Volleyball at St. John’s Preparatory: How the sport is helping students

Growing in popularity, coverage and viewership across the United States, volleyball is quickly solidifying its position as a top competitive sport in the country.

As such, it is also becoming a top priority for young women as they deliberate their options for high school — where will they get the chance to play the sport they love at a highly competitive level as well as grow as a student?

According to a new survey from the National Federation of High School Sports, high school girls’ participation in volleyball ranked second in popularity in 2021-2022. It is the only top ten sport that has seen an increase in popularity since 2019-2020, with 454,153 students countrywide. It trails behind outdoor track and field by less than 3,000 students.

Stephen DeSalvo says such development is seen at St. John’s Preparatory School in Astoria, where he serves as the head coach for women’s volleyball. His team had 60 people try out, and over 100 people attended their summer camp — including St. John’s University volleyball head coach Joanne Persico.

DeSalvo played Division I football and volleyball while at Siena College in Loudonville, NY. His “real job,” he described, is as the Chief Development Officer at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, a private college in East Elmhurst. After he graduated from college, he served as the volleyball coach at Manhattan College. This sparked his interest in the sport, but what kept it aflame was a sudden interest from his father-in-law in starting a youth program. 

He started the youth volleyball program, which is a joint program between St. Stanislaus Kostka and Our Lady of Hope in Middle Village, 13 years ago. After years of growth, this season is set to have 12 teams in the league. 

Coaching at the high school level, however, is an entirely different experience, DeSalvo explained. Competitive-level volleyball is intricate, complicated and requires a sophisticated offense.

“My playbook is two inches thick,” DeSalvo explained. “It is a very complicated sport. All I have to do is explain the five one rotation to somebody in the most basic form and they have no idea what I’m talking about,or just say the word libero.”

Most recently, St. John’s Prep held the annual Queens Invitational Tournament. The team won games over Christ the King and Preston High School, winning the tournament for the second year in a row.

There’s this notion, DeSalvo describes, that St. John’s Prep hasn’t changed in years; however, it is ranked in the top 25 of all Catholic schools in New York State, he says. Academically and athletically, he says, St. John’s Prep is a top school for students to attend, says DeSalvo, and that with the small class size and campus-like feel, the campus provides “the full experience.”

“You’re not only making that dedication and that commitment to the education side of it, but also to to get that well rounded education with the morals, values and ethics,” DeSalvo said. “And then, obviously, the more commitment to athletics and that well rounded experience.” 

DeSalvo’s numerous teams throughout the borough have made him well-known regardless of where he is at. 

 “If you walk around anywhere in Middle Village or Maspeth, it’s a kid that either played for me or knows me,” De Salvo said. 

It is not just girls’ volleyball that is growing rapidly. Boys’ volleyball saw a 4.6 percent increase in participation from 2019-2020, according to the survey from the National Federation of High School Sports.

Embracing this trend, St. John’s Prep also has a men’s varsity and junior varsity volleyball program. 

Volleyball is growing at unmatched speed; there is even significant interest in the sport at the professional level. League One Volleyball, a professional women’s volleyball league that was first founded in 2020, has received 16.75 million in Series A funding from star-studded investors: Billie Jean King, Kevin Durant, David Blitzer, Chelsea Handler and others.

Volleyballs’ potential as a sport is ever-growing. Jon Patricof, CEO of Athletes Unlimited — a network of pro sports leagues that recently launched  its U.S. professional indoor women’s volleyball league — told Front Office Sports that Indoor women’s professional volleyball was “probably the largest untapped opportunity in pro sports in this country.”

DeSalvo couldn’t agree more, though he may argue on what its potential is. For one, it gives them the opportunity to have direction at a young age and helps them choose where they may want to spend their high school years.

“If you look at some of the [Catholic Youth Organization] teams around this area, you see how it’s different. It’s for fun, everybody plays all this other stuff. But I’m teaching them to get ready for high school. Because all these kids want to go to high school, they want to keep playing.”

Furthermore, volleyball provides direction for young women academically and developmentally. 

According to the University of Rochester, studies have shown that exercise increases blood flow to the brain, leading to increased concentration, enhanced memory, stimulated creativity and better-developed problem solving skills. 

DeSalvo is proud to be the one providing this direction for his students. 

It really is the most fulfilling when the players come back to you and say you were my favorite coach, or when I walk into a gym and a kid runs over and gives you a hug,” DeSalvo said. “ I personally believe there are some people that were born to be a coach, and kids respond to them.”

 

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