The Cowlitz Bulldogs are the area's only all-boys club volleyball team, with 10 members ranging from ages eight to 14.

They wear camouflage jerseys and their team cheer is "Bacon!"

But because they decided to play volleyball at an age when their schoolmates are as immature as the taunts they lob, the members of the Bulldogs are sometimes labeled as somehow less manly than their peers.

That's the flak 12-year-old Dylan Gorham gets at school. But he doesn't back away from his love of volleyball. When students are asked to discuss their weekends in class, Gorham talks about volleyball tournaments.

"I was telling them, and then a whole bunch of people started laughing," Gorham said. "I didn't really care because I like the sport and I want to play it. And they kept on saying that if I wear spandex, then I'm gay and everything."

The boys don't wear spandex, although that seems to be the first thing that runs through people's minds. When trying to drum up interest for the team, coach Michal-Ann Watts even faced that query from parents who played volleyball themselves.

"People just think that volleyball is just spandex and hair ribbons," said Watts, whose two sons are on the team. "They don't understand that it's an actual life sport."

The boys volleyball league was the brainchild of Joe Boken of the Columbia Empire Volleyball Association, an organization that serves most of Oregon and Southwest Washington. USA Volleyball awarded CEVA an $11,000 grant in early February for promoting boys volleyball in the area.

That money, in part, covers the costs of travel, equipment and tournament expenses. Under Boken are 15 boys volleyball ambassadors, including Watts, who meet via conference call once a week.

CEVA hopes to have at least 12 teams organized by the end of the season in June, although there are significantly fewer right now. And the Bulldogs are the youngest of all.

Every member of the Bulldogs was introduced to the sport by parent or a sister who played.

"My sister inspired me," said nine-year-old Zachary Parham.

The Bulldogs first competed together in December at an all-girls tournament. (There is no CEVA rule on the books that said an all-boys team can't compete against a girls team, Watts said).

The first all-boys tournament was held a few weekends ago. It used nets so high that the youngest Bulldog, eight-year-old Gavin Dombrowsky, could walk under them without ducking.

"We're playing against seniors," Watts said. "It's funny, my son said, 'Mom, those boys have leg hair!'"

Boys volleyball is a popular sport at the high school level in California and Arizona, but Watts knows it's a long road to varsity boys volleyball in the Pacific Northwest. Not only are people hesitant to sign up — "I think it deters a lot of people from coming, to be honest, because they're scared of the stereotype," Watts said — but it would also have to compete for players with either football, basketball or baseball.

Whether high school boys volleyball ever happens, or even the middle school league that Watts thinks is more doable, the Bulldogs are already pioneers in the true Northwest sense. Whether competing against teams on the other side of puberty, girls who have been playing since they were young or their own classmates' jeers, the Bulldogs are sticking with volleyball for the long haul.

"When I first had my first practice with them, I kind of said, 'Who's your superhero?'" Watts said. "Because, to me, I feel like they have to have some qualities of that to be out here, because I know it's tough."

"Everybody said it's a girls' sport," said Gorham. "I said you can think what you think, but it's actually really fun. You should try it out."

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