When Hunter Gross and A.J. Rice were freshmen at Franklin, they were looking for an activity that would keep them busy during the spring season.
Those two, along with a few of their classmates, decided to give volleyball a shot, even though most of them had never played before.
Now seniors, that group has fared pretty well with it.
Boys volleyball is not yet sanctioned by the IHSAA, but Franklin has had one of the top squads in Indiana for the past decade or so — and this year’s team could end up being the best in the program’s history.
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“Our goal this year is to win a state title,” said Gross, the starting setter for the Grizzly Cubs.
That’s not an unrealistic goal. Franklin returned almost all of its lineup from a team that went 23-4 and reached the state semifinals a year ago. The Grizzly Cubs are currently ranked fifth in the Indiana Boys Volleyball Coaches Association (IBVCA) poll and again very much a contender.
Following an early-season setback against then-No. 1 Carmel, Franklin responded with 10 consecutive wins before finally being derailed by current No. 1 Noblesville and third-ranked Cathedral last week. The Grizzly Cubs are 13-3 heading into Tuesday’s match at Roncalli.
The success is all the more stunning when taking into consideration that Franklin has no youth program. Most players coming out for the team in high school have little to no volleyball experience.
“We teach on the run, for sure,” said head coach Sarah Records, in her first season at the helm after serving seven years as an assistant under longtime coach Kat Sarles. “There’s not a feeder system for boys volleyball, so for the most part, when they come in as freshmen that’s their first opportunity to touch a ball. That’s the first time that they’re really getting a chance to figure out how this works, so we spend a lot of time just teaching the game.”
The 6-foot-3 Gross, who was a starter in the frontcourt for the Grizzly Cubs’ basketball team, proved to be an apt pupil on the volleyball court. He has excelled in the setter role, breaking the school record for career assists earlier this month.
He’s gotten plenty of help from his classmates. Fellow seniors A.J. Rice, Tony Sundheimer and Garrett Wood, all of whom stand 6-3 or taller, have been the team’s top hitters, while another senior, 5-foot-8 libero Tamer Akerwami, leads the Grizzly Cubs in digs.
Each of those players takes a great deal of pride in continuing the proud legacy of the program, which has been a state tournament fixture since reaching the quarterfinals in 2005. Franklin has made it to the round of eight in eight of the last 12 seasons, making three semifinal appearances. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Grizzly Cubs have 93 wins and just 23 losses.
They’ve also supplanted two-time state champion Center Grove as the premier program in the area. Eliminated from the postseason by the Trojans four times in seven years from 2003 to 2009, Franklin has advanced at least as far in the postseason as their county rival every year since, and the Grizzly Cubs have won the last two regular-season meetings in straight sets, including a 25-11, 25-7, 25-16 rout two weeks ago.
Continuing to build on that track record of success is important to the current squad — and Rice says it’s something the seniors used this year when recruiting younger talent to come in and keep the momentum going after this year.
“With that finish last year, and with the mindset and mentality, and we’re telling people these goals we have, people want to be a part of that,” he said. “It’s hard to pass that kind of opportunity up.”
As a result, the numbers have grown. Franklin has a freshman team for the first time ever this season, and while the Grizzly Cubs will be graduating seven seniors off the varsity roster, there won’t be a shortage of available bodies in the future.
The recruiting efforts are all the more impressive with boys volleyball not being an IHSAA sport. The program doesn’t have the same visibility that most other sports do at Franklin, but this group hopes to see that change before long.
“Coming from basketball, Indiana’s a basketball state, so everyone comes to games; the whole town’s there,” Gross said. “Going to volleyball, it’s kind of hard because not a lot of people show up and there’s not a lot of recognition, but that’s just why we’re striving more — so future generations can continue to play the game and hopefully get a lot more recognition just like basketball and football do.”
Records says that she’s just looking for her team to keep working hard and improving day by day. Some of her players, though, are clearly thinking bigger picture.
“We want to leave something that’s going to be remembered,” Rice said.
The Franklin boys volleyball team is ranked fifth in the IBVCA poll and taking aim at its first state championship. A look at how the Grizzly Cubs have fared in the postseason in recent years: