A net gain for boys

Volleyball isn't just a sport for girls, at least not in Harford County, where boys volleyball has been a staple in the fall for 30 years.

October 19, 2005|By JEFF SEIDEL | JEFF SEIDEL,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Greg Dehmer found an unusual way to work on his basketball skills during his freshman year at Fallston. Hoping to improve his vertical leap while getting in shape for basketball, Dehmer decided to go out for the boys volleyball team.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the basketball court. Dehmer found that he really liked volleyball. He shrugged off some minor teasing about playing a sport that people thought was just for girls and grew into a tough strong-side hitter. Dehmer even went to a camp at Navy to improve his volleyball skills and came to an interesting realization.

"Now I like it more than basketball," Dehmer said.

Dehmer, a senior, is fortunate to play in Harford County, the only area in the state where public schools field boys volleyball teams in the fall. The sport started in the county in 1975, and schools usually have both varsity and junior varsity teams, a big reason that boys volleyball has remained strong throughout the years.

The popularity of boys volleyball in the county can be attributed to a number of factors. There are the kids who play the game to stay in shape for other sports, especially basketball, due to the physical similarities like jumping and the cardiovascular aspect of it.

Others join teams because they just want to do something in the fall, while some simply do a combination of the two, as Dehmer did. Dehmer said he had to deal with a few barbs from other male athletes, like football players, who gently reminded him that volleyball was supposed to be a girls sport.

"There was actually a lot of grief from the football players that [first] year that, `Oh, yeah, you play volleyball; that's for girls,' " Dehmer said. "But it didn't really bother me and it stopped [pretty quickly]."

Dehmer said he enjoys the speed and quickness of volleyball, and is especially fond of getting a thunderous kill at the net. "When you got that kill and the ball hits the ground, it's just a great feeling," Dehmer said.

Teammate Dave New echoes Dehmer's sentiments. The 6-foot-6 junior is a center on the basketball team who joined volleyball to keep busy in the fall and also to prepare for basketball.

Also a strong-side hitter at the net, New knew something about the game, as his father played club volleyball in college.

"I like how the game moves so fast and every point is intense," New said. "I wasn't doing anything else in the fall and it's a lot of fun."

New, who said the fact that he plays two other sports probably limits the teasing he has received, said he has learned a lot about the sport's intricacies and has had a good time doing it.

"I think I've done well so far," New said. "I've been working on my hitting a lot and passing ... and blocking."

These are the kind of stories that Fallston coach Frank Gostomski likes to hear. Gostomski played volleyball at private school John Carroll during his final three fall seasons in high school from 1988-1990.

Longtime John Carroll coach Herb Simon recruited Gostomski for the sport during the summer of 1988 when the two saw each other during church services.

"I had never played volleyball before," said Gostomski, who figured his height - he grew to be 6-6 - was the reason for Simon's interest. "I just didn't know anything about it. I had always been in the band."

John Carroll played in a league with the county's public schools until about three years ago when it joined the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association. The MIAA now has 12 boys volleyball teams, and the Patriots have been one of the top programs in recent years.

Gostomski took his volleyball knowledge to Fallston, where he served as junior varsity coach for four years before becoming the varsity coach this season.

"Everybody's been playing other sports since they were 5," Gostomski said. "This is different. This is something they pick up as young adults. Most of them walk away, but the ones who come out and make a run at it generally tend to stick with it."

Harford County treats boys volleyball like other sports in that there's a regular-season county championship followed by a county tournament. Havre de Grace is in first place, two games ahead of Fallston. The tournament is scheduled for Nov. 2 at Harford Tech, a one-day double-elimination competition.

Montgomery County is the only other county in Maryland where public school boys play volleyball. But it's a little different there, as both the boys and co-ed teams play in the spring. Co-ed volleyball has been played for about 25 years, while the boys leagues have been going for about 15.

Al Cesky, the former head of high school sports in Harford County, pushed to start boys volleyball in the mid-1970s.

"Al Cesky was a very innovative person," said Don Morrison, a spokesman for Harford County Public Schools and a former coach of several sports. "He ... had a belief that kids should have opportunities to play."

Morrison helped coach basketball at Aberdeen in those days, and several of his players joined the volleyball team to help get in shape for the winter season.

Larry Tsomos has coached the Bel Air boys volleyball team for 11 years and said, despite the hard work, players who've never played the sport before quickly enjoy it.

"I"ve had a lot of players who wound up playing more volleyball than basketball, even giving up basketball their senior year to play club volleyball," Tsomos said.

Forrest Wiest, the Harford County supervisor of physical education and athletics, said that the program keeps getting stronger.

"It just started and grew," Wiest said. "With a junior varsity program, we just feed our own program. It just provides another venue for guys to participate in."

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