If you’ve only played volleyball during gym class, on the beach or in the backyard, you might be shocked by the intensity of high school boys’ volleyball matches. Witness a regular-season match in April, with Boulder Creek visiting north Glendale’s Mountain Ridge High. Both teams alternately blasted spikes and finesse shots, with long rallies before “kill” shots against desperate attempts to “dig” the white ball before it hits the gym floor.
The players on both teams were as athletic as basketball players and wily as coyotes, the individual battles turning into hard-fought, well-played duels. For the Jaguars, a blur in a No. 9 jersey kept flying in from the right wing for thunder-slams. This is junior Quentin Campbell, who proved to be multi-dimensional with strong defense and blistering serves. Teammate Alex Levine, a senior, also powered one deadly jump serve after another over the net.
Cody Williams, Alec Wilson and Alex Boyce have also been playing team-oriented, competitive ball for Troy Dueling, the appropriately named young coach who is rapidly – and somewhat sneakily – building a powerful volleyball program in Anthem. Dueling, who is 28, started playing volleyball as a senior at Barry Goldwater High School. U.S. Air Force service pulled him away from Arizona to Japan, where he continued to play volleyball.
He returned to his home state six years ago, and has been coaching at Boulder Creek for the last five seasons. In his rookie year, he coached the Jaguars to the quarter-finals of the state tournament, and last year finished in the top eight among Arizona high schools.
This season, his team is looking like it can go even further. The Boulder Creek volleyballers won 21 of their first 24 matches in Arizona. A spring break trip to a tournament in Las Vegas added another seven wins, with Boulder Creek losing only in the semi-final round to finish fourth out of 48 teams.
Dueling is building this tradition despite a constant fight with baseball, basketball and other sports. “I’m always very disappointed at our tryout numbers,” the young coach said. The volleyball season parallels that of baseball, the biggest competition for athletes. “It’s the toughest. I coached at Diamond Canyon (an Anthem Kindergarten-Eighth Grade school) a number of years to steal them away,” Dueling said with a chuckle. Of his current team, he reflected, “These kids I’ve been around since they were in seventh grade. They were the first group I stole away from other sports.”
He didn’t actually kidnap them, but after egging them on to at least try hitting the white ball around, knew they would be quickly hooked. “Once you get them out there and give volleyball the right way to younger guys, and they realize it’s not like P.E. (Physical Education), they love it and want more of it.” Learning to play competitive volleyball is figuring out how to combine teamwork, strategy and intense individual efforts. The result is something to watch, almost like a mini-circus. “It’s very entertaining. It’s fast paced. It’s much more detail-oriented than people think.
“People think it’s backyard barbecue but it’s definitely not. There’s a ton of strategy.”
Against Mountain Ridge, Boulder Creek seemed to lose focus, particularly in the second game, when the visitors had the home team on the ropes, only to allow a big lead to fizzle away with mistakes and tentative play. After a long, crowd-charged rally, Mountain Ridge delivered a ferocious spike to win the game and take a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead in the best of five match.
It was the kind of erratic play that drives a coach like Dueling crazy. He has grown accustomed to finishing in the top 10 in the state, and “this year we’re even stronger than normal.” But what will his team need to do in the season’s stretch run to maximize its potential and capitalize on a terrific start? “We need to be focused in the practice gym and really pay attention to detail in the way we play at practice. And we need to play at a high level, regardless of the opponent.”
With several juniors as key players, Boulder Creek will surely have another strong team, next season. But how far can this year’s Jaguars go? The playoffs start the second week of May, and Dueling’s team should have home court for at least the first round.
Campbell, Levine and company might have the drive to capitalize on that and go a long way. Take that relatively meaningless April match in Mountain Ridge. Down 2-0 on the road, many high school teams would have grudgingly accepted a loss, figuring there was plenty more volleyball to play in the season; but the Jaguars battled back ferociously, won three games and enjoyed the bus ride home with another victory.
The Boulder Creek boys’ lacrosse team is also hoping to make the May playoffs. Coach Dan Booth’s team was 5-5 with four games remaining, looking for a second consecutive post-season appearance. Senior Alec Gordon and junior Thomas Hess have been scoring consistently for the Jaguars. “We have a lot of young players stepping up this year for us and contributing,” Booth said