About North Country Region Volleyball – History

Simple Beginnings. The sport of volleyball was created in 1895 in Holyoke, Massachusetts by William G Morgan, a YMCA physical education director. The sport got its start in the YMCA system and eventually made its way around the world to be included in the Far East Games in Manila in 1913. The United States Volleyball Association (USVBA, later to be renamed USA Volleyball) was later founded in 1928 in New York City for the purpose of representing the sport nationally and internationally and for conducting an annual national championship.

100 Years Later. Today USA Volleyball is recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee as the national governing body for volleyball. Its USA Men’s and Women’s teams have gained national and international recognition through their medal-finishing play at recent Olympics. At the grassroots level there are the 34 regions which make up USA Volleyball. As one of the 34 regions, North Country Region includes Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Northern Wisconsin and Northern Michigan. When first formed the region was called Region 10 and consisted of a large geographic area: Minnesota, North and South Dakota, western Wisconsin and eastern Montana. The first national representative of this region was George Kemp who played for the Minneapolis YMCA.

Minnesota Volleyball. The North Country Region/USA Volleyball has fueled a booming interest in Minnesota volleyball. The state at one time held national attendance records for women’s professional volleyball (the Monarchs), the NCAA Division I women’s volleyball final four, and USA National team men’s and women’s matches. But it wasn’t always that way. One must have been around a few decades to fully appreciate the spectacular growth and strength of volleyball as it now exists in our region.

Trivia. For ancient history or volleyball trivia buffs, did you know that USA Volleyball Nationals were held in St Paul in 1942 and in Minneapolis in 1945?

The 1950’s. The game as played then would be hard to recognize today: back court players could come up to block-a 3-person block was the usual; serves were received with the overhand pass and referee calls were tough; hands could not go over the net for a block or spike follow-through; the set pass was closely called-no deep sets; and honor calls were made by players on net and ball touches. The commissioner in the 1950s was Doc Stanwood.

The Most Powerful Hitter. The 1958 AAU Championship drew top teams from Chicago and the East Coast with play at a level new to this area. A local volleyball star, Yul Yost, was the MVP of the tournament and was clocked as the most powerful hitter in the world. With his 220lb. 6’4 frame, his vertical jump and power would cause many of his hits to reach the ceiling on the bounce. His overhand spin serve had the trajectory and velocity of most jump serves of today. Yul is still an active player with the “Northside” group and participated in the 1993 National Championships in Memphis.

The 1960’s. In the 60’s, volleyball was still centered mostly in the YMCA system. The Minneapolis YMCA had the strongest men’s teams. They played against YMCA teams from the Midway St. Paul, east side St. Paul and Red Wing. A few times a year, teams would travel outside the region to play the YMCA’s in Fort Dodge and Des Moines, Iowa. The Colts from the Minneapolis YMCA had an unbroken string of more than thirty tournament victories. The Colts were also recognized nationally when players Janis (Doc) Robins, George Kemp and Marty Rude achieved All-American status at the national tournament.

The 1961 USA Volleyball Open in Duluth offered this area its first look at big-time California ball and for them, a look at Minnesota ball…snowball, that is. A light snow had fallen during the first night and when the California kids in their Southern California attire hit the streets that morning outside the Duluth Hotel, pandemonium broke loose. The game at this time was still pretty much like it was in the 50’s: the “four-two” was the offense; dink shots were rate because calls were too rigid; and with the 3-person block, the dense was ahead of the offense.

Power Volleyball. In the cold light of honest appraisal, most of the local men players in the past (maybe a few today as well) were “retreads” from other sports. Improved teaching of volleyball skills in the schools was one approach to this problem. The chance for a volleyball skill clinic that would reach the P.E. teachers and coaches presented itself in 1963 when the National AAHPER Convention (American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation) were held in Minneapolis. Jim Coleman, at the time player/coach of the Kenneth Allen team out of Chicago (a top contender), brought three of his best players with him, and with the help of the local Colts, put on a terrific clinic. Almost every P.E. teacher and coach in Minnesota was in town for the convention and close to 200 chose to watch the volleyball demo. This was the first time many of the P.E. teachers were to see the defined skills and features of the power game. Some seeds were planted in the right places.

When Janis (Doc) Robins was the Region Commissioner (1961-1963), volleyball was on the move. Doc was the guru in volleyball for years and spent countless hours teaching and promoting, probably more than anyone before or since. Although the game was still “Y” oriented, and the Minneapolis Y Colts were the team to beat, the momentum had begun. The Minneapolis Athletic Club and St. Paul Athletic Club had pretty good teams; the Northside/Teachers group was getting started, and the Minneapolis Y Masters took second at Duluth in the 1961 Nationals. The Latvian teams were always tough and have represented volleyball vigorously through the years. The local Latvian Club hosted the Latvian Nationals starting in 1954 (local women placed second) and again in 1962, 1978, 1982, 1988 (the local team placed first) and finally in 1993 for their 40th year of this event.

Women’s Volleyball. Women’s volleyball evolved from the Latvian community in Minneapolis and a team fielded from Duluth. The talented Bungalow team headed by Ruti Helman was a mix of Latvians and former college players. In the late 60s and early 70s there was one league for women and only two annual tournaments-the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the USA Volleyball Regionals. These early competitive teams were forced to travel to Chicago’s Navy Pier where tournaments were held one Sunday a month. A first for the Region was the Winter Carnival women’s tournament in 1967, which drew 16 of the top teams from a five-state area. The first women’s Regionals in 1967 was won by Gopher Lounge of Duluth against Bungalows, according to Mary Timm who played on the Duluth team. They went on to be the first women’s team to represent the region at the national tournament held in Detroit that year.

Slow Growth. In some ways, the 60s were a period of slow growth. According to the first tournament director, Dick Johnson, there were only a few teams in the early tournaments. Minneapolis YMCA A and B teams won the first regional tournament in 1964. By 1968, there were still only eight men’s teams in the regional tournament and only a handful of women’s teams playing.

Pan Am Trials. One of the biggest boosts for volleyball locally came with the 1967 Pan Am trials held on the U of M campus. Both the men and women were here for a month, and the exposure was terrific. Practices were open to the public, and arrangements were made to bus in out-state players and coaches to watch the intra-squad playoffs. Some of the big volleyball names included Mary Jo Peppler, Al Scates, Rudy Suwara and Jim Coleman. Paid admissions to volleyball drew the fourth highest of all sports…and the U took notice.

Teacher Training. With interest high, Region staff promoted the game at all levels. The region staff had set out, as a major goal to broaden the base of volleyball skills by improving the teaching of volleyball in schools. Jim Coleman was brought here several times to put on clinics for local P.E. teachers and coaches from public schools and local colleges. Ruti Helman, besides being a top player, was the driving force for countless demos. Along with Mary Timm and Jim Ufer, clinics were presented for three years running at the state AAHPER convention presenting skills from grade school through high school. Another significant effort, yet mostly unknown, was the complete rewriting of the P.E. curriculum guide for the Minneapolis Public Schools and for the Minnesota State Guide (the first revision was 1968 and again in 1976). Skills were laid out in sequential order from grades 4-12 with accompanying drills and lead up games. This guide was like a bible to out-state teachers. With shrinking educational dollars, money was not available simply for supervision even in the large metro areas. Today the teach training is good at the college level, but in the late 1960s (except Ruti Helman at Macalester & Hamline), college staffs, including the U of M did not know what a bump pass was.

The 1960s Struggles. The 1960s were also years of great changes for volleyball. Locally, George Kemp was commissioner from 1964-1966, and Bob Nehring served from 1967 to 1973. Membership in USA Volleyball was just $2, no one received pay or reimbursement for anything, and region staff and officials paid their own way to national meetings and events. Struggles to reach membership of 200 see ridiculous by today’s numbers but not too bad when compared to other regions: only three of the seven eastern regions had memberships over 200 (none had reached 600) and several had total populations much greater than ours.

The 1960s Fun. The favorite tournament of those days was the Golden Pheasant in Sioux Falls when they served all the players a pheasant dinner. The Arrowhead at Duluth was also a must. The Red River Valley annual in Fargo was special because top Winnipeg teams always showed up to add an international flavor, but the long ride home Saturday night was tough. The Northside team sponsored the 1968 Region Championships and had secured the free use of the new junior high in New Hope. The Region has its own standards but discovered on Saturday morning that no floor fastenings were in place. A quick tour of the neighborhood brought in a few cement flocks and enough debris to hold things down. Jake Lacis (commissioner in the late ‘70s) won the MVP award that year while playing with the Northside group.

Changing Offense. At the national level, the game was changing dramatically as the 60s progressed. Volleyball was to be part of the Olympics for the first time at the ’64 Tokyo Games. The desire to compete successfully at the international level started to push the traditionalists back. Receiving the serve with the overhead pass was replaced with the improved (higher on the forearm) bump pass as coaches feared the whistle in crucial contests. In this and in a few other areas, the rules hadn’t changed but interpretations did (the intent being to open up the game and assist the offense). Calls were eased on the dink shot, and setters were given more latitude. In the late 60’s, the back court blocker was eliminated. With only two blocks to face and the deep set permitted, the multiple offense was born and the “four-two” started to die. The offense had caught up to (or passed) defense, the game was more open, and the side-out phenomenon was born. Defense did improve too: blocking became better, and the dig improved along with the roll. After the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, USA Volleyball finally permitted over-the-net blocking and spike follow through. Amore subtle loss to the game was the honor call by players on net and ball touches. The pressure to win games in heavy competition prompted this loss that many feel was a genteel portion of the game, unique to volleyball, now gone forever.

Roger Gulbrandsen. With inspired leadership from the region’s early commissioners and Nationals held in Duluth for the second in 1973, volleyball participation began to take off. Successive commissioners Bob Nehring, Phil Bloedel, Roger Burton, and Jake Lacis were tireless promoters of the sport. They were supported by active membership in the 1970’s, the most memorable of whom was Roger Gulbrandsen. Roger dedicated much of his free time to coaching some of the early women’s teams. Although his efforts paid off, he passed away before seeing the phenomenal growth of the sport in the 1980’s. The Winter Carnival tournament was renamed in 1980 to the Gulbrandsen Classic in his honor.

Nationals in Honolulu. The 70s got off to a great start with a volleyball charter flight to the USA Volleyball Nationals in Honolulu. To fill the charter, 134 bodies were needed: four regions teams were in (3 men’s and 1 women’s), Jim Coleman’s Kenneth Allen Team, and Doug Beal’s Columbus team, plus a few others signed up. With just a week before the deadline, the charter was still 20 short and the region staff didn’t want to lose their $5,000 deposit. By expanding the charter rules a bit and with some local hustle the charter was filled. Peter Oh, formerly on the P.E. staff at the Minneapolis Y, had moved back to Honolulu and had secured great accommodations for the group and, upon arrival in Honolulu, met the plane with the traditional lei greeting.

Title IX. Although few took notice at the time, a piece of national legislation was passed in 1972 that would prove to be a big booster for women in volleyball. Title IX of the National Education Act, aimed at providing athletic equity for girls/women, and would open volleyball doors down the road for high school and college students. As a result, the first high school state volleyball tournament was held in 1974 and was won by Osseo High School whose team included Monika Lacis Getchell, Lynne Luedke McDonald and Deb Bell Hegerle. They also played on the USA Volleyball team “Stars and Stripes.”

National Team. With the growth of volleyball in our region, we are proud to have four women who have played on the USA National Team from the 1970s to the 1990s. They are Gail Parkins, Cheryl Engel, Lynne Luedke McDonald and Janet Cobbs. These four athletes have paved the way for future volleyball Olympians from North Country Region.

Non-Profit Status. Phil Bloedel was the next Region Commissioner starting in late 1973. One of Phil’s first accomplishments was to do the legal work required to bring the Region into non-profit status. This opened new doors for the Region and set things in motion for the giant steps taken in the 1970s. Phil still plays regularly, competing at the 1993 National Championships in Memphis as well as with the Northside group during the winter.

Learning and Experimenting. The early days were a time of learning and experimenting and were not without their problems. Jim Ufer, one of the leaders of development of the North Country Region, recently recalled his year as Winter Carnival tournament director. “We were hosting teams from Winnipeg and Chicago and everything was going smoothly until the basketball coach at Macalester showed up,” Jim stated.

Apparently the gym that Jim had rented was also scheduled to host a basketball game that very evening. Due to this scheduling conflict, all matches had to move to the Midway YMCA. The men’s finals were held at 2 a.m. and the women’s finals were still being played at 4:30 a.m. while early finishers partied at the Cap Towers Hotel!

Junior Olympics Gets Started.  As Volleyball became more poplar with young players it was decided to form the first regional junior program. The program originated in the 1979 season under the guidance of Kay Lawton with a few boys’ teams and one girls’ team which was coached by Glen Lietzke. Marti Larson and Jill Halsted were among those on the first junior girls’ team.

Growth in Junior Division. The junior division once again had a major growth spurt beginning in 1986. The reasons for the growth were two significant events affecting volleyball in this area. They were (1) the 1986 JO Championships, hosted in St. Paul; and (2) the relaxation of Minnesota State High School Federation rules which had previously prohibited high school players with remaining eligibility (all except seniors) from playing until school was out in June. The 1989 season saw the start of “Power League,” series of half-day tournaments with pool play only. Teams were moved up or down the following tournament, based on a point system. A total of 44 teams participated in the first power league. Under the guidance of Curt Glesmann, the 1994 season had 186 teams competing in four divisions (12s, 14s, 16s and 18s).

Zonals. The Zonal concept of championship tournaments was begun in 1989with competition among the top “A” teams in the Central Zone. In 1990, the “BB” division was added and in 1994, “B” was added. Although this tournament remains small (by design), the competition with other top teams from surrounding regions is intense. North Country Region has hosted the event four times.

Awards. The Meritorious Service Awards and Founder’s Award winners can be found at www.ncrusav.org . The Meritorious Service Award dates back to 1973 and is an award that is given in every region. The winners of each region are posted in the Guidebook each year. The NCR Founder’s Award honors individuals who have been involved in the advancement of the sport of volleyball in North Country Region, whether it is in coaching, playing, publicity, administration, management, etc. The distinguished contribution should be spread over a 15-year involvement in the sport of volleyball in North Country Region.

Region Redefined. With the sport’s growth, the 50th anniversary of the USVBA (1978) brought a redefinition and renaming of the regions. Region 10 was redefined to a smaller, more manageable area to include the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, western Wisconsin and eastern Montana and was given a more descriptive name—“North Country Region”—in the late 70’s. In 1980, eastern Montana moved to the Evergreen Region and western Wisconsin moved to the Wisconsin Region. From 1980 to 1990, North Country officially consisted of MN, ND and SD. Upper peninsula of Michigan and northern Wisconsin were added in 1991 after Lakeland disbanded. Southern Wisconsin was serviced by the Great Lakes Region. Badger Region was formed in 1996 and consisted of the state of Wisconsin, leaving the UP in North Country. From only four women’s teams in the 1971 USVBA regional tournament, the Region now boasts a thriving junior program of almost 2000 teams and nearly 300 men’s and women’s teams and is still growing!

North Country Region Volleyball History|