Senior club volleyball players reflect on successes of growing 3-year-old program

Pamela London

Men’s volleyball became a club sport in the fall of 2008, when the team’s current senior class was in their first year. Several players: including seniors Ryan Smith and John-Henry Heckendorn: competed on high school and club teams, and came to Whitman wanting to continue playing.

Credit: David Jacobson

When Smith arrived on campus, he found the sport to be pretty much non-existent to the extent that some people did not even know men played volleyball. Smith and Heckendorn met during orientation and realized that they both wanted to keep playing.
Since Whitman does not have a varsity program for men’s volleyball, Smith and Heckendorn decided to create their own team.
They got their first chance to play as practice players for the women’s varsity volleyball team and Head Coach Carolyn Papineau; later, with Papineau’s help, they were able to start their own organization. Thus men’s club volleyball was born.
While Smith and Heckendorn were working to bring men’s volleyball to Whitman, other schools in the Northwest were starting club volleyball programs of their own. The Pacific Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (PIVA) was established in the same year   (2008) for club teams around the region, including Whitman.
“The first part [of building the team] was finding guys who were interested in playing volleyball,” said Smith. “[The PIVA] really helped us with the competition to get to play volleyball.”
The team splits their yearlong training into phases, gearing up towards a series of tournaments of conference competition from January to March.
“When we come back in January we will start up tournaments pretty quickly and look to make a run at the conference championship,” said Heckendorn. “Our number one goal this year is to beat Gonzaga [University], who are a perennial powerhouse in our conference, and I think we’ve never had a better opportunity [with the experienced players we have].”
In only its fourth year of existence, the team has become extremely popular among Whitties.
“It was surprising to see so many guys who were interested to learn a new sport, and patient enough to stick with it,” said Smith. “The past couple years it was probably the fastest growing club sport. This year has been exciting so far because we have a new, large group of both experienced and inexperienced [players], but more importantly enthusiastic and excited freshmen who want to play on the team.”
The team’s successful establishment has allowed it to focus this year on becoming more organized while still improving as a unit on the court.
The team held elections last spring for the first time to establish a formal leadership group. There are now officially elected captains who handle coaching and tactics, a president who handles administrative business, a treasurer and social chairs.
A unique aspect of the team is their wide-reaching social circle among other club and varsity teams at Whitman. Last year, men’s volleyball started a companion women’s club team and has established close relationships with the women’s varsity team, as well as the Ultimate frisbee teams.
Despite the success the players have had in establishing a relatively successful program in a short time, it does not appear as though the team has a future as a varsity sport. Although the interest is present, there are no men’s varsity collegiate teams in the Northwest at any level, so it would not be practical for Whitman to promote men’s volleyball then have the team travel hundreds of miles every weekend for matches.
One thing that never lacks is the team camaraderie that was present from the beginning.
“People seem to be really buying into the team this year,” said Heckendorn. “I think now that our seniors have all had four years together, we should be about to peak this season.”
Whitman men’s volleyball will host a tournament at the end of November for teams from all over the Pacific Northwest.