COLLINSVILLE — There is a nervous anticipation in the atmosphere surrounding the Collinsville High gymnasium.
For the first time, the Kahoks are fielding a boys volleyball team. They are playing a JV schedule this year and scheduled to begin varsity play in 2022.
“Obviously, we want to be competitive in every game,” coach Mike Nichols said. “I honestly don't know what to expect playing just a JV schedule. My hopes are we can compete the first couple games, and then maybe the second time around playing them, maybe they bring some other varsity players down to play us.”
Volleyball always has been a passion for Nichols, who graduated from Collinsville in 2004. He played club at SIU Edwardsville.
Bringing the sport to his alma mater was a goal of his since he was hired as a math teacher six years ago.
“When I interviewed, I was like, you know all of the schools in our conference have boys volleyball teams,” Nichols said. “(Athletic director Clay Smith) really pushed for it to happen.”
With Smith’s backing, the program got the OK and Nichols was the logical choice to lead it.
“It's been pretty easy,” Nichols said. “We’ve had a lot of support in school, so it's been great so far.”
Nichols said the biggest hurdle in starting a program is usually finding the money for it, but an anonymous donor has stepped forward to buy the uniforms and the school already had most of the equipment with the girls team.
That allowed Nichols to focus on the court.
“Just bringing players onto the court that have never played any sort of volleyball,” Nichols said. “They didn't have any clue how to play. So just teaching, in some cases seniors in high school, how to play the right way has been challenging.”
Nichols said Collinsville will rely on its two outside hitters, junior Josh Zagorski and senior Jerimiah Wood. Nichols also said senior Amir Taylor, a 6-foot-6 middle blocker, is starting to understand the game.
Zagorski was one of the first ones to commit to the program when it was announced his freshman year.
“Getting the team together is pretty tough,” Zagorski said. “There’s a lot of new people who haven’t played volleyball. It’s a matter of getting them together and learning the game.”
Running the offense will be a pair of sophomore setters in Luke Geisen and Eli Davidson.
Nichols said he is looking forward to watching the pair grow with the program.
“It’s kind of nice starting it off,” Geisen said. “I’m excited. I have two years left, so it’s a lot more time.”
Collinsville was supposed to start with a JV schedule last year and begin varsity play this season, but the coronavirus pandemic had other plans.
“Last year, so many more boys were coming out to all our gyms or tryouts, and then COVID happened, and the season got canceled,” Nichols said. “But I've got a group of about 15 guys that are super excited to play.”
In an ironic twist, the virus might have a positive effect on the team’s short-term outlook.
With the Illinois fall sports being moved to the spring, the girls and boys seasons’ have overlapped. It has allowed the teams to scrimmage each other.
“It was a big help playing against the girls, because they’ve been playing for a long time,” Zagorski said. “They have experience.”
Playing in the Southwestern Conference will be a challenge. Edwardsville and O’Fallon are established perennial powers and the rest of the teams are always competitive.
But those conference rivals also have been very supportive of Collinsville starting a program.
“The whole conference is one of the strongest conferences in the state of Illinois, from sport to sport,” Nichols said. “If you're looking at the postseason play in Illinois in any sport, there's usually at least one Southwestern conference team. All the coaches have reached out, and if I needed anything they're there for me. So it does look very good on our conference, working together to get more students on the court to play.”