Falmouth High’s Annika Hester returns the ball during the 2019 Class A volleyball state championship match against Scarborough. Now a senior, Hester will be heading to the University of San Diego on an athletic scholarship. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Annika Hester broke down some barriers when she accepted a volleyball scholarship to play at nationally ranked University of San Diego.

The Falmouth High senior, who was honored as one of 24 Under Armour high school all-America selections in 2020, proved that a Maine high school volleyball player could compete at the highest level. And apparently others have noticed.

Hester, a two-time Varsity Maine Volleyball Player of the Year, was one of 16 Mainers to recently earn a spot on the Junior Volleyball Association watch list for 2021. The list features players from across the United States and Canada.

The players are nominated by their club directors, in this case Maine Juniors, a volleyball club program in Saco that typically offers 30 travel teams. John Razsa, the director at Maine Juniors, said each player has to have been recognized at either the high school, state or regional level to be considered.

Razsa added that being on the list not only elevates a player’s recognition, but that of volleyball in the state as well.

“This does open up doors (for the players),” said Razsa. “It brings them to college coaches’ attention and to possibly receive other national honors.”

Having 16 players on the list also shows, he said, how volleyball is improving in Maine. There were only 11 high school teams playing volleyball when the Maine Principals’ Association first sanctioned the sport in 1997. Now there are 42, with most of the growth coming in the last 10 years.

“Our goal is to close the gap between us and other states,” said Razsa. “Aside from Vermont, we are the latest comer to volleyball in New England. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but this is a reflection that the gap is closing.”

Falmouth Coach Larry Nichols believes it is closing. He remembers what it was like when he started a program at Deering, which moved to varsity status in 2015.

“When I started that team at Deering, we had kids with slippers on that had never played before,” he said.

Now, he said, players on travel teams go out of state and compete at high levels. “They’re not going to beat a top New York state or Massachusetts team,” he said, “but now we can at least compete.”

Volleyball, of course, did not have a 2020 fall season because of the coronavirus pandemic. The sport is being played now, with the spring season ending on April 16. The players on the list can all be seen on high school courts.

“They will be instantly recognizable on high school teams right now,” said Razsa.

Yarmouth Coach Jim Senecal said players like those on the list bode well for the future of the sport.

“In my opinion, there has been a steady progression,” he said. “Annika is going to a Division I school out West, but we are starting to see more and more kids playing in college, certainly seeing a lot of them competing at different levels.

“So without question, the quality of volleyball in Maine has improved dramatically. There’s a lot of talent here, and it’s tougher and tougher every year to maintain a successful program because all the other teams are getting better. And that’s great for the sport.”

Scarborough has four players on the list, Falmouth three, Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth two apiece. Those are among the state’s traditional powers: Falmouth has won the last two Class A state championships, Yarmouth the last two in Class B.

The watch list includes:

• Seniors: Annika Hester, outside hitter, Falmouth; Naomi Martin, setter, Mt. Ararat; Maggie Murray, opposite/right side, Yarmouth; Isabelle Petty, middle blocker, Greely; Katie Phillips, setter, Falmouth; Phoebe Slovenski, setter, York; Shaelyn Thornton, outside hitter, Scarborough; Julia Torre, libero/DS, Cape Elizabeth.

• Juniors: Evelyn Dagan, setter, George Stevens Academy; Allie McClafferty, outside hitter, Yarmouth; Annaliese Rudberg, outside hitter, Cape Elizabeth; Madeline Strouse, middle blocker, Scarborough.

• Sophomores: Victoria Abbott, opposite/right side, Falmouth.

• Freshmen: Rose Dittmer, outside hitter, Scarborough; Danielle Emerson, setter, Biddeford; Olivia Smith, opposite/right side, Scarborough.

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