FLOODWOOD, Minn. - Markus Pokornowski has grown up playing baseball, as much of his life, he has put on his cleats, ball cap and began swinging a bat.
Nowadays, however, the Cloquet junior wears sneakers, shorts and swings at volleyballs.
Pokornowski was one of about 60 boys playing volleyball at Floodwood High School earlier this week, as the predominantly girls’ high school sport in the fall, has been booming with boys’ interest statewide this spring.
In fact, according to Northern Minnesota coordinator Derek Hart, more than 900 boys are playing the sport, including 94 teams at the varsity and junior varsity levels amongst the Minnesota Boys High School Volleyball Association.
Six of those rookie squads were in Floodwood on Monday, April 8, as a part of the Northern Minnesota Conference’s opening night - the first official boys volleyball this part of the state has ever witnessed.
“Volleyball is my passion,” said an emotional Hart, fighting back tears between matches. “Too see this many people in the gym just blows me away.”
While the streets of the small town were streamed with vehicles, the bleachers inside were booming with cheers, leading one spectator to note it was louder than during basketball season. Admission was free, concessions were simple and friends and family abundant in support.
And sure, while there were a number of missed serves, net violations and shanked passes, there was also plenty of hustle into the nearby stands, high-jumping athletes and wide-mouthed smiles throughout the historic evening.
“It’s actually really fun,” said Trey Harkins, a Cloquet junior who also played football and basketball. “I’m enjoying it.”
Perhaps no one was enjoying the night more than Hart, as the 43-year-old coach in Floodwood has been directing the Polar Bears’ girls program for the last seven seasons, but also spent the last year-and-a-half heading the boys’ creation.
Hart was down in the Twin Cities earlier this month making his - and many other supporters’ - case to recognize the sport through the Minnesota State High School League. In turn, Hart said the board did have some interest, yet did not receive enough votes to officially sanction the activity this spring.
Hart is hoping in the next couple years, that will change.
After all, Hart said that up to 17 Northland schools expressed interest to him in joining this season, despite not committing fully. It’s evident this sport is expanding quickly.
“It’s in its infancy now and only going to continue to grow,” said Hibbing’s Brian Karich, officiating Monday, now in his 30th season involved with the game as a ref, coach and player. “I’d say whatever teams they have now, in three years’ time, it’ll double or triple.”
“This is really good to explode,” added Hart.
Several boys exploded on volleyballs Monday, including the ultra-athletic Pokornowski, who while still fresh to the game, bombed several of his serves long and out of bounds.
“It’s very hard,” said Pokornowski, admitting a new respect for the way girls make the game look so effortless. “It’s not easy.”
Harkins said it wasn’t even easy line judging for the night’s first match between Floodwood and Proctor/Hermantown, as all players and coaches took turns learning to officiate and score the game while not playing. Call it award-winning simplicity to grow a game bursting with talented male athletes.
“I was super nervous,” admitted Harkins.
Still, once the boys got on the court, it didn’t take long to notice the raw enjoyment everyone was having. From players, coaches and officials, to friends, family and fans in the stands, there was no doubt on the sport’s success.
“I always thought it should be available for the boys,” said Rick Rice, Cloquet’s coach along with Kelsey Motzko. “It’s excellent to see it around here.”
Hart added that along with Cloquet and Floodwood, Proctor/Hermantown has two teams and Grand Rapids and Hibbing/Chisholm each one to round out a conference which will play weekly doubleheaders around the area each Monday, until the team with the best record represents the area at the first-ever state tournament May 18-19 in Shakopee, Minn.
Donations jars were even on hand Monday, as well as throughout the six-week season, with the funds raised going toward the team that qualifies for state, helping their costs to head southbound.
But most of all, volleyball was being played by boys.
“Nobody can ever take this moment away from these guys,” mentioned Hart, whose back of his black T-shirt said ‘Making History!’ in gold letters. “To see this many kids who want to do it and get this opportunity, it’s just awesome.”
Asked if he and his football, basketball, soccer and track buddies will all be back playing volleyball again next year, Harkins didn’t hesitate a bit.
“For sure,” he said. “I hope we can leave a good footprint for the years to come.”