The new season was coming fast. Dan and Jodie were keeping open gyms running as Ellen recovered from treatments and Jaime started hers. It wasn't long before another interesting challenge presented itself.
In the spring open gyms a new freshman player started to show up to play. There was something quite different from this player than anyone Ellen had coached in her 25 years on the sidelines. This player was Thad Paunovich.
Thad was so enthusiastic about playing volleyball, but Kiski didn't have a boys program. He practiced with us throughout the fall, and into the summer, when he made his intentions clear. He was going to come out for GIRLS volleyball in the fall.
I'm not sure any of us knew what to make of this. Boys had played girls sports before, so Thad wasn't really setting any precedence. We knew that he couldn't legally NOT be allowed to play. The WPIAL and PIAA both had avoided the issue by placing the ruling back in the individual school districts hands. It was up to us to decide what to do, and with all of the challenges already in front of this coaching staff and team, we decided not to turn our backs on a chance to learn something. There was a lot to be learned!
So Thad became the first male to play a female sport in Kiski Area history. There where hurdles to overcome. Some in the district were intent on seeing Thad wear the same spandex uniforms that the girls wore. Ellen could not with a clear conscience do that. After reviewing the rules on uniforms it was found that it wasn't necessary for Thad to don spandex. The issue was dropped and never brought up again. We bought Thad his own uniform, navy gym shorts and navy and white tee shirts.
He wore the number 30.
Thad's effect on volleyball at Kiski can never be denied. He was tall for a 10th grader, and he had an obvious advantage on his opponents. He was a very good athlete. We really didn't have a plan for how we could play him, so we just did. We figured at sometime someone would come through with guidelines. No one ever did.
Thad really wanted to be co-oped to another local high school so he could play with the boys. We assumed with enough push from local coaches this could happen, so we played him all the way around the court. If we made enough noise, maybe changes in the rules would come. They never were.
Thad was a hard worker and a good leader. The team blossomed with him on board. The girls accepted him as they would a brother. It was a favorable mix. You might imagine this group would be easily distracted with everything that was happening around them. They never were.
Against Penn Trafford a visibly frustrated coach got into a shouting match with us, at Norwin the parents group wanted to boycott the match, at Hempfield the boys team showed up at the match and heckled Thad and his teammates. At Latrobe they had a special "Ladies Night" with the crowd dressed in pink, and playing all "girl" music. Away matches were always interesting, and Dan and I always escorted Thad anytime he left the gym.
Somewhere in the middle of the season, the coaches in our area attempted to circulate a petition, asking the WPIAL or the PIAA to step in and stop this. Legally they couldn't because as it turns out the same Title IX provisions that protect girls from discrimination protect boys from the same. There were no guidelines, and so we continued. Surely co-opting this kid would be better for everyone. It is what we wanted, it is what he wanted, and I'm sure it would have pleased the coaches in our area. It never happened.
Things came to a head as the team contended for the section championship. MSA Sports did an entire show debating the subject, and when the Cavaliers upset Latrobe, in the Wildcats Gym, for a share of the section title, we became a story. The girls team winning with a boy on it. The scourge of Pennsylvania volleyball.
We'll never really know how this team would have fared without Thad, but with him it was clear. This was a team to watch. The WPIAL gave the Cavaliers a home match in the first round of the playoffs. Kiski had little trouble with Mt. Lebanon, sending them home with a 3-1 loss. Next was top seeded Pine Richland in their home gym.
The "story" drew a huge, hostile crowd. The two teams went back and forth, the volleyball was really great, as was the theater. The play was smooth, almost choreographed. Pass, set, hit, dig, set, hit. It when on and on, long rallies, great digs, hard hits. The two teams split the first two sets, and Kiski opened up a nice sized lead in the third. Pine Richland responded, as champions do to a challenge. They rallied back in the third, and seizing on the momentum they build rolled in the forth. It was a great match, and not once did a player or a coach from this fine program complain about the boy. They just went about their business. It was a refreshing take on a difficult situation, and it was a pleasure, even in a losing effort, being a part of it.
So Thad had an undeniable impact on Western Pennsylvania volleyball. He wasn't the first or only boy to play on a girl's volleyball team, but he was already the best one to have done so. When the season concluded, we were sure that there was enough attention to get Thad his wish, an opportunity to co-op to a bordering high school with a boys program, so he could play on the court with boys.
Ellen, Jodie and I made the two hour drive up to State College for the yearly PVCA clinic, and found out that in some of the closed door sessions we were being discussed. Not how they could help us, but how they could STOP this. Instead of helping an athlete who clearly wanted to play the sport we all loved the same, they treated him as an enemy, one who needed STOPPED. To me it just wasn't the right approach.
I just couldn't believe that while they discussed this "situation", they had no intention of asking us about it.
We made mistakes with this situation. Playing Thad as much as we did in his sophomore year was unfair, but we honestly thought that doing so would assure he would spend his junior and senior years playing in Plum, or Penn Trafford, or Hempfield with boys...
IT NEVER HAPPENED.
Thad returned in his junior year and we decided to move him to the back row. He still attacked on occasion and he developed a nasty jump serve, but it was less about Thad and more about developing a good team and program. It was now too late to change the rules and have them impact Thad's high school career. Thad became an excellent defender and also developed leadership qualities the rest of the team looked up too. Again the Cavaliers had a good season, but late in the schedule Thad got hurt, and test showed he had developed a stress fracture in his foot. His Junior season was over. The "Lady" Cavs played a rematch in the playoffs vs Mt Lebanon in their gym. The match was close for a while, but Mt Lebo prevailed in the end 3-1.
Thad's senior year completed his trip around the court. Graduation cost Kiski an All-Section setter, Jolene Byford, so Thad became a setter in a 6-2, meaning he wouldn't attack as much, and he came out in the front row for a hitter. This team dealt with so much off the court, which will be covered in the chapters to come, but Thad was an inspiration to his teammates and classmates for how he helped hold the team together during these very difficult times. They finished the season 6-6 and failed to make the playoffs by just one game. Like that the story of "The Boy" came to a close...
What was learned, what was positive about this controversial move to play a boy with the girls? At first it was a curiosity, no one know quite what to do or think, then we were the "bad guys", set to ruin girls sports with this "stunt". Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Thad Paunovich was the nicest kid I have ever coached in any sport. The kind of kid you want your daughter to date and your son to hang out with. He was respectful at all times. To make him out to be an enemy of volleyball was to not see the big picture. Thad LOVES volleyball.
He came to us in a time just before Ellen and Jaime's illnesses, and saw the team through the darkest of times. I believe firmly that there aren't many coincidences in this life. Thad was where he was supposed to be, as hard as that was. He got the most out of his time on the court here, and in return, as coaches we learned to deal with something out of the ordinary, and our players learned more about dedication and hard work than they ever could without his influence.
I think we would say we regret any bad feelings left from his participation against other teams, but we will never be sorry for all we gained from his presence with us both on the court and off.
Thad always did things the right way, and still does, as a hitter for the Thiel TomCats, mens volleyball team.
It was all well worth it.