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Among the sea of spandex and ponytails, the only boy at Prime Time Volleyball Club tryouts couldn’t be missed.

He wore shorts to his knees and a loose-fitting shirt and had close-clipped hair. Surrounded by dozens of other hopefuls on the court, in this way 13-year-old William Hatch was completely alone, the only boy who had come to play volleyball.

He’s no stranger to the court, despite being the only player there who will likely never know what it’s like to belong to a school team. He grew up around volleyball, watching his four older sisters play at school and in off-season club tournaments. He’d shagged their balls when they went flying and bumped-set-spiked with them on the side, feeling more and more that his place was on the court, not the sidelines.

But Hatch is a boy in central Illinois, where volleyball as an official school sport for boys — or anything beyond casual intramurals — is largely unheard of. Before going to the March 11 club tryouts, the seventh-grader at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High tried everything to be part of an official team.

He’d gone to the girls’ volleyball coach, who told him that the Illinois Elementary School Association rules barred boys from joining the team.

He amended his request and asked to manage the team, but it was again denied.

He told his parents, who then reached out to IESA officials, convinced their son was a victim of discrimination. They had seen girls on boys’ wrestling, baseball and soccer teams and wondered why their son couldn’t make the same kind of switch.

“My son, William Hatch, would like to play volleyball in Junior High for the 7th grade in the fall of 2017,” his mother, Laura, wrote in an email to the IESA. “His school doesn’t have boys volleyball. Please explain to me why he cannot play in 7th grade. I am convinced this is discrimination and am determined to change this rule so my son can play in our area.”

IESA officials replied with a short email citing specific by-laws that prevent boys from joining girls teams. It was an answer, but not the one the Hatches wanted.

“My whole future revolves around volleyball,” William said. “I want to play now, I want to play in high school. I want to go to college and play. And when I’m an adult, I would like to maybe be a coach.”

‘Not-perfect comments’

Hatch got his break with Prime Time, a local girls team coached by a man — Cliff Hastings, who has built a national junior college women’s volleyball powerhouse at Parkland College.

“At the club level, we’ve probably had one to two boys about every year play for us,” Hastings said. “We’ve set a precedent for those boys. Two of our male coaches have played for us when they were Will’s age.”

Hatch met Hastings a year ago and earned a spot on Prime Time’s 12-year-old team after tryouts. But after a switch in membership that affiliated the club with USA Volleyball rules, things got complicated for the 13-year-old Hatch.

“Technically, as a 13-year-old, he is at an age where he can’t be in a tournament where he plays with girls,” Hastings said. “Due to the relationships I have, I pitched him as a really nice young man who loves the game and ‘if I keep him in the back row, will you agree to let him play?’ That was my urging.”

Back row spots may not carry the glory of those up front, but that was OK with Hatch. It’s still a chance to be part of a team. Plus, it’s what suits him best, anyway — he is 5-foot-3, shorter than many girls his age.

Hastings hopes the move will keep away some of the negative attention that comes with being the only boy on the court. Last year, he said, some parents grew defensive when Hatch rotated into the front row.

“There were several parents and coaches who took issue or made some not-perfect comments about that,” he said. “I didn’t want them to feel on the defensive side again this year.”

Disparaging comments aren’t an anomaly. When Hatch went with his mother to sign up for fundamental skills training, other parents rolled their eyes at the only boy in line.

At school, while his friends are supportive, others needle him for wanting to play a “girls’ sport.” Other parents cite a physical advantage, arguing he is too strong or big to be playing with girls, despite barely having to duck to walk under the net.

“The kind of funny thing is that he’s little for his age and for a boy, and there’s some girls in his grade that are much stronger and way taller than him,” said his sister, Haley. “I just think right now it’s a bad time to say he’s ‘too strong’ for them.”

‘He belongs here’

If any of this bothers Hatch, it doesn’t show up when he’s on the court. He stays alert and smiles a lot, even when things aren’t going his way. If there’s a ball he thinks he can reach, he’ll do whatever he can to get to it, but not if it means stealing the spotlight from a teammate.

It’s a style Hastings believes the girls on his team need to see.

“Typically, boys’ volleyball at that age is more aggressive, and typically it’s more of going after every ball no matter what,” Hastings said. “He’s got that insight. It’s neat for girls to see that — I think he makes the girls around him better, which is what you hope for.”

During tryouts, the girls playing with him acted as if he’s one of them. Between drills, they circled together and talked, just as they did a year ago.

“I think the neat thing about Will starting younger is that he got to answer those questions at a young age — he’s not going, ‘Gosh, I love this sport, but this is a terrible idea. What am I doing? I shouldn’t do this,'” Hastings said. “Now that he is growing, he feels like Prime Time is his home. He feels like he belongs here.”

His competitive playing days locally may be numbered. After this year, Hatch will be ineligible to play for Prime Time. And under both IESA and Illinois High School Association rules, the only school volleyball team he can play on is a boys’ one.

There aren’t currently any in the area, and M-S Junior High Athletic Director Justin Franzen said he hasn’t “heard of any demand for that.”

“In Chicago,” Hastings said, “it’s such a mainstream thing to have boys volleyball. When you get south of I-80, it’s looked at as a girls’ sport.”

IESA: ‘Inherent’ edge

The IESA bylaws that keep Hatch from playing on a girls’ team can be traced back to the 1972 passage of Title IX, and the agency’s executive director said that won’t change anytime soon.

If Hatch were allowed to play on the junior high team, the IESA’s Steve Endsley said, he’d be taking away a spot from another girl. That goes against Title IX, as well as the IESA’s mission to protect girls’ athletics.

“The courts have held that the reason for Title IX is to give girls opportunities to play sports, and to take away an opportunity for a girl is against the reason that girls’ sports were started many years ago,” Endsley said. “There would be an inherent advantage for a boy to play on a girls team at some point in time.

“At some point in time, there would be a 6-3 tall person on the front line who might be physically more gifted and again, it takes away the competitive balance of girls playing against girls.”

School compliance with Title IX doesn’t mean that boys have to have a volleyball team just because girls do. Rather, schools must only provide the same individual opportunities to play a sport — any sport — to both boys and girls in proportion to the school’s enrollment.

The most expedient option to get Hatch onto a team — for the school to create its own separate team for boys — would require more funding and finding opponents to play against and isn’t mandated by Title IX explicitly.

Hoping for change

The Hatch family doesn’t see this happening anytime soon. There are boys’ club teams he could play on outside of the area, but the long-distance commutes to places like Joliet or the Chicago suburbs for multiple practices a week isn’t feasible, said William’s father, Andrew Hatch.

“But when he turns 16 and can use our car, I’d be open to the possibility of him driving up and letting him do that,” the father said.

Because of his club experience and the boys’ volleyball camps he attends each year at Lewis University in Romeoville, Hatch hopes he’ll eventually have a shot at making a collegiate team. Until then, the plan is to play whenever and wherever he gets a chance, be it this last year with Prime Time or practicing informally with sister Haley’s teammates.

“I just hope that volleyball can become a boys’ and girls’ sport — or a coed sport — and that it grows,” he said. “Maybe this will change things. I know there are people who hate me playing, but I’m only looking at the people who are going to help and support me because that’s the only thing that matters.

“I know that I’m a good volleyball player and that I shouldn’t stop just because someone tells me to.”