Basketball dominates the high school sports landscape during the winter, but for many high school girls, this time of year provides ample time to work on volleyball skills.
Nearly every weekend from January through April, there is a USA Volleyball club tournament taking place in Southeast Missouri. There are more than 6,000 players in the Gateway Region, which also includes southern Illinois and the St. Louis area. There is at least one Southeast Missouri team in every age group of the Gateway Region with multiple area teams in some of the older age groups.
Tim Neels, commissioner of the Gateway Region, said during his 20 years with club volleyball, he has seen tremendous growth in this area.
"In this area, there was one or two teams," Neels said, "and now it's grown up, and there are numerous teams."
Scott City junior Kacie Ritter, a longtime club volleyball participant, said people would be surprised to realize how many girls are participating in club volleyball throughout the region.
"If they go to one of the tournaments, they'd be shocked how many girls play the sport and how much they put into it," Ritter said.
Playing club volleyball has helped expose area players to a higher level of competition. High school teams from St. Louis and southwestern Illinois often are among the top teams in their respective state tournaments. Last year, a club team from St. Louis won the national title for its age group.
"If you're going to play easy teams, that's not going to make you better," Ritter said. "You have to play against higher standards."
Through club teams, area volleyball players are able to work on their game as they prepare for the upcoming school season. Players often are expected to help with officiating and keeping score, which help broaden their understanding of the game.
Scott City coach Carl Ritter Jr., a state championship winning coach at Zalma in the early 1990s, said participating in club volleyball can only help a player.
"That's when they get better," he said. "The thing with clubs, not only do they play, they officiate and they keep score, so they learn all aspects of the game. When you learn all aspects of the game, you get better."
Class 1 teams in Southeast Missouri are in a position to benefit from club programs. Small schools such as Leopold, Bell City and Advance do not offer girls basketball, opening the door for volleyball players to pursue their sport from one season right into the next.
Those schools are able to pack the gyms for successful volleyball teams that have combined for eight district titles, three state final four appearances and two state titles in the last four years.
"Basically it's like AAU basketball or American Legion baseball," Neels said. "It supplements the high school programs. If you look back since the early 1990s, teams [from Southeast Missouri] that won a state championship had someone who played club volleyball.
"It's not a guarantee to success, but it helps them to succeed. If you look at the rosters of every Division I volleyball team, nearly all of the players played club volleyball in their high school years."
Area coaches do not mind seeing their players transition into the club season. The level of play throughout Southeast Missouri could likely be tied to the number of girls spending extra months playing volleyball. At a recent club tournament in Perryville, three of the four semifinal teams had ties to sectional-qualifying teams from the area.
"That's why you're seeing more teams becoming more competitive, because those kids are playing more," Carl Ritter Jr. said. "It's definitely a good thing, and it's a lot of fun."
Added Leopold coach Sandy Davis: "We've got three club teams we put together because we have so many girls that want to play and get better. It helps a lot."
The benefits of playing USA Volleyball can pay off behind high school, with college coaches scouting at the bigger tournaments.
"Most of the tournaments are at colleges," Kacie Ritter noted.
And while the players and coaches are out to win, the level of commitment in money and time is not as great in this area as with many of the St. Louis clubs. For most teams from Southeast Missouri, the club season provides a chance to bond with fellow teammates or play with some new players.
"Most of the teams are not win at all costs," Neels said of the area teams. "The main thing for teams in this area is developing the players and developing the teams."