Burris plays host to Central tonight in a volleyball match that pits two teams with double-digit losses against each other, and in all probability there will be plenty of empty seats in Ball Gym.
Just a few years ago, these same two teams annually drew standing-room-only crowds into Ball Gym and thousands into the Muncie Fieldhouse for their regular-season showdowns.
Their matches stood for more than just city bragging rights. They were usually for state supremacy and had implications in national rankings, too.
State championships and 30-plus-win seasons once seemed to be a rite of passage for the Burris and Central programs.
Burris won eight state titles in the one-class system and then reeled off an extraordinary 14 consecutive 2A state championships from 1997 through 2010. The Owls won all but one of those state titles under the direction of legendary coach Steve Shondell, an American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee.
His brother, Dave Shondell, turned once-dormant Central into a powerhouse program in the mid-1990s, and the Bearcats won four of six Class 4A state titles before he departed for Purdue University. His successor, current coach Wes Lyon, won two 4A state titles in his first seven seasons. That marked a drop-off, but the Bearcats still won 30-plus matches and played in six state title matches in their first eight seasons with Lyon as their coach.
A mere two miles separated unquestionably the two best programs in the state through 2010. Now those two programs are no longer the best in their own backyard.
Wapahani and Yorktown have each surpassed their Muncie counterparts over the course of the past three seasons for Delaware County supremacy, which leads to a simple question without a simple answer: why?
The Wapahani and Yorktown programs certainly deserve their share of credit for their rise to the top. Their coaching staffs have stressed the importance of playing club and they’re now reaping the benefits.
“Early on, really when Steve and Dave were absolutely dominating the face of the earth, they had record numbers of kids playing in the offseason programs,” Munciana co-director and former Wapahani coach Mike Lingenfelter said. “I think now if you look at it, most of the county teams have more kids involved with offseason than the city teams.”
A significant number of Burris and Central players still participate in club too, though, so the reasoning for each of their dramatic slides is more complex.
The obvious starting point for Burris is Shondell resigning after the 2009 season to coach Ball State’s women’s volleyball, but the lottery admissions system instituted in the mid-1990s contributed significantly to bringing its program back to the pack and some believe that potentially could prevent it from ever returning to sustained dominance.
“As long as they have that lottery system, we’re cooked,” says Steve’s father, Don Shondell, a fellow AVCA Hall of Fame member who coaches an eighth-grade Burris team with only three actual eighth-graders on it.
The lottery system cut down on the possibility of volleyball players transferring into Burris. Steve Shondell primarily groomed his players from elementary school age on up, but he certainly benefited from some club-trained players transferring into the school in the first 20 of his 34 seasons as coach.
Burris is at a distinct disadvantage in that an athlete is permitted to switch schools before her freshman season without losing any eligibility at any of the eight other high schools in Delaware County. There is a possibility for Burris to bring in upperclassmen transfers through the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities, but those players have rarely panned out.
Still, Burris managed to overcome the lottery system to roll off 14 consecutive Class 2A state titles.
Shondell benefited from the fact that he taught elementary physical education at the school. He identified the best athletes at a young age and developed them into fundamentally sound players long before they played their first high school match.
First-year Burris coach John Rodriguez teaches Spanish class at Union, so his only interaction with the players comes after 4 p.m. each weekday.
“It’s definitely the biggest challenge I face there,” Rodriguez said. “… It’s a big disadvantage not being in the building.”
Burris nearly posted its first losing record in program history last season. The 2012 team finished with an 18-17 mark. The unranked Owls take the court tonight with a mere 16-15 record, and with matches this week against Central and Yorktown, they will in all probability enter the state tournament with a losing record.
Central has stayed comfortably above the .500 mark in each of the past three seasons, but its record over that span reveals a dramatic decline from its former state.
Lyon dropped only 31 matches in his first eight seasons with the Bearcats (.898 winning percentage), but he has lost 33 and counting in the past three years (.612).
Lyon still coaches the same way as before, but his talent pool has shrunk considerably. The enrollment at Central has been on a steady decline and that has finally caught up to a volleyball program that plays as formidable a schedule as any in the state.
When Dave Shondell coached the Bearcats to their first state title in 1997, the enrollment was 1,347. The enrollment dipped to 1,230 when Lyon took over the program in 2003. Now Central enrollment hovers around 900.
“When you lose a lot of kids — you’re talking about a few hundred kids — you’re just not looking at as many athletes,” Lyon said. “… You could see it (coming) three, four, five years ago. Just less kids to really scout and watch. It’s a numbers thing.”
The steady decline in enrollment dropped six-time Class 4A state champion Central to 3A before the 2011 season and that only compounded the problem.
The Bearcats benefited from possibly the easiest state tournament path of any 4A program. Only New Castle posed a serious threat for Central until the state finals. The Bearcats advanced to the 4A state finals, formerly a four-team format, in 12 of 14 seasons.
The road to the state finals in 3A has hit a dead end for the Bearcats. Central lost to Yorktown in each of the past two sectionals. Yorktown is now in 4A, but 3A No. 5 Central (16-10) is still only the third best team in its sectional, behind Delta and Wapahani. The Bearcats lost to each in four sets in the regular season.
Of course, there is a possibility the Bearcats’ stay in 3A will be short-lived. If Central and Southside merge, the school enrollment figure will dictate the volleyball program play in 4A.
Lyon believes volleyball, along with virtually every other sport, would benefit from a merger that results in a bigger talent pool.
The Central coach admitted, though, that even if the merger takes place, the odds of the volleyball program returning to the point where it annually wins 90 percent of its matches and plays for the state championship are remote.
“We’ll have great spurts along the way,” Lyon says. “But just as far as having waves of kids coming and flying out of the elementaries and middle schools, there’s just not as many kids.”
There is a possibility for one of those spurts in the next year or two. Underclassmen lead Central in virtually every notable statistic besides digs. Burris should be better next season, too. The junior-laden Owls will potentially return all but two role players next season.
With that in mind, the odds of the two most storied high school volleyball programs in Indiana taking the court for their annual showdown with double-digit loss totals again next season are slim.
But as Don Shondell points out, both programs have few standout players in their middle schools right now, so the odds that this match will pit the two best teams in the state against each other and be played in front of a packed house anytime soon are just as remote.
“In the long term, I don’t know if we’ll ever get that back,” Rodriguez says, “but I sure want that game to be listed as a marquee game again.”