The Menlo-Atherton boys’ volleyball team has been the gold standard of the Peninsula Athletic League since the league was officially formed in 2016. Over the course of the first three seasons, M-A compiled a PAL record of 39-1 and won three straight league titles — sharing the 2017 crown with Aragon.

But there were big changes for the Bears since seeing their 2018 season end in the semifinals of the Central Coast Section tournament. They graduated a bulk of the team, on top of a complete change of the program’s coaching staff.

In the past, the Bears might have powered their way through the changes. But this season, the rest of the PAL is showing it has caught up to M-A as the Bears find themselves mired in sixth place in the 10-team division.

“Boys’ volleyball has really taken off,” said Hillsdale head coach Dwight Crump, who has been involved with the sport for 26 years at the middle and high school, and club levels.

Indeed it has. The league expanded from eight to 10 teams this season, with El Camino and Sequoia joining the ranks. Crump said three more teams will begin league play next year and that the PAL will be split into two competitive-based divisions.

Just to show how much has changed, M-A has already lost more league games this season, two, than it did during the first three seasons of PAL play combined. Filling the void left by the Bears are Carlmont and Hillsdale, who are both 4-0 to start league play, while Aragon continues to show it has staying power and currently sits at 3-1.

But the real change has come from teams that have consistently finished lower in the standings. Both Capuchino and San Mateo, who struggled through the 2018 campaign with a combined league record of 2-18, sit at 3-0 and 2-1, respectively, with the Bearcats having knocked off Aragon earlier in the season.

The growing strength of the PAL can be attributed to an increase of awareness about the game. More and more boys’ club teams and programs are popping up on the Peninsula and around the Bay Area and Crump said he is starting to see more players coming into high school with more experience under their belts.

“Boys’ volleyball has been around, but it hasn’t been as popular in the Bay (Area). But now, there are at least six boys’ club teams in the Bay Area,” Crump said. “I see players coming in with one or two years (of experience). You’re also seeing a little more middle schools getting into the program.”

The improved play can also be seen in the number of quality players scattered around the league, with nearly all the competitive teams fielding at least one bona fide hitter. Carlmont, which many believe is the odds-on favorite to win the PAL title and the automatic CCS berth that comes with it, features junior Ethan Mayoss. He had 10 kills in a straight-set sweep of M-A March 2 and followed that up with 16 kills against San Mateo and 14 more in a sweep of South City Thursday.

Hillsdale may be the most versatile team in the division, with any number of hitters who can swing it. The Knights are led by a pair of sophomores in Noah McLean and Zach Martella. San Mateo features Jason Wu and Ryan Savage, just to name a few.

“I’ve seen the evolution of the boys’ program,” Crump said. “In my four or five years of boys’ volleyball, it has now taken off (in popularity).”

The growth of the PAL in size and ability has been noticed throughout the rest of the section and, with M-A winning first-round CCS matches in 2017 and 2018, it’s only a matter of time before the PAL receives more than one automatic bid to the playoffs.

“[The rest of CCS] is very excited about us (the PAL) because we’re a young league … and we’re growing so fast,” said Diean Hala’ufia, head coach for Aragon and the PAL representative to CCS.

Crump believed it would take longer for the PAL to reach the level where teams can be competitive with more established teams and leagues, like the West Catholic Athletic League or the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League. But he now thinks at least the upper half of the PAL has arrived as Aragon, Carlmont and M-A will all face CCS stalwart Serra during non-league play this season.

“I figured it (the growth of the league and the game) would be very slow. I’m actually proud to see where we are,” Crump said.

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