJNC, the Houlihan’s were crossing the aisles of the Phoenix Convention Center on an hourly basis, going from court to court to oversee the progress of close to 200 boys under their supervision. Judging by the number of medals & trophies I had the honor to present to Bay to Bay teams, including gold, silver and bronze for young Rylie, I think the “Houlihan Method” works just fine.

Arielle’s father, Barry Goldberg, is the women’s volleyball head coach at American University. He and his wife, Bonnie, know a lot about running successful programs, building loyalty and the investment of time, energy and money it takes to really and truly “grow the game.” Barry has built a women’s volleyball dynasty at American University, and has his sights set on doing the same with men’s volleyball, perhaps inspired by what he sees happening with the growth at the boys’ high school and club level. He and Bonnie established the successful Capitol Hill Volleyball Classic in Washington, D.C. which local tourism officials credit with bringing an estimated 80,000 visitors and $21.5 million dollars in economic impact to the city annually. Building off the success of the Capitol Hill Classic, Barry is now focused on adding boys’ & men’s volleyball to the city’s tourism agenda, and to the campus of American University. When you consider that Barry’s collegiate career was cut short by the elimination of men’s volleyball at the University of Pittsburg in his senior season, it seems he is bringing it full circle by working hard behind the scenes to find investors to build facilities on campus that can showcase the successful women’s team and create new opportunities for men’s volleyball in the process. I have a lot of faith in people like Barry and Bonnie who have done some great things in volleyball, against the odds. And I have a lot of hope for what Matthew and Arielle, and all those other club directors out there across the country, are doing to continue the work at the grassroots level.

From coast-to-coast, there are more boys’ playing high school and junior volleyball and more of them continuing their playing experience in college and beyond. We must continue to make the investment in programs, create new opportunities, and support the base of junior club volleyball in order to keep this trend alive. While in Phoenix, many of the boys’ teams watched our U.S. Men’s National Team win a bronze medal in the inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League. And it was not lost on them that players on our current roster come from all across the USA and played for many different clubs and colleges from the East to West Coast. The bronze medal roster included superstars Matt Anderson, Max Holt & Aaron Russell from Penn State, Tom Jaeschke & Jeff Jendryk from Loyola of Chicago, Taylor Sander & Ben Patch from BYU, Micah Christenson from USC, brothers Kawika & Erik Shoji from Stanford, Team USA captain David Smith & Dan McDonnell from UC Irvine, and Dustin Watten, T.J. DeFalco & Kyle Ensing from Long Beach State.

The growth of men’s volleyball is getting much-needed attention as a result of TEAM USA’s success. The formal announcement that USA Volleyball will host the FIVB VNL men’s finals from 2019 through 2021 is a major step in the right direction and will guarantee that the U.S. Men’s National Team will compete in the final round. But long before the national teams enjoyed this success, there was ground work being laid in the men’s volleyball collegiate conferences by people like Ivan Marquez, Commissioner Emeritus of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA) and his successor, Russ Yurk, and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Commissioner, Al Beaird. Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) founders, the late Jim Coleman, and Don Shondell, and their successors and many others leading men’s volleyball conferences contributed countless hours of time, effort and resources to build the national profile of men’s collegiate volleyball, and for that we owe them all a debt of gratitude.

Lori Okimura with Ivan Marquez

And like many of the volleyball visitors in Phoenix for BJNC, I spent my last several hours checking another item off my bucket list, waiting out a dust storm/monsoon at the airport. That gave me time to reflect on the many interesting stories I heard from our USA Volleyball family. I met a young man from Northern California, Azriel, whose father shared his story with me. “AZ” as he’s called, was the victim of a life-threatening accident that landed him in intensive care a few short weeks before the 2017 BJNC in Columbus. When he regained consciousness, his main concern was missing the chance to play with his teammates in the national championships. AZ’s dad shared how his struggle to rehabilitate and get out of the hospital was fueled by the boys on his club team who rallied to his side and did everything possible to support him through a difficult recovery. Their loyalty meant everything to AZ’s father, whose son was clinging to life. His family relied on the kindness of the team, of their extended volleyball family. After all, that’s what we are in this sport. A family.

While I was waiting at the gate as the monsoon passed (seriously, a monsoon), I watched and listened as a small group of boys started discussing their “plan” for next season. To be fair, I think all their phones and electronic devices had run out of battery life at that point, but nonetheless, their conversation was epic. For nearly 2 hours, I listened to them talk about their time spent at the BJNC, how close they came to winning a medal, and what they were going to do immediately when they got home to increase their chances of finishing even higher next year in Dallas. One boy, who seemed to be the real estate guru of the bunch, was asking some terrific questions about their training facilities. Were they big enough, was there a better option, and how much does something like court time cost. His questions were in line with wanting his team to have more practices to get better. Another boy, the financier of the group, made a compelling argument that in order to play better at nationals, they needed to compete more in preparation for the tournament. What would it cost to add one or two more tournaments to their schedule? Could they fundraise? Could they find local companies willing to help? What about starting a crowdsourcing campaign? The last boy, clearly the entrepreneur among them, suggested that instead of them traveling to other tournaments and spending more money, why not create a tournament of their own and invite top teams to come to them? All hree were clear that in order to build on what they accomplished in 2018, their team needed to stay together, be loyal. They also agreed they needed to find a few new players, but not to steal them from other clubs, rather to steal them from the basketball team at their schools. This is the type of loyalty in boys’ volleyball that we need more of at the higher levels. In 10-years, I’m going to track these three guys down and offer them jobs.