Larry Modean wasn't at all surprised at the enthusiasm that greeted the launch of the Minnesota Boys High School Volleyball League in the Northland this spring.
Modean came to appreciate the sport's broad appeal while he was coaching the girls at Duluth Marshall.
"Every year I'd have boys come up to me and say, 'If you start a boys volleyball team I'll quit football tomorrow,' " Modean remembered. "I'm not surprised at all. There's a lot of people that just like volleyball."
Between 60-70 of those people came out for the inaugural offering of the Northern Minnesota Conference, which counted six teams competing under the umbrella of the state boys league. One of them was Cade Slattengren, who fell in love with the game growing up alongside two volleyball-playing sisters.
Boys volleyball remains a club sport despite intense growth, including a doubling of participants statewide from 2018 to '19. Organizers pitch it as another option for student-athletes who aren't involved in traditional sports.
Slattengren can attest to that. The Hermantown senior is a three-sport athlete, just like he's always been. The sports, however, have changed. All of 'em. Slattengren was diagnosed with leukemia in July 2014, just before he started eighth grade. He ended up having a portacath put in to make the delivery of his chemotherapy treatments more efficient. That meant no contact sports for the youngster, who had played soccer, hockey and baseball.
So he picked up Alpine skiing, golf and, this year, volleyball. Slattengren had his last chemo treatment in November 2017.
"Once I came back, a sport like hockey was a little too hard to pick back up at a competitive school like Hermantown," he said.
Being able to dive into volleyball allowed Slattengren another outlet to get his competitive fix.
"I've always really wanted to play volleyball," he said. "Even in years past, I've looked at club teams down in the Cities to see if I could do it with my schedule. Once it came up here, I was excited. It was really fun to pick up. Everybody's kind of learning at the same time, so nobody's feeling behind."
Last fall, Slattengren competed on a boys club team offered by Minnesota North. It prepared him well for this spring, when he helped one of the two Proctor-Hermantown squads win the conference and advance to state, an eight-team event. Slattengren, an all-around talent who settled in as an outside hitter, was named to the all-state tournament team.
Slattengren said the skill level progressively improved. Teams practiced 2-3 times a week and played 10-12 matches total. The successful debut is only the beginning, said Derek Hart, the local coordinator who's worked tirelessly to bring boys volleyball to the region.
He's already had two other schools - Barnum and Northeast Range - express interest in coming on board in 2020.
"Next year I think I will have 10-12, almost for sure," said Hart, who's also the Floodwood girls coach.
As the just-completed season kicked off, a groundswell of support suggested an expedited timeline for getting boys volleyball sanctioned as a varsity sport by the Minnesota State High School League. Hart presented at the MSHSL meeting in which the amendment was considered. It ultimately was shot down.
Still, it remains a "when" more than an "if." Boys volleyball is here to stay.
Hart said it wasn't a huge surprise that the high school league didn't approve. Boys volleyball in Minnesota only started in 2018.
"We were kind of expecting it a little bit," Hart said. "It was a little deflating because we thought, 'Wow, this is growing so fast, maybe they will.' You always have hopes and dreams.
"We're determined. We'll make it happen. We'll regroup and go back after it this next year."
About 400 prep boys played a year ago across Minnesota, a number that spiked to 800 in 2019. Fifty schools were represented, up from 22. In addition to the two squads from Proctor-Hermantown, the other area entrants were Floodwood, Cloquet, Hibbing-Chisholm and Grand Rapids.
"It was a really good experience," said Modean, one of the Proctor-Hermantown coaches. "Good kids. Competitive kids. They're athletes."
By season's end, they had become more than just athletes. They were volleyball players.
"I thought, for the first year, it was relatively competitive volleyball," Slattengren said. "You could tell everybody was just getting used to it, but all the kids who tried out seemed to enjoy it more and more. The progress from our first game to the last games ... it was pretty cool."