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MIAA rule regarding boys playing on the front row against girls in volleyball is up for debate

Right now, boys playing on a girls’ team are not allowed to block and attack while positioned in the front row.
Right now, boys playing on a girls’ team are not allowed to block and attack while positioned in the front row.Matthew Healey

Boys, if they so desire, can play on MIAA girls’ volleyball teams during the fall season if their school does not field a boys’ program in the spring.

But there are restrictions limiting boys from dominating at the net along the front row, as spelled out in the MIAA handbook. And those two rules will be in focus when the MIAA Volleyball Committee and the Blue Ribbon Committee discuss a potential rule change on a conference call Thursday morning.

The rule change would allow boys on a girls’ team to block and attack while positioned in the front row. A change will not immediately be made following Thursday’s meeting, regardless of its outcome.

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The MIAA believes the change is necessary to make the rule’s wording gender-neutral. The Volleyball Committee, and the majority of coaches, believe the alteration would create unsafe playing conditions.

Rule 83.5.1 states, “It is a fault for a male player on a mixed gender girls’ team to attack a ball, if, on contact, the ball is both completely above the height of the net and in the front zone (any area on the court not more than 10 feet from the net)."

Rule 83.5.2 states, “Only female players are permitted to participate in a completed block.”

The issue is that the net height for girls (7 feet, 4⅛ inches) and boys (7-11⅝) is significantly different.

The current iteration of the rule went into effect in the fall of 2007 after former Stoneham coach Michelle Cahill saw one of her girl players separate her shoulder while trying to block the hit delivered by a boy during a 2005 match.

“I just said enough — I’m going to see if I can change this rule,’’ Cahill told the Globe in June 2011. “They were not a highly skilled team, and I think that’s what made them so dangerous. Highly skilled boys could place the ball. It wasn’t just a matter of blasting at it."

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“[Boys] have a net that’s 7-8 inches higher for a reason,” said Rob Mahoney, who coaches both boys’ and girls’ teams at Greater Lawrence. “The speed of the game is different. At a high level, a boys’ volleyball can be going 60-70 m.p.h.

“There’s not many girls at the high school level reaching to block them. I just think that putting guys in the front row, it’s going to cause more problems than it solves.”

Karen Nie, who powered the Needham girls’ to the program’s first Division 1 championship last fall, believes the current rule should remain as is because of the physiological differences between boys and girls. The Needham girls practiced against the boys’ team — also a state power — to prepare for more difficult competition in the tournament. Nie immediately saw the difference.

She thinks the current rule should not be changed, although it is a good way to incorporate boys who do not have the opportunity to play on a boys’ team.

“If a guy was 6 foot 2, he could probably jump very high,” said Nie, who was the Globe’s Division 1 Player of the Year in 2019.

“I just don’t think that would be completely fair and warrant a fair playing field. [Girls] can’t block as high as the boys, so if we were able to get it through them, that would prepare us for a really good girls’ team.”

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According to wording in the MIAA Handbook section on Title IX, however, the Volleyball Committee’s safety argument may not be strong enough to convince the Blue Ribbon Committee to leave the rule unchanged.

Section 3 of the MIAA’s Title IX guidelines reads, “Student safety has not been a successful defense to excluding students of one gender from participating on teams of the opposite gender. The arguments generally fail due to the lack of correlation between injuries and mixed-gender teams."

MIAA communications director Tara Bennett told the Globe that “student-athlete safety is first and foremost for the association” but that the restriction on mixed-gender teams should not hinder one gender from fully participating.

Bennett said the MIAA began looking at making language gender-neutral after former Lunenburg golfer Emily Nash recorded the low score at the 2017 Division 3 Central championship but saw the championship awarded to the second-place finisher because she was a girl competing in a boys’ tournament.

Still, some coaches disagree with the MIAA’s logic on the safety argument.

“I hope they give good reasoning as to why they want to implement this and it’s not superficial,” said Cam Connors, who coaches both the girls’ and boys’ volleyball teams at Lowell Catholic.

“If they have reasoning, I’m willing to listen, but as of right now it just doesn’t look that great.”

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The current rule applies only to schools that have a girls’ program but not enough interest to field a boys’ team. Some coaches believe one way the controversy can be abated is by forming more boys’ volleyball teams.

According to the MIAA, there were 301 girls’ programs in the 2018-19 fall season and 110 for boys in the spring.

A boys’ volleyball program in Massachusetts costs about $15,000-$20,000 to operate, with the biggest percentage of costs devoted to transportation, according to Lincoln-Sudbury athletic director Art Reilly, who fields both a boys’ and a girls’ program.

“I’m a school of 400 kids and I manage to fill a full JV boys’ and girls’ teams," said Lowell Catholic’s Connors. “I think it’s possible where you can fill a boys’ team rather than having this as a solution.”