By Eric Erickson
When Como Park High School science teacher Dylan Adair got the green light to hold volleyball tryouts for a boys’ club team this spring, he knew there would be some excited kids.
But he didn’t expect to see 48 participants in the gym, which was simultaneously a blessing and challenge.
In Como’s inaugural effort to field a competitive boys’ volleyball program, tryout numbers matched Como’s current football participation, and surpassed baseball, track, tennis and golf — the traditional spring sports.
The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) sanctions and regulates most high school sporting activities in the state. But it has never overseen boys’ volleyball.
However, in 2018, 38 schools across the state formed clubs and played in the Minnesota Boys’ High School Volleyball Association. Como is one of a dozen new teams in 2019, bringing the total number to 50.
Como High’s decision to offer boys’ volleyball didn’t come easily. Lack of funding was a factor, as was gym space, and the possible pull of student athletes away from other spring sports.
With a spirit of service and creativity, things came together. Adair volunteered to be coach and Como athletic director Koua Yang supported the new opportunity for students — with some unique requirements.
All interested boys’ volleyball players had to agree to participate in one of the existing traditional spring sports. Volleyball would be a bonus activity, played three nights a week.
Ultimately, the requirement was a win-win, evidenced by increased participation in golf, tennis and track — and those 48 boys at volleyball tryouts.
“It was a good problem to have,” Adair said. “But we had to narrow that 48 down to a workable number. Given my limited experience in coaching volleyball, and limited uniforms, resources, and gym time, we decided it was realistic to have 24 players; 12 on the varsity and 12 for a junior varsity team.”
So, Adair had some serious evaluations to do. He recruited his brother Alex Adair (who is recognized by the family as the more experienced volleyball player) and Tigana Lê to be volunteer assistants.
What they quickly noticed was an abundance of athleticism. And a lack of height — the Cougars are not a tall team. But they make up for that drawback with scrappiness and quickness, coming up with digs “to extend points and keep us competitive,” Adair said.
As the Bugle went to press, the Cougars varsity team had a record of four wins and three losses. They have been victorious over East Ridge, Rosemount, and Mounds View.
The Cougars’ results are especially impressive given that prior to this season, the group’s volleyball experience consisted of playing pick-up games at the park, and the occasional Hmong festival or Karen church event.
One factor in the Cougars’ success is the boys’ energy and excitement for the organized game, and the joy of playing for Como.
Senior co-captain Va Lee said, “We love it. Our team spirit is really high. It’s like another little family here at Como.”
Jackee Saw, the other senior co-captain, explained that playing volleyball is a great outlet. “Every time you step on the court, every stress, every problem that you have just evaporates,” he said. “You’re just focusing on the game and having fun.”
Freshman Moua Tia Xiong, a talented outside hitter and setter for the varsity, has a contagious enthusiasm, both for this inaugural season and the future of the program. “The teammates and coaches are really motivating,” Xiong said. “They motivate us every practice to be a better version of ourselves. And we also want to put our name on the history of volleyball at Como, as the first team ever.”
While the history of this first season is still being written, one theme that seems to be emerging: the Cougars’ ability to play bigger than they look. Not a single player is 6 feet tall.
That doesn’t stop 5’6” senior Shong Xiong from spiking winners as an outside hitter. “He’s got major hops,” Adair said.
Junior captain Thai Lee and freshman Eh Ta Lee Htoo are two other players at the net. At 5’8 and 5’10 respectively, they’re two of the tallest Cougars. With impressive vertical leaps and improved positioning and timing from practice, their defensive blocks are helping the team win points.
Other steady contributors include freshman Pah Reh who plays libero (a defensive specialist in the back row), junior Dominic Vang who is a setter, and senior Mu Ku Shi who helps wherever it’s needed.
Meanwhile, Adair is impressed by his players’ discipline, on and off the volleyball court. It’s important to remember that with the special arrangement of playing volleyball, each boy has a tennis, track or golf practice or meet before they hit the court in the gym at 4:30.
“They are really dedicated athletes and stand-up guys.,” Adair said. “They’re leaders in the school and they’re going above and beyond to make this happen.”
The Como Park boys’ volleyball program will certainly evolve as the sport does. Future teams will be more experienced, may have more resources and gym time, and may even be part of the Minnesota State High School League.
But the foundation for all future Cougar volleyball players is being built by a spirited, gritty group of guys who are making Como Park sports history — and enjoying every minute of it.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.