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Game changer

New high school club teams are blurring old gender barriers

  • 7 min to read

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here’s something unusual about an otherwise ordinary spring afternoon in Mount Pleasant.

Inside a middle school gym, there are 20 or so high schoolers bouncing around on basketball floor that’s split by a couple nets into a pair of volleyball courts. There’s no spandex, most of the shorts out here are long and baggy. And these volleyball players sport mustaches above their lips, some with full beards wrapped around their chins.

A couple miles up the road, there are about 20 more high school rugby players slamming into tackling dummies in the outfield of a middle school baseball field. Rugby seems appropriate for this time of year but the screaming and the grunting is emitting from players with long ponytails. Their teammates cheer from the side with mouth guards tucked into the strap of taut tank tops. One of the players slips off the pad and with an empathic thud crashes to the grass and lays for a moment.

“Are you hurt?” a teammate asks rhetorically.

“No,” the player fires back, seeming almost insulted.

“Get up then and go again.” And so she does.

Gender barriers have for so long defined high school volleyball and, more recently, rugby in South Carolina. Volleyball traditionally belongs to the girls in the fall while rugby is reserved for the boys in the spring. A couple club teams at Wando High School have begun to blur those perceived barriers though.

“If you build it, they will come,” Kim Perritt said in a warm New Zealand accent. “Well, we’ve built it and here they are. Word has spread quickly, I guess, and things are changing.”

Perritt is the head coach of the Wando girls rugby team, one of the first girls high school rugby teams in the state. She needed 15 players to fill out a lineup but 23 would’ve been ideal for a full roster. The club team now includes 56 members in all.

“They’ve got the bug,” Perritt declared proudly. “Girls who have never played the sport before, some who have never played a sport, we’re empowering these young women, teaching them a lot of life lessons that will last on and off the field.”

Wando coach Alexis Glover is the winningest volleyball coach in state history. Dorman coach Paula Kirkland has won more state championships than anyone in this state. So if there was anyone who had the power and influence to establish the boys game in South Carolina, it was these two state leaders. The thinking was, if Glover and Kirkland could get things rolling, others would follow suit. So the two laid out a blueprint and sent off information to gauge interest. It had to be put together quickly to make the spring season, but it seems to have worked.

Wando attracted about 25 players to its inaugural boys volleyball team. Nearby schools like Stratford, Ashley Ridge, Hilton Head and May River have joined the movement. Dorman too has about 25 players on its first roster. The Cavaliers play teams from the likes of neighboring Hillcrest, Boiling Springs and Dixie.

“There’s been a push within the NCAA to start men’s volleyball in our state and I think establishing some sort boys volleyball at the high school level is an important step forward,” Glover explained. “So we said, ‘Let’s see what kind of interest we have.’ Well, 25 players later, here we are. We have our first boys volleyball team. They really are pioneers.”

Glover has all types of athletes on her team. She has a couple swimmers and a couple junior varsity basketball players. She even has a couple track and field standouts, which is surprising only because track season also runs in the spring. She designed the season to be less demanding than other sports to allow more athletes to participate. A few of the guys already had experience playing beach volleyball around town in the summer, which gave the team somewhat of a head start.

Kirkland has had a little bit harder time convincing specialized athletes, and more specifically their parents, to try volleyball. She had a couple track athletes among the 35 or so students that initially showed interest and she expects the numbers and diversity to only grow as the team develops. A few club volleyball players from within the school district who recently won a national championship have joined the team. And that’s helped. Despite some of the early hurdles, she says the momentum is becoming palpable.

“These boys are part of history whether they realize it or not,” Kirkland said. “We have had some great crowds. Football players, baseball players, track, soccer, they all come out to support the guys. And I know if they could play volleyball in addition to what they already do, they would be out here too.”

Jonathan Togami is one of the best pole vaulters in the state. His father, Kreg, coached volleyball at N.C. State, The Citadel and Charleston Southern. His mother, Laura, won a state championship playing for Glover at Wando and later played at N.C. State, where she still holds the record for career kills. Jonathan has always wanted to play volleyball competitively. Now he’s an outside hitter for Wando and his parents are both volunteer coaches.

“I’ve been around volleyball my whole life. I grew up with it,” Togami explains. “There’s just never been anything solid around here for guys. I guess guys just don’t try it because they think it’s a girls sport. But it’s actually really fun and now that there are a bunch of guys interested in this team at Wando, I hope we’re changing that thinking a little bit.”

Jorge Riesgo moved to Mount Pleasant four years ago from Puerto Rico, where boys and men playing volleyball is almost expected. Riesgo has been playing since he was 4 years old. But there weren’t any opportunities for him to continue competitively when he moved to South Carolina. So for the past few years he’s driven three hours a couple times a week to play club ball in Charlotte. Now he’s proud to be the starting setter for Wando.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment, Riesgo said. “When I moved here and people would ask what sport I play, they think ‘Oh, I thought that was girls sport.’ But, believe it or not, volleyball takes a lot of skill and athleticism. More and more boys are realizing once they try it that it’s not so easy. It feels amazing to think we’re starting this here in South Carolina. And in 10 or 15 years, it’ll be just a regular sport that guys play.”

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Jorge Riesgo (21) and Jonathan Togami lead Wando boys volleyball.

Hannah Gholson’s parents met playing rugby. Her mother, Kerry, has been an assistant with the Wando boys team for years and has helped develop the sport at the grassroots level within the local community. Now Hannah is playing a similar role with the Wando girls team by recruiting players and building interest.

“Hannah told me about (rugby) and was like ‘Yeah, you should come play with us,” Wando freshman Emmy Fair remembers. “I was just like, ‘What?’

“So I just came out watch one day but the coaches got me to actually play and after a while I was like, ‘OK, this is kind of fun.’”

The Wando girls team is, in part, a product of the boys’ success. The boys have won three state championships and played in a national championship tournament, all in the past five years. As the boys blossomed, interest in establishing a girls side grew and became more realistic.

Much of the girls’ inaugural season has been spent teaching. The basics of field position, passing, catching and tackling, and understanding the culture of the game were considered priorities.

“Generating enthusiasm and positivity was key. We did basic things like introducing them to the ball. We didn’t want to overwhelm them,” Perritt said. “Rugby is all inclusive. We embrace diversity. There was obviously a fear factor for some at first, some nerves. But young girls are realizing the strength they have within and that’s really powerful.”

The Wando girls play in a league of 10 teams from North and South Carolina. They competed alongside nearly 20 girls teams at the Carolina Ruggerfest tournament last month. The learning curve was steep in the early weeks. Of the 40 or so that initially came out, just two had any sort of experience playing the game. Nerves had to be overcome. Now Perritt takes pride in seeing one of her 90-pound girls fearlessly take down a player twice her size. She calls them her Wahines, a label of respect native to the New Zealand and Polynesian cultures meaning strong woman. It seems to fit pretty well.

“I feel like this team is kind of revolutionary,” Gholson said. “I’ve heard all my life that rugby is a boys sport. Girls can’t do this or that. We’re changing that though. Rugby is for anyone, different races, different backgrounds, boys, girls, whoever. We’re proving it out here.”

“Being a woman is about having each other’s back and trying to support and empower each other and that’s really what rugby is all about too,” Wando senior Chase Mauerhan added. “I think in the South especially there’s this stigma about women doing anything other than wearing a dress. That makes all of us work harder to prove everyone wrong. You think we can’t do this? Then I’m going to tackle this huge girl and pop right back up and show you that women can do this too.”

The boys volleyball and girls rugby teams both have issues to overcome. Funding is solely their responsibility as club teams. The volleyball team received a grant, while the rugby team relies mostly on sponsorship and fundraising. They can’t use Wando’s fields so they have to find their own space to practice and play. Both sides hope to one day become legitimate sanctioned sports but have to first show for at least three years that they’re successful as club programs and then have to have at least 16 teams ready to compete statewide. And that’s really just the beginning.

“We’ll keep moving forward toward that,” Glover said. “You have to start somewhere, though, and so far we’re off to a good start.”

It’s game day and the Wando volleyball team is competing against two other boys teams in a tri-match setup. The boys have borrowed Wando’s junior varsity basketball jerseys but they fit and look sharp with the diamond W on them. At least 50 or 60 people line the bleachers, which seems impressive for an event still unfamiliar to most with such little promotion.

The first few games of the opening set aren’t the cleanest. Two official referees are maintaining the integrity of the rules but the calls aren’t quite as strict as they could be, understandable as many of the boys are navigating their first live match together. The girls don’t practice with a spiking line. It’s simply understood. The boys may well need one as one of the players from the back row flies ahead to power a ball over the net. Elation quickly crumbles to disappointment as the referee explains the infraction. Some of the finer technicalities still need to be ironed out it seems.

But as the match progresses the chemistry builds. The excitement in the gym is growing. The energy is fluid. A dig from the back row floats into the air. Riesgo pops its over to Togami who leaps with a long swing to slam it across the net for an emphatic kill. The Warriors erupt and dance together, locking arms in wild celebration. The crowd joins, yelling and stomping their feet into the bleachers. Glover claps from the sideline and lets out a smile, almost relieved to see that what began as a crazy idea is actually working.

“Right now, it’s all about kids participating, feeling good about themselves,” Glover said. “They’re trying new things, breaking down barriers and experiencing some stuff that they never have before. That’s how I know we’re successful.”