A Kentuckian will play Division I volleyball. Here’s how he did it and why the sport is growing.
Amid all the college signing day ceremonies held across Central Kentucky last month, one in particular stood out as a bit unusual: Zach Stowe, West Jessamine High School, Penn State volleyball.
Stowe, a 6-foot-7 senior, caught a Penn State assistant coach’s eye at a Princeton camp last year. By the way, the Nittany Lions are currently the nation’s No. 2 ranked team.
But Stowe not only plays volleyball for a boys’ club team at far-flung tournaments outside of the state, he also plays in a rapidly growing spring league of Kentucky high school teams that opened play this week.
“It’s really cool to see this rise up with me,” Stowe said “I’m just happy to see that it’s actually growing.”
Volleyball has been a Kentucky High School Athletic Association girls’ sport for decades, but it has been slow to catch on as a boys’ activity due in part to fewer colleges fielding men’s volleyball teams than some other sports.
But that’s changing.
In 2018, three schools — West Jessamine, Henry Clay and Danville Christian — started a boys’ high school league.
“We got to know each other quite well,” West Jessamine Coach Bill Bird said, laughing. “But it was good. We got these guys going and planted the seed and it’s grown from there.”
The pandemic set the sport’s growth back some, but from last season to this season, boys’ teams have doubled to 28 teams with more than 400 players.
That has been fostered by the Kentucky Volleyball Coaches Association and boosted by the KHSAA’s most recent triennial survey of schools, which showed significant interest in the sport from its members.
“Based upon conversations with officials at the KHSAA, I realistically expect boys’ volleyball to become a KHSAA championship sport in the spring of 2025,” said Bradley Wilson, KVCA director of boys’ volleyball. “Along with the 28 schools committed to playing this spring, an additional 53 have expressed some level of interest in adding a team in the future.”
Growing up in the game
Zach Stowe and his younger brother Josh grew up with volleyball their entire lives. Their father, Keith Stowe, was a longtime assistant at Asbury College and head women’s coach there from 2016 until last year. Their mother, Jill Stowe, née Burness, was a first-team All-Big 12 player for Texas Tech in the mid-1990s.
“I don’t know if that’s what sparked my interest, but it definitely helps having volleyball parents,” Zach Stowe said. “I fell in love with the sport. And it feels good when I hit the ball hard, I guess.”
Keith and Jill Stowe help out with West Jessamine’s varsity and junior varsity and have started their own boys’ Bluegrass Lightning Volleyball club that has three teams competing on a tournament circuit in the summer and fall.
“It’s pretty cool to share a passion I have with not only the boys, but also their friends and all these guys that want to play,” Jill Stowe said. “A lot of people see volleyball as a girls’ sport and then they step on the court and play and find out this is really fun.”
Before Zach attended some camps, the Stowes didn’t know how he’d compare to players from other areas where boys’ volleyball is more established.
“I knew he was a pretty good athlete, but there’s a bunch of guys at that level that are pretty good athletes,” said Jill Stowe, who also played volleyball at Kentucky Wesleyan in Owensboro before moving on to Texas Tech. “I take it as a big compliment that they were willing to take a chance. … because he’s coming in with a lot less experience.”
In men’s college volleyball, NCAA Division I and II teams compete against each other for a national title because there are so few teams — 28 in Division I and 33 in Division II, but many more at the Division III and NAIA levels. Penn State has won two national championships over the college sport’s 53-year history and finished runner-up four times.
“I wanted to play D-I, and I probably can, but the fact that I’m going to be able to play with a team like that makes me so excited,” Zach Stowe said. “Their performance this year is amazing.”
Stowe knows he faces a big learning curve when he gets to State College, Pa.
“My first year there is going to be a lot of development going on,” he said.
While the pace of growth of boys’ volleyball in the state has been slow, Keith Stowe doesn’t see that as a bad thing.
“That might be a healthier way for it to grow rather than too rapidly where you get this influx of just so many people and then not enough people to coach it correctly,” Keith Stowe said.
The competition level has improved, as well.
“It stuns me how quickly some guys are picking it up,” Zach Stowe said.
Though Louisville’s Trinity and St. Xavier high schools have been playing the sport for many more years at a high level in Indiana leagues, Dale Grupe, the Henry Clay girls’ coach who helped found the boys’ league, believes the competition curve for boys won’t be as steep as it has been for girls in Kentucky.
Louisville and northern Kentucky private schools dominate girls’ volleyball. Only a few public school teams, including Paul Laurence Dunbar last fall, have made it to the KHSAA state finals.
“It’s gone from funny to fun,” said Grupe, who coaches Henry Clay’s girls’ varsity and boys’ junior varsity, but recalls helping found the boys’ league with just three teams in 2018.
“We’re excited to show them a little bit this season,” Grupe said. “We’ve got several boys in our area who now have a year of club ball under their belt. I think it will be interesting to see how this year goes.”
Grupe’s son, Luke Grupe, who played for Coker University despite not having the benefit of a high school league in his day, coaches Henry Clay’s boys’ varsity. Later, Henry Clay grad Will Andrews had a college career at New Jersey Institute of Technology despite only playing club ball.
Among the 28 Kentucky boys’ teams this spring, there are five from Lexington — Lafayette, Henry Clay, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sayre and Tates Creek.
Top teams from the regular season will compete in a postseason state championship tournament on May 13.
West Jessamine’s Bird has been pleased to see the boys’ game gain acceptance.
“It’s always been a sport for me. It’s been something that we’ve wanted to do,” Bird said. “It’s another opportunity for some guys who haven’t found their niche in some other sports.”