This fall, the three area major college football teams—Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri—haven’t provided much to cheer about. That is, unless you think a bowl game for a team with a 6-6 record grabs your attention. But there’s a sport that’s been a hidden gem in the Kansas City area—volleyball.
On the major college level, there are no men’s volleyball teams around here. But on all levels, everyone has a women’s program. Several have been good; two border on greatness. With a 28-2 record and a berth in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, the ninth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks are in the midst of their best season in program history. KU’s coach is Ray Bechard.
“We want to be elite team and an elite program year after year after year and I think we’re on our way to doing that,” says Bechard.
On the NCAA Division II level, the seventh-ranked Rockhurst University Hawks are also making school history. They’re 34-3 and won their first regional over the weekend to advance to the national quarterfinals this Thursday. Rockhurst coach Tracy Rietzke says this area is loaded with talent.
“For a while I think this area was under the radar, but now everybody knows about it,” says Rietzke. “So you’ve got everybody coming in to tournaments recruiting Kansas City kids.”
Nebraska, for instance, actively recruits Kansas City area prospects. Alexa Ethridge from Lee’s Summit North High School played two seasons with the Huskers before transferring to Missouri. Though she started her college career out of state, Ethridge finds herself happier close to home. Besides Ethridge, MU has two players from Blue Springs.
“There’s so many of us from Missouri on my team. That’s pretty cool to get to play for your hometown.”
Mizzou opened the NCAA volleyball tournament tournament with a win against Missouri State before losing its Border War match against KU in the second round.
Other traditional college volleyball powers like Texas and Stanford continue to lure some of the top talent away. Two seniors at St. James Academy in Lenexa both signed with Stanford despite interest from KU. Six-foot-six-inch middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris and setter Jenna Gray are two of five Kansas City area volleyball players named first team high school All Americans. St. James Academy coach Nancy Dorsey says that’s impressive.
“Twenty percent of the team are Kansas Citians,” says Dorsey. “I’m blown away by that. That’s pretty incredible.”
Dorsey adds that the other fall sports overshadow what’s happening on the local volleyball scene.
“It’s so much bigger here than people even realize,” says Dorsey. “Unfortunately, I think, because it’s a girl’s sport and it’s overlooked. It’s not football and it’s not making big money. Or boys basketball or men’s basketball. That makes me sad.”
Even with KU and Rockhurst enjoying their best seasons, listen to the following list of schools that made the NCAA tournament this year, in D-I or D-II, all with area players on their roster: Missouri, Central Missouri, Kansas State, Wichita State and Washburn. Mizzou’s Alex Ethridge says the pool of players will continue on an upswing.
“I think the word is getting out there on volleyball. I think volleyball is going to continue to grow for a long time,” says Ethridge.
One of the reasons she says it will grow is because of the local club teams. They’re privately financed teams for middle school and high school players who want to play when their school teams are out of season. College coaches are constantly scouring the area’s club volleyball teams for talent. When Ethridge played on the Invasion, a local club team, she saw first-hand a growth in the number of club teams.
“It’s so huge,” says Ethridge. “The amount of teams that are in the Kansas City is insane.”
St. James Academy coach Nancy Dorsey, who played college ball at KU, says more club teams create more opportunities and stiffer competition.
“It’s helpful that they have these club teams and they can play with girls that are at that same level as them and can compete at the same level,” says Dorsey. “That’s how they get better. They’re constantly pushing one another. Kids from other schools and kids from all over the Kansas City area pushing one another to get better. It’s pretty amazing.”
The next breakthrough will be whether an area team can make the national semifinals. So far, two teams, KU and Rockhurst, are thinking that way.