Bemidji begins boys volleyball era with inaugural match against Proctor-Hermantown

Apr. 19—By the time an athlete is old enough to attend high school, they will already have played hundreds of games in their respective sports at the youth levels.

That wasn't the case for 19 of the 20 Bemidji High School boys volleyball players on Thursday.

The Minnesota State High School League ruled boys volleyball as an emerging sport last year, completing a push from many school representatives statewide to compete as a sanctioned sport under the MSHSL banner.

BHS decided to throw its hat in the ring.

Led by co-head coaches Erika Bailey-Johnson and Matt Johnson and assistant coach Sau Fetauo, the Lumberjacks have spent nearly the entire school year building for a moment that came to fruition on Thursday night at the BHS gymnasium. The Lumberjacks played a boys volleyball game for the first time in school history.

"We had never played a game, so I think everybody was anxious, excited, nervous and just looking forward to tonight," Erika said. "I think the thing that Matt, Sau and I are trying to be mindful of is that we can't replicate a game (in practice). We've been trying to get external people to come in and play us in practice, but you can never fully replicate playing a competitive conference match."

Bemidji took on Proctor-Hermantown, a seasoned team that's played in the MN Boys High School Volleyball Association structure since 2018. Next year, the Norsemen plan to compete as an MSHSL team. The Lumberjacks aim to be there, too.

"I'm really hopeful that starting this program will be the beginning of something that will continue to grow in our community," Erika said. "The MSHSL has adopted it; they did it last spring. I'm hoping we can prove to the school and the school board that we are ready to have a sanctioned team next year."

Even to the layman's eye, the Jacks were behind the curve compared to their counterpart — all but one BHS player, that is.

Junior Reed Johnson, son of Erika and Matt, is the only BHS player with experience playing competitive volleyball before Thursday night. When Reed is not playing for the boys soccer team in the fall, he spends his time traveling across the Midwest with MN Select 17 National-1, a club team for high-end players in Minnesota.

"Club is different because all of the people I play with have played (competitive) volleyball before," Reed said. "We have good athletes on our team (in Bemidji), but none of them have been in a real volleyball game before tonight. It's just different, but I'm having a lot of fun playing with my friends from school."

The Jacks have plenty of athletes, including five who play other spring sports. But they're not the only ones who have had to juggle two sports in one season.

Bemidji began practicing for boys volleyball in the fall once each week. The practice schedule ramped up to three each week in the spring, navigating the limited gym time while other spring sports used the on-campus fieldhouse. The Lumberjacks have started practices as late as 8 p.m. to allow athletes to play other sports.

"The boys have done a lot of work in the school to let people know this is an option for them," Erika said. "When it comes to dual sports, all the coaches have been great. Both my husband and I were multi-sport athletes. We understand the importance of playing multiple sports."

BHS dropped the first set 25-17, then won the next two 25-21 and 25-17. Proctor-Hermantown got the better of the Jacks in the final two sets, winning them by 25-16 and 15-0 margins to pick up a 3-2 win.

"It was an awesome night," Reed said. "Seeing how many people came out, it was really cool to be a part of, and I think a lot of us had a lot of fun. We played pretty well, too. (Proctor-Hermantown) is one of the best teams in our conference. ... I think once we got going a little bit, the guys started loosening up and having fun out there. That's what was awesome about tonight."

Reed was voted as team captain before Thursday's game, as was Ty White.

"Look at him," Erika said, pointing at White as he helped take down the nets after the game. "He's here early helping setup; he's here late helping take down everything. He's giving 110% and supporting his teammates all the time. I think the boys made a good choice for captains. Reed with his experience and skill, and Ty with his dedication and leadership."

Now that they ripped the band-aid off, the Jacks will now focus on finding consistency to make a push for a state tournament berth June 12-13 in Shakopee.

"They've all played in gym class," Erika said. "They've played in the sand or (recreationally), but to do this type of game is very different. It's highly stressful and competitive, and they did awesome. For me, tonight showed us clearly what things we need to work on when we play a high-level team."

In the bigger picture, Erika hopes Thursday night will be another step toward BHS adopting boys volleyball as a sanctioned sport as soon as next year.

"I'm just really proud of the boys," Erika said. "I'm so thankful for the support from the community. ... Sau is new, and Matt and I coached a long time ago, so it's just remembering what to do and how to come out and set everything up here. Everyone has been so helpful with their time and energy in helping us figure everything out. That made it really easy and fun."