Freshman Jenita Virak sets the ball during practice at Westbrook High earlier this week. The Blue Blazes are one of three new varsity volleyball programs in Maine this fall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

There were only 11 high schools offering volleyball when the Maine Principals’ Association first sanctioned the sport in 1997, primarily among Downeast schools.

But in the last decade, the number of schools and girls playing volleyball has increased dramatically and the sport spread geographically, with most of the larger schools in southern Maine offering it. This year, there are new varsity teams at Westbrook and Nokomis, both competing in Class B, while Sanford and Noble have formed a Class A co-op team.

That brings the totals to 40 teams and 43 schools playing varsity volleyball in Maine this fall, with several other schools offering club programs, including Gray-New Gloucester and Messalonskee. Edward Little is introducing the sport to its students this fall, hoping to go to a club level soon.

Volleyball is by far the fastest-growing high school sport in Maine over the last five years, with a 45.3 percent increase in participants, according to MPA data. From 2015 through 2019, the number of girls playing varsity volleyball increased from 785 to 1,141.

“It’s been fun to see this,” said Jim Senecal, in his 13th season as coach at Yarmouth, one of the 11 original volleyball schools in 1997. “But if you look at the sport nationally, it’s the same. It’s growing everywhere. We’ve just figured that out in Maine. All of a sudden there’s this explosion in volleyball. And all you’ve got to do is come to a match to see why. It’s a fun game and everyone enjoys it.”

Nationally, volleyball is one of the most popular sports offered to girls. It ranks third in the number of schools offering teams (16,572) and second among participants (452,808). The sport saw an 8 percent increase in participants during the last school year.

“I’ve never seen volleyball offered somewhere where the kids didn’t flock to it and it didn’t work out,” said John Razsa, the director of Maine Juniors, a volleyball club program located in Saco that offers 30 travel teams. “If you get the exposure and play it, you find that it’s a lot of fun.”

Those schools adding the program see it as a way to increase participation without affecting any of the traditional fall sports.

“I think it’s got other girls playing a sport and being active where they weren’t in the fall before,” said Gordie Salls, the athletic director at Sanford. “These girls may have played  winter or spring sports, but not in the fall … We’ve already had some kids who said they wished they had gone out for the team and are now interested.

“I think it also brings a new excitement to the school. It provides a different athletic event, other than football, or soccer or field hockey. It’s another interest for the community.”

Westbrook volleyball coach Nancy McAdam speaks to her team during practice. Over the past five years, there has been a 45.3 percent increase in volleyball players at Maine high schools. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Sanford would have had enough players to field a varsity team without Noble, but when the Knights contacted Salls, he welcomed their addition. Noble is providing four players to the team. Noble athletic director Aaron Watson said his school district has started a middle school program as well and hopes to have its own varsity program by 2021.

The Sanford/Noble team is coached by Gerry Hill, a former assistant coach at New Jersey volleyball powerhouse Northern Valley Demarest High, which has won nine state titles since 2000. Hill, who moved to Maine after retiring from teaching, coached there for 30 years.

Hill, 55, likes what he sees happening in Maine. “I do see a lot of enthusiasm,” he said.

And he likes what he sees from his program, especially the additions from Noble. “Some of those girls have a little experience and have made us better,” said Hill. “I believe we can be competitive. My goal is to establish the program and get enthusiasm for volleyball in the community.”

At Westbrook, Nancy McAdam, a former lacrosse player at Portland High and Assumption College, is the Blazes’ coach. While she has no volleyball experience, she said the program is moving along nicely. “This year it’s all about having fun with the girls, learning to be the best teammates they can be,” said McAdam, who is an assistant girls’ lacrosse coach at Portland. “It’s about being better on the court, but off the court too. If we win some games, it’ll be a bonus.”

McAdam said that the volleyball community has been a huge help in establishing Westbrook’s program. “It’s intimidating when you coach a sport you don’t have a huge amount of knowledge in,” she said, adding that YouTube videos have been beneficial. “But everyone has been so supportive and helpful.”

She said Razsa has been particularly helpful. “He’s a wealth of knowledge,” she said. “Two hours with him is like a week with me.”

At Gray-New Gloucester, athletic director Susan Robbins said 12 girls joined the club program, which will continue to accept anyone throughout the season. The team will play at Saturday first-team tournaments at Greely High. She isn’t sure how long it will take to become a varsity program.

“We just want to make sure we’re in a position to be competitive before we make that jump,” she said.

Greely coach Kelvin Hasch has been offering the Saturday tournaments to first-team and club programs for about four years now. He said they play on five Saturdays and each is booked solid.

“It gives them a lot of playing time,” he said. “And it gets them to try different things.”

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