PHOENIX – Western states have long dominated high school volleyball, with many of the top teams coming from California and Hawaii. The 2021-22 season has provided a plot twist, with one school in particular from land-locked Arizona showing that the sport’s best breeding grounds don’t have to be near sand or surf.
The Sandra Day O’Connor High boys’ volleyball team ascended to the national boys volleyball rankings, by MaxPreps earlier this season and currently sit at No. 5. Not far behind is Gilbert Highland High School, which is perched at No. 7.
“It’s not like that has been a one-to-two-year thing,” Sandra Day O’Connor boys volleyball coach Troy Dueling said.
He added, “There has been a lot of good volleyball here in the last 15, 20 years. It has just never found the recognition it needed.”
The Eagles have paved a way for other teams and the road to that spot has been nothing short of remarkable.
The Eagles were invited to the prestigious “Best of the West” tournament in March, which featured some of the top teams in the nation. They dominated the competition, dropping only two sets in seven matches to win it all, becoming the first team from outside California or Hawaii to earn the title.
“It feels good,” Dueling said. “But it is important to keep everything in perspective. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’ve got a lot more that we want to accomplish, so just not letting that be something that is a part of the daily thought process is important for us.”
The Eagles are loaded with talent. They have six active team members that are committed to play in college, including Zach Rama, one of the top outside hitters in the nation who signed with UCLA.
Rama, a dynamic athlete with fine-tuned volleyball skills, was integral in the Eagles’ “Best of the West” title run. Though he won the tournament’s MVP award, you are unlikely to hear it from him. The Eagles’ 6-foot 7 star is very humble, and though he seems born to play volleyball, basketball was his first love. Through time, he fell in love with volleyball, and it has taken him to new heights, and national recognition.
“Going to college on a scholarship is a big (accomplishment),” Rama said. “I don’t know that I would have been able to do that for basketball.”
Another instrumental part of the team is setter Jaxon Herr, one of the Eagles’ more vocal players, directing his teammates like a composer and unselfconsciously celebrating big points. Committed to play college volleyball at Grand Canyon University, Herr has been in love with the sport since he picked up the ball. Though he played other sports such as baseball and basketball, volleyball struck a chord, and he hasn’t looked back.
He played in a youth program, FEAR, founded and coached by Dueling, whose goal was to help develop the next generation of volleyball talent. Herr shares Dueling’s view of cultivating young players and actively spreading the message that volleyball is fun.
“I encourage more players to play all the time,” Herr said. “It is such a great sport, and it is easy to get into and it is just fun. There are also a lot of opportunities, outside of high school, to keep playing.”
The Eagles lost in last year’s state championship final to Gilbert Perry High, a team that circled the national top-five. The year before that, Queen Creek Casteel was a top-20 team in the country. So if Arizona’s high schools have been well represented in the national rankings for the past three years, why did it take a team reaching No. 1 for them to earn recognition?
The Eagles’ dominance in the Best of the West tournament against the highest level of competition made them – and more broadly Arizona boys’ volleyball – impossible to ignore. But since the tournament, the Eagles have kept up their dominance, still being undefeated, but falling in the polls from the top spot to the number five spot. Regardless of rankings, they are showing the high school sports world that Arizona is becoming the melting pot for talent in all sports, and it is now catching traction. But for Dueling, this rise in Arizona talent has been coming for a while.