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Meet the women behind Minnesota high school boys volleyball

At a Shakopee high school volleyball match in 2017, Jenny Kilkelly — volleyball mom and passionate supporter — overheard a conversation about adding boys volleyball to the Minnesota high school scene.

Longtime volleyball coach and advocate Walt Weaver was discussing it with the school's activities director.

"I heard a voice behind me in the hallway," Weaver said. "It was Jenny, and she was asking if she could help."

Kilkelly and Weaver talked a few days later and planned to meet at a restaurant in Lakeville.

"She said, 'I'd like to bring a friend of mine. We both have ninth-grade sons,' " Weaver recalled.

The friend was fellow Shakopee volleyball enthusiast Krista Flemming.

And there, over Green Mill pizza, they fired up the engine that drove boys volleyball toward legitimacy.

Seven years and plenty of ups and downs later, boys volleyball is about to become a full-fledged high school sport, sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). The first season will be spring 2025, after a final club state championship next month.

The route to success

"How is it," Hugh McCutcheon once asked Weaver, "Minnesota is such a big volleyball state but doesn't have boys volleyball?"

That question came from the former Gophers women's volleyball coach, who coached U.S. men's and women's teams to Olympic medals, and it matched Weaver's question. When Weaver began teaching and coaching in 1974, he had attempted to drum up interest in boys volleyball. But girls high school volleyball was still new, and the appetite for a boys counterpart was scant. "Boys volleyball wasn't in anyone's lexicon," Weaver said.

Introducing boys volleyball to the state's vocabulary intrigued Kilkelly and Flemming.

"Krista (Flemming) and I had a chance to help out," said Kilkelly, who in the time since she began promoting boys volleyball has had two daughters complete collegiate volleyball careers, Meghan at North Dakota and Rachel at Minnesota. "In 2017, we decided to try to run a league in the spring. That spring, somehow, we had a league with 22 schools and 200-some boys."

Now the Minnesota High School Boys Volleyball Association is in its final season. It has 82 schools playing varsity-level schedules — 10 more than last year — and most of those also field at least one junior varsity team.

Participation is up, again, with about 2,500 boys playing, 600 more than last year.

Kilkelly and Flemming are both businesswomen, Kilkelly a vice president at a real estate brokerage firm, Flemming an entrepreneur and property owner in the southwest metro. Kilkelly's business acumen provided foresight and technical know-how while Flemming brought coaching insight and a can-do attitude.

They tapped those attributes in developing the club league, doing everything from assisting schools in forming teams and scheduling officials to creating a schedule that assured teams of 12 to 14 regular-season games. They tell a story of riding together to Grand Forks a few years ago. While their husbands drove, they huddled in the back seat, juggling spreadsheets.

They were the face of the sport when the MSHSL debated sanctioning. They cried together in 2022 when it was rejected by a single vote by the Representative Assembly in front of a meeting packed with proponents. After that setback and armed with a much greater phalanx of supporters, they rolled up their sleeves, got back to work and celebrated one year later when the sport won overwhelming approval.

Together, they've gained a national reputation in volleyball circles.

"We were at a meeting at the volleyball Final Four and [veteran coach] Rhonda Low from Indiana said she'd been working on her state for 10 years. She asked us how long we'd been doing it," Flemming said. "We said about three years. She said, 'Only three years?' She was impressed."

Kilkelly and Flemming both admit the work to reach this point was far greater than they expected and took up more time than they anticipated. Neither has regrets.

"It's become a labor of love that's kept us looking forward, not back," Flemming said. "Jenny and me are such great friends. We've got a lot of funny stories and have met and worked with so many great people. It's been good to be able to laugh and cry, because emotions have come very easily."

Both say the best part is they no longer have to spend so much time selling the sport. It's sold. "It's nice to take that part off our plates," Kilkelly said.

Serving the underserved

For seven years, Kilkelly and Flemming boosted boys volleyball to the mainstream. Along the way it became a mission — to provide opportunities to an underserved community.

Men's volleyball has long been popular in some ethnic communities that were often overlooked in traditional American sports. According to figures from the Minnesota High School Boys Volleyball Association website, in 2023 the majority of players were non-white. Players of Asian descent made up 40.8 percent.

"It's been incredible to see the demographics climb. It's amazing that nearly 60 percent of the players are students of color," Kilkelly said.

Also important: These aren't athletes dropping another sport to play volleyball. More than 90 percent of the 1,974 boys who played in 2023 were not previously playing a spring sport.

Kilkelly's and Flemming's own sons are firmly attached to the sport. Caden Flemming is a junior at Montana State where he's the club volleyball team president. Kale Flemming is a high school senior headed to Iowa State, where he plans to play club volleyball. Christopher Kilkelly, a graduate of Full Sail University in Florida, is an assistant coach with the Shakopee boys club team.

Kilkelly and Flemming still run the league, which will conclude with the state tournament June 12 and 13 at Shakopee. Now their drive is keeping the momentum alive. The plan is to develop a JV-level league, promoting intra-school competition outside the MSHSL.

"Most high schools will probably only be able to [fund] a varsity and a JV. That's 24 spots. We've had so many schools that have had 40, 50 kids that want to play," Kilkelly said. "We want to keep interest high. When kids are cut or they quit, they tend to not come back."

Flemming said: "We don't want to go backwards."

As they pass the reins to the MSHSL, Kilkelly and Flemming are appreciated.

"I was on my way to retirement. They had the passion to carry the ball," Weaver said. "It hasn't been easy to build what they've built."

Keep the praise low-key, the two women say.

"It's been pretty amazing to see so many people in the volleyball community step up," Kilkelly said. "It's humbling. We're just two moms from Shakopee with a little time to help out. It was a no-brainer, really."