Not that he ever really complained, but all Westfield High School's Jesse Connolly wanted was a little recognition in return for his devotion to his sport. Until now, his volleyball career had been a collection of long bus rides and all-day tournaments in front of a few family members for his travel team.
But when the senior stepped into the Westfield gym for a game against rival Chantilly last month, it was clear that his four-year dream had finally come to fruition. He looked to the 150 or so people in stands and realized: They came to watch him.
"It's surprising the amount of support you get," Connolly said.
Now that he's wearing a Westfield uniform, the support is becoming more and more familiar. Chantilly and Westfield are two of six Fairfax County teams -- along with Oakton, Langley, West Springfield, and Robinson -- that have added boys' club volleyball programs this season. With interest rising as the playoffs take place this week, the hope is that the club teams pave the way for varsity-level competition in the Northern Region, much as girls' club teams led to varsity programs five years ago.
The idea of school-based club teams had been floating around since Connolly was a freshman, but it wasn't until this past summer that parents in the six schools' communities organized and made it happen. Through various fundraisers and with the backing of local men's volleyball clubs, player dues have been minimized. Now organizers are shifting their focus toward eliminating those fees altogether by making boys' volleyball a varsity sport.
In order for the sport to qualify at the varsity level, Fairfax would need a majority -- or 13 of its 24 schools -- to field a volleyball team. No one is willing to predict an exact number of years it will take, but with six teams in place already, parents and players are hoping that grass-roots promotion and word of mouth will help them make a serious push toward varsity status within a year or two.
"It's really up to the schools and the kids in that sense," Fairfax County Athletic Director Paul Jansen said. "We react instead of act. As in all activities and sports teams, they're a reflection of what the kids want and their interests. We assess that against other interests that pop up. . . . The real initiative is if the kids want to play."
Boys' volleyball is an officially recognized sport by the Virginia High School League, the state's governing body for varsity athletics. In the Central and Eastern regions, boys' volleyball has been a popular varsity sport for more than a decade.
If the schools reach the necessary participation number, Jansen said he'd like to see a pipeline of players in place -- as it was with the girls -- to ensure there is a strong foundation for the coming years.
The hardest part may come when the proposal is brought to the school board. Travel expenses, coaching salaries and gym time are a few of the primary issues that would arise when constructing a prospective budget. But history has proven that if the demand is there, the economics become less of a burden.
"For the girls, the numbers were there and the teams were formed it all happened very quickly," said Bruce Patrick, the assistant director for the VHSL, and former Fairfax County's athletic director. "Once it got to 50 percent plus one, it was an easy sell to fully fund. We found the sports community in Northern Virginia is highly motivated."
It helps too, that the varsity season would not interfere with the travel season, which runs through the winter. Students without a volleyball pedigree who are in search of a fall sport may have a new outlet to pursue.
"All the guys I've talked to are interested in it," Connolly said. "They find out that I've played and they are real interested, because they've seen the girls play but they didn't know about [boys' volleyball]. Travel ball is a lot of money, but they get to represent the school now."