Ice hockey’s loss in Maine is volleyball’s gain.

The former practice rink of the Portland Pirates and home to the Portland Junior Pirates Elite team will become a volleyball haven. The newly named Maine Sports Arena is now being rented and re-purposed by the Maine Juniors Volleyball Club, a nonprofit that runs up to 30 volleyball teams that compete up and down the East Coast.

Maine Juniors – which has 350 players, 40 coaches, as many as 50 volunteers and just two full-time paid staff – has been a force behind the explosion of Maine high school volleyball.

In the past three years, varsity programs have jumped from 25 to 35, mostly in southern Maine. In each of the past few years, Maine Juniors has seen a 20- to 25-percent increase in participation, said Kris Dorer, a former Maine Juniors volunteer and now the director of the Maine Sports Arena.

Dorer expects that level of growth to continue for the next several years with the new arena.

“I honestly felt that 10 years ago we were causing the growth of high school volleyball,” said John Razsa, Maine Juniors founder and director.

“We were helping girls who wanted to devote themselves to the sport. But the last several years there has been an interesting phenomenon. We helped to create this explosion, but we’re also riding the wave of it. Because each year we see each high school team playing at a higher level. We didn’t see that so much initially.”

Today Maine Juniors has 350 girls ranging in age from 8 to 18 who compete on teams divided by skill level and age group. Each age group has a national-level team, a gold (or second-tier) team, a silver (or third-tier team). The national-level team competes as far away as Florida while every Maine Juniors team competes in five core New England tournaments. They practice from one to three days a week and compete at weekend tournaments from November until May. The cost ranges from $300 to $2,200, depending on the level of participation.

Maine Juniors teams had been practicing and competing at dozens of high school and college gyms around southern Maine. But scheduling was difficult and practice and match venues uncertain.

Now with their own home, Razsa said, the organization can flourish.

The arena at the OA Sports Center on Lund Road in Saco is being fitted with floors and expected to open for the first tournament March 12. The 26,000-square-foot space has five volleyball courts and three basketball courts, as well as locker rooms, a lounge and stadium seating.

To help sustain the nonprofit club, the facility will be rented out to sports groups, like basketball or pickle ball clubs, as well as for trade shows and concerts. But the volleyball club is expected to grow and prosper.

“I think we’ll see 400 to 500 players in the next couple of years,” said Dorer, the parent of two Maine Juniors players. “Especially given the fact this facility is accessible right off the highway. A lot of players are traveling up to an hour for practice. They love it so much.”

Maine high school coaches said Maine Juniors is a key reason the sport has taken off in Maine and why it will continue to explode. “I’m really excited. I think more kids are going to go and play. That will help to raise the level of play in Maine,” said Greely Coach Kelvin Hasch, who just won his ninth Class A state title.

“A lot of (athletic directors) won’t rent their gyms out. The problem for these clubs is finding a place to play.”

Hasch, who had 18 of 28 players in Maine Juniors last year, said a quality volleyball arena will advance the sport in Maine.

First-year varsity coach Corey Huot agreed.

Huot inherited a program at Thornton Academy with 55 athletes playing on a junior varsity, varsity and two club teams. He said Maine Juniors and other club programs in the area are the reason volleyball in Maine has taken off.

“Maine Juniors has done so much not only with the growth of youth getting into the sport, but they’ve helped me a lot. They hold coaching clinics that I’ve been to,” Huot said.

“We have girls who have gone to play club and then come back volleyball stars.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

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Twitter: FlemingPph