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Brother Rice's Ryan Paull (center) will look to guide the Crusaders to a state title this season. | Jon Langham~For Sun-Times Media

The U. S. Department of State has been issuing traveler alerts for Tijuana, Mexico since 2008. But Brother Rice’s Ryan Paull and the other members of the U.S. Boys’ Youth National Volleyball Team felt perfectly safe there last summer.

“They did have some barbed wire and extra security around the Olympic training compound,” Paull said. “We got out once and walked a couple of blocks and visited a supermarket. Otherwise, we pretty much stayed inside the compound.”

Paull, Payton’s Earl Schultz and Providence’s Brendan Surane were members of the U.S. Boys’ Youth National Volleyball Team that defeated Puerto Rico 22-25, 25-19, 25-11, 26-28, 15-7 to finish third in the NORCECA Boys’ Youth Continental Championships.

What amazed Paull was the size of their opponents.

“Here were these kids who were 15 or so years old and were 6-foot-9,” he said. “They reminded me of the U.S. men’s national team. Especially the Cuban team that finished first. I was really impressed with the power they bring. And their match with the host team was so intense.

“It was a great experience.''

It was almost as good as the brief trip Paull and his teammates took to Hoffman Estates last June when they reached the quarterfinals of the IHSA boys state volleyball tournament by defeating Marist, Lincoln-Way North and Lincoln-Way East.

“We got hot,” he said. “That’s exactly how I would describe it. I think our graduating seniors realized that they needed to make a final push. Our libero Cody Leahy and setter Dan Dwyer really pulled everybody together.”

Leahy and Dwyer are gone, as are seven other seniors. But don’t cry for the Crusaders. Paull and juniors Mitch Weiler and Kevin Myren combined for more than 600 kills last year. Brother Rice is in good hands when the ball is in theirs.

“Ryan still has untapped potential, in addition to his two years of varsity experience, his club and USAV volleyball experience, and of course, his height,” said Paul Ickes, who has coached Brother Rice for 20 years.

“As he demonstrated last year, especially during the IHSA playoffs, he can take over a match when he works very hard,” the coach added. “He is very difficult to block and he presents a formidable obstacle as a blocker when he uses his 6-foot-8 frame fully.”

Paull, who hopes to stay in the Midwest to continue his volleyball career, is looking forward to another visit to Hoffman Estates later this season. This time, a first-round exit won’t do.

“People keep asking, ‘How are you going to top last year?’ ’’ he said. “But I feel real confident about this team.”

That’s an alert teams on the other side of the net should heed.

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