Illinois models boys’ and men’s volleyball growth at all levels

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

Christine Giunta’s deep, sharp voice swells in the Glenbard West High School gym, permeating the air with commands to the boys’ volleyball players who dwarf her in height.

Giunta is not only the head coach, but also the founder of the boys’ volleyball program at Glenbard West. She developed it from scratch, and grew it to become one of the state’s most perennial programs.

The team started in 2002, but wasn’t recognized as a varsity sport until 2006. Since the 2014-15 season, the Glenbard West Hilltoppers have only missed the state championship once, and they’ve won it three times.

“I was the coach who started with nothing,” Giunta said. “We were practicing outside in grass, we were in backyards, local public churches, anywhere we could find a gym and open  doors to us. I’ve seen everything,”

On May 22, Giunta’s program will host the Volley Lights King of the Hill Stadium Classic, the first-ever high school boys’ volleyball outdoor showcase, where Glenbard West will host Naperville North and Marist High schools on its own Memorial Field. She hopes it draws more attention to the sport, which is steadily growing across the country at both the high school and collegiate levels.

“I promote boys’ volleyball,” Giunta said. “Any boy that really likes the sport and has struggled in other sports, if they take it seriously and want to be a student, they can play. If there is a volleyball opportunity and there is an opportunity to do something extraordinary, I will do something to help them.”

In the 2018-19 season, boys’ high school volleyball participation reached an all-time high with 2,692 schools in 25 states across the U.S. offering programs, according to the National Federation for State High School Associations (NFHS). The number of boys playing in these programs totals 65,563, a 16% increase since the 2014-15 season.

Illinois has 7,341 boys high school volleyball players, second-most to California’s 22,224 players.

On Feb. 14, the Pepperdine vs. USC volleyball match featured six players from Illinois. Two of No. 3 Pepperdine’s players, JT Ardell and Zac Norvid, came from Giunta’s program at Glenbard West.

“With the culture of where I’m from, it’s always been something that surrounded me,” Norvid said after the game. “California is known for the talent in men’s volleyball, so not too much is different. If anything, we play on the beach a little more here.”

But part of Giunta’s success in growing the program at Glenbard West results from her persistence in scouting, especially when there are so many sports options for boys. She claims it’s all about the type of sport you can study and how you study, just as you would for any subject in school. That’s how she, a former collegiate softball player, learned how to coach it.

“If you can study that and understand the game, you can take huge advantage of it,” Giunta said. “You have to play on the whim, there’s nothing planned when something goes wrong.”

While her program is competitive, she doesn’t let anyone slip through the cracks. More than 50 boys try out for the high school program each year, and she won’t cut any of the freshmen.

“JT [Ardell] got cut from his junior high team,” Giunta said. “And I went and said, ‘Buddy it’s not over, you will have a chance. Try some summer training. Someone is not going to let you go. Someone is going to trust that you need to prove people wrong.’”

Ardell, a 6-foot-9 middle blocker at Pepperdine, originally played football, but went on to letter three seasons on Glenbard West’s volleyball team and was named to Volleyball Magazine’s Fab 50 list. He tallied a season-high of nine total blocks against the USC Trojans on Feb. 14.

“It’s taken a lot more seriously than high school volleyball is in other programs,” Ardell said following the game at Pepperdine.

Glenbard West seniors Ben Harrington and Noah Cavalcante said Giunta helps them recognize that they can play for schools that might be out of their reach based on academics alone. Harrington will play for Princeton next year.

“When we were kids, Paul Bischoff [former player] went to Stanford so she says, ‘If you’ll come play, you’ll be able to go to Stanford or Pepperdine,” Harrington said.

Success at the Olympic level also fuels Illinois’ growth in the sport. Warrenville South High School in Wheaton has won seven state championships. Its alumni include USA National team members like Sean Rooney, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist, and Thomas Jaeschke and Jeff Jendryk, who currently reside on this year’s roster.

“When you can bring back Olympians to talk to the school, the local media starts talking about them,” Warrenville South head coach Bill Schreier said. “Those are always positive things that advance the cause. Now, for those tall kids, there’s a massive explosion on the DIII level, now there’s more spots for these kids to play at the collegiate level.”

Illinois is home to 22 collegiate programs, including two Division I and two Division II schools, which play for the national collegiate championship. Both Illinois College and Illinois Wesleyan will also add to the tally with new programs expected to debut in 2020-21.

But players don’t have to travel far from home to play at the most elite level. Loyola University Chicago is ranked No. 9 in the latest national collegiate RPI standings, while Lewis University in Romeoville is ranked No. 5.

“It’s kind of like a chicken and the egg situation,” said Loyola University head men’s volleyball coach Mark Hulse. “Boys’ volleyball is growing, college programs are growing in conjunction. Illinois has had boys’ volleyball for a long time, longer than we’ve had strong collegiate volleyball. I think it makes them realize you don’t have to go 2,000 miles away from home to win a national championship.”

Illinois isn’t the only state adding collegiate programs. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association announced in September 2019 that it will add six men’s collegiate volleyball programs to the mix in 2020-21.

At the high school level, Colorado will become the 26th state to sanction boys’ volleyball as an official high school sport in 2020-21. According to Bethany Brookens of the Colorado High School Athletics Association, the state has already established approximately 55 high school programs through its two pilot seasons.

Giunta sees a bright future for boys’ and men’s volleyball with Colorado’s addition to the mix. She hopes more boys can find opportunities through the sport she’s grown to love for its fast-paced play and strategic nature.

“Any boy that really likes the sport that has struggled in other sports, if they take it seriously and want to be a student, they can play,” Giunta said.

Glenbard West High School head coach Christine Giunta talks to her players during a drill at the opening day of tryouts on Monday, March 9 at Glenbard West Field House. Giunta started the boys’ volleyball program in 2002 and has led it to three state titles in the past five years. (Leah Vann/MEDILL)