Pavel Dzemianok/For the Globe
Less than an hour after their match against Latin Academy began last month, several members of the West Roxbury boys’ volleyball team waited outside their opponents’ Dorchester school building for rides.
“We got killed,” a Westie player said.
Inside the Latin Academy gymnasium the Dragons practiced for about another hour after beating the Raiders — a common post-match practice for a team that dominates the four other schools (Madison Park, Brighton, O’Bryant and West Roxbury) that play in the City League.
Latin Academy (9-3 overall, 7-0 Boston City League) laments the fact it must play each league team three times per season, saying it makes it difficult to prepare for the state tournament. They schedule the best opponents they can possibly find for non-league contests but are only allowed to play 20 matches a season.
Still, the exam school qualifies for post-season play practically every year but has never advanced past the sectional quarterfinals. Last spring LA went 15-5 and lost to Central Catholic in the North quarters.
“The City [League] is not really a challenge for us,” senior co-captain Vincent Tran of Dorchester said. “I’d rather have a challenge and lose to make us better players. It’s like practice. It doesn’t make us play harder.”
Tran said he can see how setting up for practice after their home matches could humiliate their opponent but he hopes it will serve as motivation for the other teams in the city to pick up their games.
“I definitely would be mad if I was that team,” he said. “I don’t’ care if they see us [practice after a match]. Maybe it might motivate them to work harder to play against us. It would definitely be more fun.
“I definitely encourage other people to try [volleyball] out.”
Boston schools Athletic Director Ken Still said the city needs to put on more clinics for young boys so that they can start playing the sport in middle school or younger.
“Some of the other schools try to put a team together to get these young men to realize, ‘Hey I can do this, I can jump and hit’ but it’s a fight,” Still said. “That’s why clinics to me are one of biggest things you can do.”
Even the best program in the city has a hard time recruiting players to a sport that many students believe is more for girls. And Latin Academy fights the added stereotype that the sport is only for Asians. Of the 20 players in the program, only three students are not Asian.
And only a few of the players are 6-feet or taller.
“I try to get a lot more height on the team. We have wonderful skill but not any height. In volleyball you need that,” said Latin Academy coach Phuong Cao, who joked that he has an easier time recruiting players from his calculus class at the school than from the Dragon’s basketball team. “We try to recruit more basketball players … The kids think it’s an Asian sport somehow, they don’t know why it is. I told them [you will see] it’s not if you watch the sport on TV. I guess they don’t see it that way.”
Senior co-captain Kevin Tse of Mission Hill said he doesn’t mind that the sport is seen as an Asian endeavor in his school.
“It’s a stereotype in our school, like ping pong,” said Tse, who also plays in an all-Asian club league. “I just take it as a joke.”
But just because Tse recruited some of his Asian friends to play on the team doesn’t mean that he isn’t expanding his network of friends by playing volleyball.
“I would never hang out with half these kids without volleyball,” Tse said. “They are all in different grades.”
Senior Courtney Atherly is one of the only black players on the team and at 6-foot-1-inches is also one of the tallest members of the team. But this is his first year playing volleyball and he said the learning curve is steep.
“The hardest thing [to learn] was serving because I didn’t have any coordination and the second hardest thing was passing because my arms were not able to go straight,” he said, before noting that he didn’t have a hard time fitting in with his new team. “Some of the players I was friends with already so once we started I was friends with everybody.”
Atherly also said his non-volleyball playing friends thought the sport was easy until they tried it themselves.
“At first people think it’s not that hard,” he said. “Then they come to the game and watch and see us tripping and falling. Once they practice it they realize it’s tough.”
Tran said the sport is more pressure-packed than people realize.
“They think it’s easy because it’s not a contact sport, not physical, but it is when you’re on the court,” he said. “There’s lot of pressure on you, your blood pressure is up. There’s a lot of pressure on you to get to the ball. You don’t want to mess it up for your team.”
Tran said he likes the teamwork aspect of the game as well.
“When someone on the team messes up you have to tell him, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get the next ball,’” he said. “We’re always encouraging each other.”
LA's boys’ volleyball program started in 1992, four years after Cao graduated from Boston Technical High School in 1988 — which was housed in Latin Academy's current building on Townsend Street in Dorchester.
Cao’s family immigrated to Boston in 1981 and he said he was too focused on academics to care about sports in high school. Cao didn’t pick up volleyball until some friends urged him to play for Boston University’s club team and he didn’t start coaching until three years ago when Latin Academy’s boys’ and girls’ coach, Robert Hui, stepped down after 11 years.
Cao also coaches the girls’ squad and the school’s JV volleyball teams.
“We do a lot of advertising and we go to the playoffs every year,” Cao said when asked if the student body is aware of the program’s success. “They know, it’s just hard to get the interest.”
And when students new to the sport do come out for the team, Cao said it takes them a few years to learn the skills they need to play properly. He said passing is the toughest concept to grasp for new players.
Tse, the senior co-captain, said he wasn't interested in volleyball his freshman year when some friends showed him YouTube videos of the male version of the sport.
“My friends told me to join and I was like ‘It’s a girls’ sport,” he said. “I thought it was a girls’ sport, then they showed me some videos of them hitting each other in the face with spikes.”
Volleyball has had the added bonus of increasing the former basketball player's vertical leap.
"When I started playing volleyball I could barely touch backboard," Tse said. "And now I can almost touch rim."
Justin A. Rice covers Boston Public school athletics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.
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