Not only has the Perry boys’ volleyball team gained local attention for its dominant start to the 2021 season, but it’s gone national, too.
According to MaxPreps, the Pumas are currently the top-ranked team in the country. It’s the first time Perry, let alone any Arizona high school boys’ volleyball program, has received such high praise from a national outlet.
While the recognition is something they have come to enjoy, the Pumas don’t put too much thought into the ranking. After all, their main task at hand remains in Arizona, nowhere else.
“It’s great to be recognized and it’s great to see a one next to your name but we don’t put too much stock into it,” Perry coach Ryan Tolman said. “It’s cliché, but we are trying to take it one day at a time and understand if we get too far ahead of ourselves or worry about stuff like that, we will lose focus.”
Perry’s 13-0 start to the season is the best in program history and stems from motivation to finish out the year in honor of last year’s senior class that lost their season due to the pandemic.
The Pumas could have been on their way to a deep run in the 6A playoffs in 2020 with a 6-2 overall record before play was stopped. Perry’s only two losses came against Sandra Day O’Connor, a perennial power in boys’ volleyball.
The cancellation hit Tolman harder than most. He had finally gotten the opportunity to share a senior season with his son, Daxton, who was part of last year’s team. Tolman said it was heartbreaking for him and his son to see the season come to an unfortunate end.
But with Daxton now finding success at Benedictine University in Mesa for the RedHawks nationally ranked men’s team, Tolman has focused in on his other son, Gehrig, to share this season with.
“I was a basketball player growing up and volleyball kind of fell into my lap,” said Tolman, who graduated from Westwood in Mesa. “But I’m glad it did because I’ve gotten the chance to watch my boys close up. This season has been special because we lost last year.”
Gehrig shares the role of captain this season with senior middle blocker Camden Neimann. While only a junior, Gehrig has quickly evolved into a vocal leader and one who does so by example on the court.
He leads the team in assists with 376 and is among the best in digs with 69. He also has 15 aces and 21 kills on the season for the Pumas.
The national recognition is something Gehrig has personally chosen not to give too much attention to. He knows rankings can shift on a daily basis and it doesn’t change the team’s goal of winning a state title. As for added pressure from the No. 1 overall national ranking, he doesn’t see that as an issue with this team.
“I just try to brush it off,” Gehrig said. “I know something like that can add pressure to some people, but it hasn’t really for us. We just play like it’s any other game.”
Neimann’s opinion differed from his co-captain. He enjoys the pressure that comes with the ranking. However, he and his team aren’t chasing a national title, especially when some states have yet to play.
One thing that has come with the ranking is the target on Perry’s back. It’s come to the point where teams now circle the Pumas on their schedule. They want to be the ones to knock them off the undefeated ranks. Neimann expects every one of his team’s opponents to give them their best on a nightly basis. The energy in the gym elevates with each point Perry’s opponent scores.
But the Pumas have remained laser focused this season. Some points in big games are cause for added celebration, but Perry conducts itself in a manner as if it has been in a position of winning for years.
“Being No. 1 in the nation doesn’t really matter,” said Neimann, who has 28 blocks and 77 kills this season. “It makes it fun, but we aren’t chasing a national title. We are all focused on what we are doing in Arizona right now.”
Tolman believes some of the team’s mindset stems from them watching Perry’s girls’ volleyball program fall in the state championship two consecutive years. The players on each program are good friends, and the boys saw the heartbreak the girls experienced.
They don’t want to be the next great Perry volleyball team to slip up at an unfortunate time.
“They watched those girls lose two years in a row from the sideline and it was hard for them,” Tolman said. “I was on the bench as an assistant for both of those losses in the state finals and they were heart wrenching.
“Sometimes the ball just bounces in funny ways. We are doing everything we can to try to keep that from happening to us.”
Perry faced Chandler to wrap up the second-to-last week of the regular season. The Pumas will face Red Mountain, Desert Vista and Mesa to finish the season on May 5.
Barring an upset, Perry will enter the 6A Conference tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and will be guaranteed home matches through the semifinal round. The team’s main goal all season after spring sports were delayed was to make it to May 15 — the day of the title game.
While they are the favorites to get there, the Pumas know nothing is guaranteed.
“We just need to stay focused, that’s all it is,” Gehrig said. “We have to stay together as a team. We can’t get big headed and just take it one game at a time.”