It may be one of the best teams in the area that most people don’t know about.
But with a budding reputation as a state power and a high state ranking this season, the Franklin Community High School boys volleyball team is starting to attract attention.
Franklin players and head coach Kat Sarles have noticed bigger home crowds this season, with the team off to a 11-2 start to the season and ranked fourth in the state poll.
Boys high school volleyball is a club sport in Indiana.
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Sarles has been coaching the team for 14 years, and the program’s success has grown, with eight trips to the state finals (four teams) during that stretch, including last season.
While an increase in attention is naturally welcome to the players, the coach admits that she has used the group’s under-the-radar status as a motivator in the past.
“I always work to build a team family with my boys,” Sarles said. “We’ll talk about how as an anonymous, successful group, it’s kind of us against the world. We make sure to build some insular pieces to make sure our team connectivity is strong. You’ll take a bullet for a family member, but not necessarily for a teammate.
“So we want to build more loyalty in each player than just being a member of the team.”
Sarles said this year’s team is unique in terms of depth. Past teams that went to the state finals relied primarily on one or two especially talented players. This season the Cubs have a balanced offense and defense and a rotation that goes as many as 10 players deep.
While that may be one ingredient to being the first Franklin team to win the state title, Sarles sees the mental game as an important aspect as well, as evidenced by previous state championship teams she’s seen, such as last year’s champion Chesterton, which beat the Grizzlies in the semifinal.
“Their head coach also coaches (women) at Valparaiso University and brings an element of college preparedness with them,” Sarles said. “Other than that, the separation between being there and winning it all is just being ready to play and go get ’em on all the points.
“You need that kind of atmosphere in your team.”
Senior tri-captain Nik Welch said the group is highly motivated to achieve and will need to battle any doubts about whether the program is good enough to take the next and final step.
“We want to get the first one in school history. I think we have the depth to do it,” Welch said. “Mentally, we need to believe we can do it. We can’t worry about school history and not having one.
“We just need to go do it.”
Welch’s fellow senior and captain Spencer Sullivan credits an infusion of young talent with giving the team the depth and balance it needs to contend for state honors this season.
“We have a really good sophomore class. Our setter is a sophomore, one of our main hitters is a sophomore. They are making a big difference,” Sullivan said.
One of those sophomores is the other captain. Hunter Gross is the team’s setter and has been a volleyball enthusiast for some time, traveling to play in church-based leagues and even participating in higher-level girls volleyball camps. Sarles said Gross has tremendous potential as a player.
The program has sent a couple of players over the years to compete at the NCAA Division II level.
Indiana has a pair of nationally recognized men’s college programs in Ball State and IPFW. But the spread of high school boys programs has remained limited, with just 30 programs listed by the state coaches association. Roncalli, Southport, Cathedral, Franklin and Center Grove are among top programs in central Indiana.
Sarles said there is still an ambassador or missionary aspect to the program, as the sport grows slowly in the state on the boys side.
“Even though there has been boys high school volleyball in this state since the 1970s, we do represent an opportunity to give people their first introduction to men’s volleyball,” she said. “There is a bit of pressure with that to make sure you put the right image out there, with the right promotional pieces.
“We want people to walk away with intrigue rather than thinking of it as some kind of intramurals thing.”
While watching for just a few minutes should remove anyone’s notion about intramurals, the sport’s advocates have continued to swim upstream when it comes to having the boys game recognized as an IHSAA-sponsored sport. Sarles said the main argument against it has been the perceived requirement that a corresponding girls sport would have to be added as well in order to meet federal Title IX requirements.
Sarles has argued that cheerleading, considered a varsity sport in most schools but not sanctioned by the state, would be an ideal match. To date, her argument has not proved persuasive.
Another mission Sarles sometimes has to undertake is to prove the normalcy and even the advantages of being a woman coaching a boys team.
“It sometimes takes a while at the front end for boys to realize that ‘coach’ is neither male nor female, just ‘coach,'” she said. “Some parents struggle to get that, and some first-timers still want to refer to me in classic teacher lingo like ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’ But there is something to be said for the concept of a momma’s boy and daddy’s little girl.
“Players of the opposite gender can respond to you in very specific mannerisms based on family structures. Sometimes I think the boys respond better because it sounds like Mom is not happy. Where if criticism comes from a man it’s more like, ‘He just insulted me.'”
The state tournament begins May 16, with the state finals scheduled for the following weekend at Southport.
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2015 FRANKLIN BOYS VOLLEYBALL ROSTER
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SCHOOLS WITH BOYS CLUB VOLLEYBALL TEAMS