The inventor of volleyball, William G. Morgan, spent much of his life in Lockport, yet the sport took awhile to take hold in his hometown.
Lockport High School didn’t establish a boys volleyball team until 1992, nearly a century after Morgan created what he called “Mintonette” at a YMCA in Holyoke, Mass., and 50 years after he was buried in Glenwood Cemetery.
And it took another two decades before Lockport put itself on the Western New York volleyball map.
Paper Lions no longer, Lockport now boasts a trophy case that shows a recent spike in interest in the sport.
The Lockport Lions won their first Niagara Frontier League championship under coach Chris Niver in 2009 and a second one two years later.
This fall, Lockport became the first team to go undefeated in NFL play and won its first sectional championship.
And though Lockport will graduate 11 seniors from this year’s team, program founder Joe Whalen, who returned to coach the Lions two years ago, believes there are even better days ahead for Lockport volleyball.
The Lions return at least two players who are being recruited to play college volleyball, and the three-year-old Lockport Volleyball Club, run out of North Park Junior High School, is accelerating the development of the area’s youth players.
“There is a lot of momentum coming up from the bottom,” Whalen said. “These kids already know how to play. They are fearless. They are hitting the ball on a net a foot higher than it should be.”
And after this year’s championship run, young players in Lockport no longer fear the traditional volleyball powers in the Southern Tier.
Lockport’s three-game sweep of Frontier in the Section VI Class A championship wasn’t just a victory for its own program, but for volleyball in the northern portion of the section.
It marked the first sectional championship for an NFL team since Kenmore West in 2000, and the first time a Niagara County school had won the Class A title.
The program has come a long way since the 1990s, when Whalen recalls taking the Lions to Lancaster and realizing they didn’t even belong on the same court with the eventual state champions.
This year’s squad, having played against the area’s top players in club tournaments, was never intimidated by the Southtowns opponents senior captain Jack Whalen called “the best of the best.”
“If anything, the feeling was opposite,” he said. “Teams would come in and look at us and be like, wow.”
The Lions made their presence known at the season-opening Clarence Tournament with wins over Lancaster, Orchard Park and West Seneca West.
Even as Lockport swept through its NFL slate and entered sectionals having lost just eight games total in 21 matches, Joe Whalen played up the perceived superiority of the Southtowns in the Lions’ locker room.
“Let’s go out and show people that there is good volleyball north of Sweet Home,” was the coach’s battle cry.
“After we beat Grand Island, their coach said to us, ‘Go represent the NFL and show the Southtowns what the NFL is about,” senior captain Bryce Perry said.
Joe Whalen already believed he had a team capable of winning the section when Niver asked him to take over the program in 2012.
The year before, after Jack Whalen, Bryce Perry and Eamon Yates played on the varsity team as freshmen, Joe Whalen told his son, “Get your friends and tell them to go along for this ride.”
Around the same time, volleyball official Tom Schneider, a Rochester transplant, started the Lockport Volleyball Club with an under-12 team.
Established club programs in Eden and Orchard Park are a big reason the schools in the Southern Tier have been so dominant in sectional play, Joe Whalen said.
In the early days, Lockport players had to drive 40 minutes each way to participate in club volleyball. In recent years, they would play for the Panthers Club at Sweet Home Middle School.
This winter, Whalen will coach an 18-under team for the Lockport Volleyball Club, which has also added a 14-under team.
“It helps a lot playing club because there isn’t much time off,” Jack Whalen said. “We get to the high school season, and we’re still ready, and we have more experience from club.”
Club play also familiarizes players with the talent in other towns and practice drills high school coaches will use during the season, Joe Whalen said.
Lockport will be favored to repeat in the NFL next year, with 6-foot-8 Jason Donorovich, a Division I prospect, and 6-3 Brad Schneider swinging on the outside.
The rising talent has Joe Whalen confident the Lions will remain sectional title contenders and perhaps make a state playoff run in the coming years.
“Whoever takes over for me when I leave is going to inherit a very experienced group of young men,” Joe Whalen said.
But this year’s team set a championship standard for its successors.
“We had a complete, solid squad,” Joe Whalen said. “If you’ve got six kids on the floor who are B-plus players, it’s better than having two great players. We never had to worry about chasing someone else on the floor who wasn’t playing well.”
As the Lions came together and made their championship run, they became “the darlings of Lockport,” Joe Whalen said, in a city that is normally preoccupied with football and soccer in the fall. “For Lockport,” Jack Whalen said after the sectional victory, “it was nothing we’ve ever done, and it was everything we’ve ever wanted.”