Henry Clay tennis player going Division I in volleyball?
Will Andrews has obsessed about volleyball for as long as he can remember.
When he was little, he’d set up couch cushions as a net in his basement and spike balloons into the floor.
As young as 3 years old, he begged his mother to take him to a camp like the ones for other sports.
There was just one problem.
Despite men’s volleyball being an Olympic sport for decades and men’s professional volleyball (beach and indoor) having leagues around the world, competitive boys’ volleyball isn’t a thing in Kentucky.
While the girls’ game has blossomed with top club, middle and high school teams in Lexington and around the state, boys have little more than a YMCA skills camp to develop their games.
But that didn’t stop Will Andrews.
On Monday, the Henry Clay senior signed his national letter of intent to play Division I volleyball for the New Jersey Institute of Technology, one of only 42 high-level men’s college volleyball programs in the country.
“I just love it. I’ve always loved it,” Will said. “I, hopefully, always will love it. And because I like it so much I will happily work on anything, do anything to get better.”
To go from what felt like the only boy in town playing volleyball to maybe playing in college took a tremendous amount of support from Lexington's volleyball community early on.
Will’s father, William, a geologist at the University of Kentucky, and his mother, Jessica, a Henry Clay English teacher, liked to go to UK volleyball games when he was little. Will could not get enough.
When Will reached kindergarten, Dale Grupe, the Henry Clay girls’ coach whose own son went on to play at Division II Coker College, began letting Will into his girls' camps. Will attended the UK women’s camps, too.
“It was always a bit strange, just because. It was hard not to be seen as ‘that little guy.’” Will said. “And at first the hard part was getting people to take me seriously. I had to play and act more mature than I was. I had fun with it, but once the novelty wore off, I was just Will. ‘Oh it’s just Will. He’s always around.’”
In sixth grade, he finally attended his first boys’ camp at Ohio State. That same year Lexington United Volleyball club allowed Will, at 12, to play on one of its’ 14-and-under girls’ teams. By then, most parents knew his story.
“When people would make the connections and all the girls’ parents were looking around and saying ‘Who is that?’ … and they’d say ‘is that yours?’ — people invariably say ‘I’ve never seen a kid so happy playing a sport.’” Jessica Andrews said. “That was the comment, not ‘Oh, he’s a boy, get him out of here,’ or ‘What’s he doing?’”
The next year, Chris Langston, the Lafayette baseball and girls’ volleyball coach, got together a 14--and-under boys’ team. They competed in some regional tournaments, over the next couple of years, but interest waned and the team fell apart.
It did, however let Will make a connection with the men’s club team at UK. Though not a scholarship sport, men’s volleyball, like hockey, exists at UK. When Will got big enough, he’s now 6-foot-1, the UK men’s team invited him to participate in practices.
Because of the high demand for gym time at UK, though, those practices weren’t held until 10 p.m. to midnight. Will went to every one he could.
The big break
The summer before his junior year, Will tried out for USA Volleyball and attended a USA high-performance program camp.
“I held my own,” Will said, still remembering the surprise. “I held my own and a lot of the guys would come up and be like ‘Hey, what club do you play for?’ … When I said I’d never played club before, they were all like ‘Really?’”
Will credits some of his readiness for that moment to learning to play with girls, curiously enough.
"The mindset in girls’ volleyball versus guys’ volleyball is very different," he explained. "In girls', it’s ‘I will not let this ball hit the floor.’ In guys it’s ‘I will make this ball hit the floor.’ So, it was good for me, because it helped me improve my fundamentals."
A few of the players at the USA camp that summer played for the Louisville Fury, the only club for boys’ volleyball in the state. They encouraged Will to try out. He went to a few open gyms, tried out and made the squad.
The Andrews live on the west side of Lexington. Thankfully, the Fury operate on the east side of Louisville. After a couple of years of midnight practices at UK, a short Louisville commute seemed almost like a relief, Will’s parents said.
“He’s been working so hard, and it’s been so difficult trying to put this together … Once we had that opportunity that’s, not easy … , but, close enough, in Louisville, we just felt like we had to take advantage,” William Andrews said.
Grupe, the Henry Clay coach, has seen Will’s maturation over the years. In addition to attending his camps, Will was a team manager for the Blue Devils’ high school team as a freshman and sophomore. Will established friendships with several of Grupe’s players, including senior Kaitlyn Hord, who committed to seven-time national champion Penn State as a sophomore.
“He will surprise you because he will get up and hit,” Grupe said of Will. “Because he’s played so long, he’s got a pretty good arsenal of shots. … He’s not going to necessarily overpower at a higher level, but he’ll get the job done.”
Will also plays tennis for Henry Clay, and while Coach John Herring thinks Will could make a pretty good college tennis player, he said he knows why Will excels at anything he does.
“He’s just a great competitor,” Herring said. “That’s the thing that was noticeable right away. As a seventh-grader, he could compete better than a lot of kids that were older — just a great head on his shoulders.”
Will’s participation in USA Volleyball and other college camps began to draw interest from some smaller schools, but many didn’t have the engineering program he was looking for and many of the bigger schools told him they were looking for a “different type of player” than him, “preferably taller,” he said.
Will established a connection with an NJIT assistant at one of his camps last summer and the Highlanders program was one of the places on his wish list. He applied and got a generous academic scholarship offer. He then sent his highlight tape to NJIT Coach Danny Goncalves.
“When he got back to me about taking an official visit, I was floored,” Will said. “He said he liked what he saw. … I was over the moon. … It was perfect as a school. The volleyball team is nice. The coaches are nice. They’re in a good league. I would be playing very high level volleyball with a good group of guys at a great school.
“And that’s all I can ask for.”