Sometimes all it takes is one person. Especially when that person has the determination of Shaan Dharwadkar—and a little (or lot of) help from some friends.
The Mt. Lebanon High School sophomore had played several sports in school, but he became interested in volleyball during the pandemic. “I saw clips of people playing on the internet and it looked like fun,” Dharwadkar said. “My aunt, who played in college, started helping me, and I slowly fell in love with the game.”
Dharwadkar, Atlanta Drive, decided he wanted to play for the school, but was dismayed when he discovered there was no such team on the district’s website. The boys volleyball team had a successful history—winning WPIAL championships in 1997, 1998, and 2001—but the team disbanded in 2011 when coaches were no longer available.
Dharwadkar started playing for the Exile Volleyball Club in his freshman year, under Coach John Lawrence, who is also head boys volleyball coach at Seton LaSalle. His desire, however, was to play for Mt. Lebanon, so he began to advocate for a team. That set the wheels in motion for the next several months.
“At the beginning of this school year, I really started pushing for a volleyball team with my friend Weston (Chung). He and his family (parents Brandie Kasprzak Chung and Wayne Chung) have been a huge part of helping us; I couldn’t have done it without them.”
According to Brandie, a long-term sub in the school district, the family got involved when her son expressed interest. “Weston has been a swimmer since he was 5 years old, and he was at the point where he was ready for a change.” Weston agreed. “I learned through Shaan that he wanted to start a volleyball team, so I thought, ‘Yeah, why not have some fun?’ And I really got into it.”
Shaan said Weston and Brandie, McCully Street, pushed the boys to take their appeal to the school board, although he admitted, “It was scary standing in front of a school board asking for a volleyball team.” Brandie said that as a teacher, she looked at this as an opportunity to help them go through the process. “If there’s something they want to do, they need to be able to stand up, state their goals, and fight for what they believe in,” she said. “It’s a positive learning opportunity.”
That process led to a meeting with the principal and athletic director, who told the young people what the requirements were, and what the possibilities were for this year.
One of the stumbling blocks, they were told, would be finding a coach. Several parents requested an interest meeting at Jefferson Middle School, and a large crowd that included parents, high school alumni, and former volleyball players showed up in support. Two of the former players, Chris Conway and Nik Plante, stepped up to serve as coaches.
Plante, a 2011 Mt. Lebanon graduate who played four years for the boys team, moved back to Mt. Lebanon in 2021 with his wife. “In the fall of 2022 a post in one of the Mt. Lebanon community social media groups caught my eye about a group of parents meeting with the district to re-start the boys volleyball program,” he said.
“I got involved to ensure that the boys who were working very hard to re-start the program had the same opportunity to enjoy the sport I spent four years playing and falling in love with. My feeling was that if it didn’t happen now, it would never happen.”
Plante and Conway engaged in numerous discussions before deciding they were not willing to let the effort fail for lack of coaching. Conway now coaches the varsity team, while Plante, Longridge Drive, serves as assistant coach and coach for junior varsity. “For me, it was also an opportunity to get involved and give back to the community that I grew up in and am now a resident in again,” Plante said.
However, having coaches in place did not mean all problems were solved. Shaan’s mother, Lisa, explained that when Shaan approached the school board in October, the budget had already been set for the 2023 spring sport season. “There were zero dollars in the budget, so we’ve been doing fundraising, the coaches are largely volunteering their time, and parents are filling in to make this year possible.”
Having a boys volleyball team at the school has more upside than just offering a new sport to play. As Lisa, pointed out, “If you look at NCAA comments on boys volleyball, it’s grown by almost 30 percent at the high school level and almost 80 percent at the collegiate level, so it’s becoming more and more a pathway for boys to go to college.”
Brandie added, “This is important for the school and the community. This is something we can do, a legacy. We reinstated the boys volleyball team and were willing to do the work—not just for the current students, but for the future.” The volleyball team is a club sport at the high school now, but Lisa believes it will be included in the athletic budget next year and receive a place in the WPIAL.
Getting the team re-established took a lot of effort, but Shaan concluded, “It was 100 percent worth it. It’s nice being able to play for my school and with my friends. If I had another chance I would do it, if I had 20 more chances, I’d do it every single time.”