Six months ago, Cole Walter didn’t know anything about squash. He didn’t know he could play the indoor racquet sport at the Portland YMCA, just a short walk from King Middle School, where he is a sixth-grader.

The first time he heard of squash was when his physical education teacher, Rhonda Janelle, said the class was going to learn about the game. “I thought it was just a game our gym teacher made up. The name threw me off,” Cole said.

What was once considered a sport reserved for the rich at private clubs is coming to the masses. According to U.S. Squash, participation numbers doubled nationally from 2007-12, to 1.3 million players.

Cole and about 20 other middle school students now play twice weekly at the Portland YMCA, becoming part of squash’s growth spurt. It is one of two youth groups in Maine that are playing the sport, and a key component in the early stages of a community group’s plan to generate interest to build an eight-court, not-for-profit squash facility in Portland.

Cole and the 17 other middle school students who filled the YMCA’s four worn courts on Friday have been part of an after-school pilot program conducted over three seven-week sessions. The program is the brainchild of Barrett Takesian, a former Bowdoin College squash captain who hoped to show that young people, if introduced to squash, would give it a try.

Takesian, 22, went to King Middle School last fall with a bundle of rackets, a video of him playing squash with his nationally ranked half-sister – Skyler Spaulding, 11, of Falmouth – and the hope that he might be able to entice “three or four” kids to give the game a try.

“We had no idea what the interest level at King would be,” Takesian said. “Right away, we were at capacity.”

That was good news for the group called Portland Community Squash. With Takesian as its president, the group has been gradually building awareness of the international game and its physical and mental benefits, in hopes of opening a self-contained squash facility in Portland.

The four courts at the YMCA, two of which are converted racquetball courts, are the only public squash courts being used in Maine, said Greg Born of Westbrook, director of the Maine Squash League and a board member of Portland Community Squash.

The YMCA hosts two open-age leagues, administered by Born, who said he has a mailing list of 250 players who play regularly, or have in the past two years. When he began compiling his list about four years ago, it consisted of “35 to 40 players,” Born said.

Further growth is now hindered by the lack of courts.

Bates, Colby and Bowdoin colleges have courts for their varsity teams that are available for limited public use. The University of Maine and Hebron Academy have two courts each, the Woodlands Club in Falmouth has one private non-standard court, and Born said there is a private court in Lewiston.

PLANNING FOR FACILITY, LEAGUE

Portland Community Squash has a stated goal to bring “all the benefits of squash under one roof. Our facility will serve unmet adult demand, school squash teams and an urban squash program.”

The group is considering multiple options, Takesian said, including building from scratch or renovating a private or public structure. A 30,000-square-foot, 22-foot-high metal framed warehouse at 182 Read St. in Portland is one targeted site.

“The cool component about any future facility is that it would be the first community squash model in the country,” Takesian said.

At the heart of the plan is creating many more opportunities for junior players, said Paul French, a Portland Community Squash member from Portland. French, a professional musician, is one of several volunteer coaches for the middle school program.

“The short-term goal was to introduce the game to young kids, and hopefully they would love it as much as we do. I think that’s happened,” French said. “The long-term goal would be to have our own facility. If we had that, we could easily have 100 kids. One demonstration at one school, and this year was full.”

Takesian said Portland Community Squash is pending approval as a not-for-profit 501(c) organization. The business plan would be to have adults’ membership fees offset the cost of running junior squash programs and reduce fundraising needs. Takesian envisions having enough middle schools involved to spawn a Portland-area middle school squash league.

COMBINING SQUASH AND STUDIES

For about five years, Marilu Fortson, wife of Bowdoin coach Tomas Fortson, has run junior squash clinics at Bowdoin’s courts. In February, the Portland novices played the Brunswick squash group in what Takesian called the “first-ever” junior team match.

On March 30 at the Brooks School in Massachusetts, eight players from the Portland YMCA played in an invitational tournament. In their first junior tournament, Cole Walter won his division and Josh Shunk won the consolation round.

A third critical component of the group’s plan is an academic-oriented squash program based on the National Urban Squash Education Association.

Takesian works for one such group, the Lawrence (Mass.) Squashbusters. The Squashbusters serve more than 200 middle, high school and college students, following the National Urban Squash Education Association model of providing intensive academic support in combination with squash.

The older Boston Squashbusters boast that every student who has stayed in the program has graduated from high school, with 97 percent enrolling in college.

Fifteen programs operate in 14 cities under the National Urban Squash Education Association. Annually, the programs enroll more than 1,400 players from elementary school to college age.

SPREADING OUTSIDE THE ELITE

Squash came to America in 1882 at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. For the next 100-plus years, it was played almost exclusively in prep schools, elite Eastern colleges and private clubs. The urban squash initiative and the growth of college programs, particularly in the Midwest and South, are helping to change that.

At the end of the 2013-14 season, the College Squash Association ranked 60 men’s and 46 women’s squash programs. Thirty-two men’s and 13 women’s teams are categorized as “emerging,” meaning they are brand new or student-led.

Takesian noted that college programs need players, and a squash-playing background is a strong addition to a college application to a top school.

The middle school squash program at the Portland YMCA is drawing to a close for this school year. For the young players, future squash opportunities take a back seat to the excitement of learning a new sport.

“It was definitely challenging at first, but the more I played it, it got easier and easier and (more) fun,” said Will Keith, 11, a sixth-grader at King Middle School. “Barrett made it really welcoming and I learned forehand and backhand serves.”

Watching young players like Cole Walter and Cyrus MacCachran, 12, a seventh-grader from Portland, serve with both backhand and forehand strokes and play extended rallies with their friends, it’s apparent they have progressed past the point of “learning” the sport. Now, they are actually playing.

“It takes some practice, but a lot of us got it down pretty quickly,” Cole said.

Asked if they think of themselves as squash players, neither boy hesitated. “Yes, I do. I’m a squash player,” Cole said.

“Squash is one of the sports I play now,” Cyrus said.

Jeff Norris of Portland said he has seen a similar evolution in his son, Jondall Norris, another sixth-grader at King Middle School.

“He totally loves the thinking piece of it,” Jeff Norris said. “What’s cool is, it’s definitely a lifetime sport. He’s coming here now on his own free time. He’ll call up and reserve a court and come over on a Saturday with a friend.”

Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or at scraig@pressherald.com

Twitter: @SteveCCraig