When it was too hot or cold to play outside, young Kaleb Jenness would grab a volleyball and his sister for a game of pepper in the front hall. If the two younger siblings also wanted to play, the four kids would blow up a balloon, shove a couple of chairs to the middle of the floor and stage a game of "balloon volleyball."
"Anything to play volleyball," said Kaleb's mom, Lisa.
It's a long way from balloon volleyball in the foyer to starting as a freshman for a ranked NCAA Division I men's team — especially for a kid from South Carolina, where boys' volleyball is not a high school sport and barely exists in the recruiting plans of Division I programs.
But that's exactly where Kaleb Jenness' love of the sport has taken him. The 6-foot-6 graduate of Wando High School is the first Division I men's volleyball player from the state, starting for 11th-ranked Ball State and leading the Cardinals in kills and points scored so far this season.
In a 3-1 upset of No. 12 Ohio State last weekend, Jenness had 12 kills and scored 13.5 points in the four-set match, second on the team in both categories. He even spiked the ball off the head of a hapless Buckeye.
"Kaleb is doing a really good job for us, certainly beyond what a typical freshman does for our program," said Ball State coach Joel Walton. "And his story is so unique, because of where he's from. We really don't see a whole lot of boys' volleyball in the southeast United States, and to get a kid who comes in like he has is very unusual."
Jenness' love of volleyball comes naturally. His mom and aunt were both standouts at Wando under renowned coach Alexis Glover.
Lisa Kimbrell Jenness was an all-conference player at Presbyterian, and aunt Laura Kimbrell Togami was all-ACC at North Carolina State. His uncle Craig Togami coached at N.C. State, and his father Norm, a Citadel graduate, is a formidable foe in beach volleyball at 6-foot-6. Younger sister Haley plays for Wando.
Kaleb also comes from one of Mount Pleasant's most accomplished sports families. Grandfather Roy Kimbrell was a multi-sport standout at Moultrie High School, and his son Mike pitched at Clemson and is a member of the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mike's son Tyler pitched at Furman, and Kaleb's cousins Jonathan and Hannah Togami are among the top pole-vaulters in the state for Wando's track and field team.
Needless to say, the family's Christmas volleyball games were at a fairly high level.
"Our family is pretty competitive," Kaleb Jenness said. "We like to win."
But when Kaleb got to high school at Wando, there was no boys' team for him to play for. Glover invited Kaleb to be the manager for the girls' team, and in the bargain got a standout practice player for her squad. Wando won back-to-back state titles while Kaleb was team manager.
"He was our manager, but he ran with us, he drilled with us, he played with us," Glover said. "And here he is at 6-foot-6, playing for the scout team and hitting against our team from the other side of the net. When we had to prepare for a specific player, he was that player on the scout team. He was great in every aspect of practice.
"He made our team so much better, because he was so good at practice. He really loves the game; he eats, sleeps and breathes the game. If we had boys' volleyball in South Carolina, he would have been all-world."
For Kaleb, practicing with the girls' team kept him connected to the sport in between weekend trips to Atlanta and Charlotte for practices and games with his club teams, Carolina Union and A5. Almost every weekend during his junior year, some combination of the Jennesses made the drive to Atlanta, sometimes just for a practice session.
"That was my first experience with indoor volleyball," Kaleb said of Wando's girls' team. "So that's where I learned about positioning and being in the right spot and reading the game from there. That's where I got a lot of the basics and fundamentals of volleyball that Coach Glover taught me."
Jenness' success might be a boost to a recent drive to make boys' volleyball a high school sport in South Carolina. As many as 40 schools have shown interest in sponsoring boys' volleyball at least at the club-sport level, much like rugby and ice hockey are played at high schools in the state.
Glover said she recently took part in a conference call about starting boys' volleyball in South Carolina.
"There's a big move in the state to have inaugural club teams," Glover said. "They would not be under the athletics' umbrella, but would be club teams like rugby and hockey. We're going to try to do one here at Wando to see who is interested in doing it."
Glover said that S.C. High School League rules require 16 participating teams to become a sanctioned sport. Boys' volleyball would probably have to be a spring sport because gyms are so heavily used in the fall and winter.
"That would be a great thing," said Ball State's Walton. "The more areas that we have like that, the better it will be for the sport in our country. It would encourage more Division I and II teams to become sponsoring men's volleyball."
Walton said there are about 350 women's teams at each of the NCAA Division I, II and III levels for a total of more than 1,000. But in men's volleyball, there are only 22 men's Division I programs, 25 in Division II and almost 100 in Division III.
College programs in South Carolina include Division II teams Erskine, Limestone, North Greenville and Coker.
So how far can Kaleb take his volleyball dreams from the family foyer? Walton says he's just "scratching the surface" of his ability.
"I think he's got a really high ceiling," Walton said. "He's already at the collegiate level, playing really well as a freshman. Getting to the those other places — playing professionally, playing for the national team — really gets back to how hard Kaleb is willing to work while he's in college.
"How willing is he going to be to do the extra things that will enable him to compete at that elite level? I think there's a possibility there. I think he's still a little immature, because if you look at him, it looks like he's going to continue to grow and to fill out. Already, we've seen a big change in him over the last year."
For his part, Kaleb — known as "Beach" by his Ball State teammates — says he wants to take volleyball as far as he can: All-America status, the Olympics, professional volleyball.
The Olympics include both indoor and beach volleyball. In pro volleyball, the AVP Tour features two-person beach volleyball, and there are pro indoor leagues around the world.
Last summer, Kaleb teamed with North Greenville's Christian Phung to win the U18 national title at the USA National Beach Tour Junior Championships.
"I plan on taking volleyball all the way to the end, as long as I can," he said. "I want to go to the Olympics for beach or indoor. It doesn't matter which, I just want to play at the highest level. And I plan on being a pro player overseas somewhere."
In the meantime, finally being able to play for his school is a dream come true.
"It's a lot of fun because you are representing your whole school," he said. "When you are out on the court, you feel like you are out there for your teammates and your school, and that's a good feeling."