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Digging deep

The controversial season that hardened Kyle Ray's resolve

Champion Digital | By Brian Burnsed

“Wow, that kid must feel great about himself…I feel bad for everybody involved in this.”

– Commenter “vb2512” on Nov. 4, 2007.

Girls high school volleyball isn’t a common haven for vitriol. But drop someone carrying a Y chromosome onto the court, and typically congenial crowds can morph into something more sinister. Gay slurs might rain down from the stands. High school boys might arrive dressed as girls, not in support of their team, but to mock the slim, 5-foot-8, 140-pound kid who wants a chance to play the game he loves. His teammates, rather than being celebrated for their exploits on the court, might be caught in a cauldron rife with contempt and tension because that boy has nowhere else to play.

Ray’s teammates at Sage have embraced him despite his controversial high school career.

That’s precisely what happened in 2007, when Kyle Ray and his Y chromosome spent the fall of his junior year at Horseheads High School in New York on the girls volleyball team. Ray, now a men’s volleyball player at the Division III Sage Colleges in New York, was faced with a situation in which his high school had no boys team, so much like a girl who is permitted to play baseball because the school doesn’t sponsor softball, Ray was allowed to compete for Horseheads. Though controversial, his addition to the team complied with state regulations on mixed competition, which were shaped by Title IX’s equal opportunity mandate. Ray was allowed to try out for the squad after passing a physical proving he wouldn’t hold a significant advantage over his female counterparts.

And while a girl’s presence on a baseball or football team might be a source of inspiration, Ray’s spawned near-universal derision – from the outside, at least. But, for members of that team, the incessant scorn forged bonds and imparted lessons that have lingered well beyond the volleyball court and that season a half-decade ago.

“It was ugly; some of it was ugly,” Horseheads’ volleyball coach Patti Perone said. “They grew up an awful lot that season. They learned an awful lot about people and how to deal with life. They took a lot more away with them that season than just volleyball.”

Ray’s introduction to the game came early. He was drawn to volleyball in elementary school, when he routinely attended his older sister’s tournaments and helped keep stats. Eventually, he joined a boys club team in Rochester and sharpened his skills. But the two-hour drive to participate in club tournaments and practices started to wear on him during his freshman and sophomore years in high school. So, wary of the long drives and the mounting gas bills, Ray in his junior year wondered if he’d be allowed to join his high school girls team. Undeterred by any rancor his participation might produce, he broached the subject with several members of the team – already his friends in school – and they were unanimously supportive. When Perone caught wind of the plan, she knew the equal opportunity rules that typically applied to girls’ sports would apply to Ray’s unique situation. So she welcomed him to try out.

“Does this kid realize he is a boy playing on a girls team? Who is providing adult guidance to him? Obviously not his parents or school district and certainly not his coach. This kid should be kept as far away from the media as possible…he embarrasses his team, his school and his community.”

– Commenter “vb daddy”
on Nov. 4, 2007.

He made the team, but it didn’t come at the expense of one of his female classmates. Perone expanded her typical roster size from 12 to 13 in an effort to quell any potential internal dissent. But, still, was it fair to the teams Horseheads would compete against? Perone thought so, and though she received support from nearby schools in her district, she feared pushback from the outside. She hoped others would realize that Ray wasn’t as big and couldn’t hit as hard as some of his opponents. She didn’t let him play outside hitter, instead asking him to set for the team. Initially, he didn’t even start. And when Ray did eventually garner playing time, he was wary of overstepping his bounds.

“I didn’t want the other teams to feel a little hesitant or scared just because I was a male on the female court,” Ray said. “As much as I wanted to hit the ball, I stepped back a little bit and decided to let my other teammates who’d been playing for a while take the lead and take charge on the court.”

Still, his presence on the court rankled opposing teams, coaches and parents, who collectively seethed at Ray and Perone throughout the season. Matches were marred by insults and pejoratives. And, occasionally, the teasing and putdowns emanated from within Horseheads’ own hallways. But the worst, teammates said, came when male students from an opposing school, in hopes of belittling Ray, attended a match dressed in women’s attire. But rather than being lured into the trap, he remained stoic. And, despite their anger, his teammates tried to emulate his composure.

“I think we were more flustered than him because we were very offended that someone was doing that to our teammate,” high school teammate Megan Reed said. “We wanted something done about it, but he had us focus on the game at hand and what was going on in the match and brought our attention back to that.”

“Would I want to play against a team of girls when it mattered? My answer would be NO! In the backyard, at the beach, at a park, sign me up. But scholastic ball, NO WAY! What a shame.”

– Commenter “Sherlock”
on Nov. 4, 2007.

Despite facing scrutiny at every turn, Ray blocked it out. Plus, his presence in practice made his teammates better. Though he refrained from hitting in games, he’d use his full power in practices, which helped his teammates acclimate to the faster spikes and more athletic players they’d have to face as the season progressed. Plus, Perone said, the team seemed more receptive to advice from him than their female peers. Rather than getting defensive, as sometimes happened when criticism came from another girl, they took it in stride.

“I thought it pulled us together to tell you the truth,” she said. “They really liked him. He could say things that other girls couldn’t.”

In a crucial tournament match near the season’s end, Pine Bush High School planned to protest because Ray wore longer mesh shorts while the rest of his teammates wore spandex. The uniform incongruity might’ve forced Horseheads to forfeit. But Perone caught wind of the plan and every member of the team arrived at the match wearing the same type of mesh shorts that Ray wore. Horseheads went on to win in five sets and advanced all the way to the state semifinals before bowing out.

Ray helped Sage capture the 2013 Eastern College Athletic Conference (north) title with a win over the Wentworth Institute of Technology on April 20.

Many outside the school credited Ray’s presence for the strong season, but, under Perone, Horseheads had routinely reached the state’s final four in the near two-decade span before Ray joined the team. Still, his leaping ability did outshine his female counterparts and, many complained, he was quicker diving for balls on point-saving digs. So, years removed, do his teammates still think it was fair that he helped them advance so far at the expense of other teams and other girls?

“It was fair,” Reed said. “There were girls that we saw throughout that season that had just as much power as Kyle and were able to hit front row. We’d always been a good team; it was on par with our records from previous seasons. It wasn’t drastically different. And a few schools were excited to play against us.”

The biggest benefit of the season, the gift for quietly enduring the sting of the anger that poured in from every direction, came when Horseheads added a men’s volleyball program the next season. Ray, of course, joined. There were a limited number of boys high school volleyball teams in the state, so he and his teammates simply practiced against each other until they participated in a tournament at the end of the season. Without Ray making what his teammates considered a brave decision and what outsiders thought to be a shameful one, the school wouldn’t have a boys volleyball team, which has grown and participates frequently in local tournaments to this day.

After high school, Ray enrolled at the Sage Colleges in New York to pursue a degree in computer information systems. He joined the men’s volleyball team, which was in its first year of existence. He didn’t go out of his way to talk about playing girls volleyball in high school, but he wasn’t ashamed of that fact, either. If teammates asked him about his high school playing days, he’d be honest. Junior Dylan Krowicki was shocked when Ray mentioned that he was the one who had made waves through New York’s volleyball community. But the revelation didn’t change how he felt about his teammate and friend, Krowicki said, and none of his current teammates seem to have responded negatively to Kyle’s atypical path to college volleyball.

“I feel like everybody from New York knew about this person,” Krowicki said. “I actually didn’t know I was playing with him until preseason of last year; it was crazy.”

“I am a parent of one of the girls that played against him and she thinks it is awesome that he was able to play. You should feel bad for the boy…People are way too into this and are obviously ignoring how he feels. Snap out of it. The season is over, and everyone can stop tearing the poor kid apart. And if the boy happens to read this, just know that many people besides myself give you credit for putting up with this and just going into each game and practice with a positive attitude.”

– Commenter “vball003”
on Nov. 19, 2007.

When he arrived at Sage, Ray once again found himself in an embryonic program surrounded by several newcomers to the sport. After some early growing pains, the team has begun to thrive under his leadership. Now in his senior season, Ray has led sage to an 30-7 record and has amassed more than 2,000 setting assists in his career. That same perseverance, that same ability to keep negativity at bay, came with him to Sage.

“Without him, we’re not a team,” Krowicki said. “He’s the one that keeps us all together. If we’re pissed off at each other, he’s always the one to be the voice of reason.”

Despite the copious criticism, the questions of fairness, the insults from adults on message boards and from the stands, Ray, his coach and his teammates – several of whom remain friends – say they would do it all again, that the weight they had to bear for a few months in the fall of 2007 will always be worth it, that the hard lessons they learned will never abandon them.