High school volleyball is growing so rapidly in Maine that one school now fields four teams.

This year Portland, Deering, Bonny Eagle and Wells are launching varsity programs, bringing the total number in the state to 29. But that’s not the whole story.

In Saco, Thornton Academy has four volleyball teams this fall: a varsity team, junior varsity and two club teams that will compete against other schools. Athletic Director Gary Stevens said it’s an indication of the surging popularity of volleyball, first sanctioned as a sport by the Maine Principals’ Association in 1997.

“Schools that build a volleyball culture become successful fairly quickly,” said Stevens. “We had one win when we started in 2013. Last year we had five wins and just missed the playoffs. I feel we’ll be a contender for the playoffs this year.”

Four years ago a few parents asked Stevens to offer volleyball, so he surveyed incoming freshmen and discovered 37 wanted to play. He found two members of his staff willing to coach, offered the varsity sport and it took off.

“Before we knew it, we had 55 students interested in volleyball,” Stevens said.

It’s only one example of the popularity.

Gerry Durgin, assistant executive director with the Maine Principals’ Association, sees the growth as a “geographic problem” with new teams mostly in greater Portland.

But coaches in southern Maine say the regional growth made the sport more competitive, and identifying the top teams gets harder and harder. They say that’s made volleyball more exciting.

“I love it. There are a lot of teams that have gotten a lot better, and there are a lot of new teams coming in so volleyball is growing,” said longtime Greely coach Kelvin Hasch. “I think it will be a great thing down the road when the new teams get a little time under their belts. I think it will be more fun because everyone will be competing at every match. I just think we’re at a really good spot.”

Volleyball was exclusively a Down East sport in the early years of high school play in Maine. Then Greely entered in 2001 and went to the state championship match in 2002. The Rangers went on to capture the next six state championships.

After Biddeford went to the state final in 2010, playing Falmouth for the Class A title, a new varsity team has entered the sport nearly every year.

At the same time, different teams were playing for the state title.

Last year Cape Elizabeth went into the playoffs seeded fifth in Class A and rallied from two games down against defending champ Falmouth in the title game to earn its first state championship.

Hasch thinks the sport will keep growing at a fast rate because volleyball isn’t expensive. Schools need a net, uniforms and a coach.

Compared to other sports, it’s a bargain.

“When we started in 2001, volleyball was nonexistent and not very good. We’ve all got to work together,” Hasch said. “I think it will grow.”

Other coaches see no end to the continued expansion of the sport, even if that only happens in southern Maine.

“More high schools are starting teams and more kids are playing at the club level. Maine now has multiple clubs and the kids are getting exposed to a higher level of play,” said Scarborough Coach Jon Roberts.

Coaches such as Roberts say there’s a direct correlation between teams that have feeder programs in middle school and those that reach a high level of play, and Maine is seeing more feeder programs.

“Schools are learning that volleyball helps to build strength, coordination and endurance, which are beneficial carryover skills to other sports,” said first-year Falmouth coach Molly Northway, who played on four Greely state championship teams from 2003-06.

At Thornton, Stevens said he foresees the sport in Maine not just growing but exploding.

“When I did that initial survey I asked if they would play another sport if we didn’t start volleyball. I wanted to see would it take away from soccer or field hockey or cross country. Everyone said it was the only thing they wanted to play,” he said. “I think the interest will keep increasing.”