Eleven-year-old Grace Coyle’s eyes widened. She and her teammates had just stepped through the entrance of the University of Washington’s cavernous Dempsey Indoor Arena. The foul-weather football field house had been converted into a sea of volleyball courts—16 in all—under a ceiling that seemed to stretch to the sky.
“It was the first time on the road for any of those girls,” remembered Grace’s club coach, Shawn Garus. “They had never walked into a facility that wasn’t just two or three courts at a middle school.”
Garus wasn’t the only one to notice his team’s reaction to the impressive arena. University of Southern California coach Mick Haley was there when the pint-sized team arrived. “They were all pretty excited,” he recalled, “and their parents were excited, too.”
Haley, Garus, and Coyle were all attending the annual Emerald City Classic, a sprawling tournament hosted each Memorial Day weekend by the Washington Volleyball Academy. And although Haley and other college coaches were there to recruit older athletes, something about these 11-year-olds from Boise, Idaho, caught his eye.
“Two of those parents,” said Haley, “are probably pretty happy that one particular third parent is part of the program.”
The two parents were Garus—who is also head volleyball coach for Boise State University—and BSU assistant coach Candy Murphy. The third parent Haley noticed is Grace Coyle’s dad, Mark. Mark Coyle, you see, is Boise State’s Athletic Director.
“Imagine,” said Haley, “having an AD at a school known for football with a daughter who loves volleyball.”
“Well, yes,” Garus agreed. “It is pretty special.”
Before moving his family to Boise in 2011, Coyle was an athletic administrator at Minnesota and Kentucky, two schools with strong volleyball programs. “I’ve been around the sport since before my daughter was born,” he said. “But Gracie had never played volleyball before we got to Idaho. We had a chance to attend a BSU volleyball match and she fell in love with it.”
Garus has just one Idaho native on his Boise State roster, so he figured it was time to help promote the sport among his state’s younger girls. “Our [Boise State] players started up Thursday night clinics to try to get kids introduced to the game at an early age. Grace started attending those clinics, which gave me a chance to talk a bit more with Mark about trying to get the community involved and to grow the sport. We’re just pretty fortunate he had a daughter [interested in our clinics]. He says she sleeps with her volleyball now.”
“Gracie does walk around the house holding a volleyball,” Coyle admitted. “All the time.”
Growing the sport isn’t always a simple task, especially because teaching younger kids volleyball can be a challenge. In basketball, gravity helps balls bounce; in soccer, balls are easily kicked along the turf. But serving, passing, setting, hitting, blocking, and digging each require a fair amount of advanced skill, and few 11-year-olds are given a chance. “We break it down little by little,” Garus explained. “We use lighter balls, we use lower nets, we use smaller courts. It’s a lot more coach-initiated. But those really young kids enjoy the movement and the interaction with teammates.”
“Gracie loves the celebration after every point,” said Coyle. “I think that’s a big part of the attraction, especially with the young kids.”
The real key, said Garus, is parent involvement. Besides Garus, Murphy, and Coyle, other team parents include two Boise-area high school volleyball coaches, one of the Boise State football broadcasters, and other parents with athletic backgrounds. “That definitely helps,” Garus said. “You know you’re gonna get a kid that’s pretty committed to the sport, with parents that can go home and do some things with them after practice, like play a little pepper or just pass.”
“There’s definitely a greater appreciation of volleyball when you have one of your own kids participating,” said Coyle.
Coyle has taken steps to expand interest in volleyball at BSU. Just two nights before his national powerhouse football team hosted its first home game of the season, Coyle decided to take the family of an important athletic department booster to a volleyball game between Boise State and New Mexico. His plan to get them interested in volleyball proved successful. “They had never been to a volleyball match before,” Coyle said. “And they absolutely fell in love with it. They’re now texting me to ask about the next match, because they want to be there.”
“At a big university like ours,” said Garus, “we have an athletic director who knows our athletes’ names and drops by practices and goes to all our games. That’s very special.”
And, lest the AD forget, there’s always that volleyball next to the pillow each time he tucks his daughter into bed.
Originally published in January 2014