PORTLAND, Maine — Jeff Scully believes he sees a brightening future for volleyball in Maine.
High school volleyball is picking up steam, he said, but the key will be getting players started at a younger age so a base can be created to support the high school efforts and upper-level club play.
Club play in Maine is conducted by the Maine Junior Olympic Volleyball Club, which has branches in eastern and southern Maine.
Scully is executive director of the Maine Games, which sends athletes from a variety of sports to the national state games, but he’s also an ardent supporter of volleyball. The Iowa native played it and coached it for many years and now handles publicity for the Maine Juniors.
“Volleyball is gaining in popularity really quickly [in Maine],” he said. “It seemed for a long time there was no added interest [among the state’s high schools].”
Most of the players in Maine are girls, but more boys are turning out, too, said Scully, and some youth boys teams have been created.
Play among girls has been concentrated in Washington and Hancock counties plus Greater Portland and south and almost completely at the high school and middle school ages. There are no boys high school teams in Maine.
“Southern Maine is adding a team or two a year,” he said, adding that Brunswick-area schools are showing more interest.
The Maine Juniors is starting to see that interest trickle into the younger age groups, especially in southern Maine, but in eastern Maine to a degree.
“There hasn’t been a huge jump, but it has grown every year,” said Todd Brophy, Northeast administrator for Maine Juniors and head coach at Mount Desert Island.
“Last year, we had six starters plus one other player” from 2011 Class B state champ Washington Academy of East Machias and four each from Calais and Ellsworth, said Brophy.
He sees a solid opportunity for growth, especially in the Bangor area.
“The Bangor elementary school program under Lisa Richards has several hundred kids playing volleyball,” said Brophy.
Brophy and Scully see the Bangor area as being the key to volleyball’s growth in eastern Maine.
“We’re trying to close the gap between the southern and northern teams,” said Scully, adding that Maine Juniors are also looking at the Waterville area.
“Once one of those schools goes [with a high school team], I figure others will, too,” said Brophy.
Volleyball became a Maine Principals’ Association sanctioned-sport with one class in 1997. There were 12 teams in 2001, the year MDI joined. In 2005, teams were designated as East or West, with 10 in the former and seven in the latter, according to Brophy’s records.
Currently, there are 23 high schools statewide with 13 in Class A and 10 in Class B. Classes replaced East/West designation in 2010.
The Maine Juniors has expanded their age-group tryouts, which now go from Under-18 (as of Sept. 1 or if still in high school) down to U12 in southern Maine.
Tryouts are open to all players, not just those playing on a school team, but preregistration is required. Go to the group’s website, http://mainejuniors.org.
In eastern Maine, the age groups are U18, U16 and U14, but younger players are accepted. There just aren’t enough players at the younger levels yet for as many teams.
Southern Maine tryouts begin Nov. 9 at Greely Middle School in Cumberland for the gold-level teams in U18, U17, U16 and U15. A second tryout session will be held Nov. 11 at Biddeford Middle School.
Tryouts for Southern Maine’s U14 gold, silver and bronze levels will be Nov. 11 and Nov. 18 at Biddeford Middle School, and the U16 and U18 silver and bronze teams will be Nov. 16 at Greely Middle School and Nov. 18 at Biddeford Middle School.
The Southern Maine tryout times are listed at mainejuniors.org. All candidates are expected to attend both tryout sessions.
The U12 introductory sessions will begin in early December.
For the Northeast tryouts at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School on Forrest Avenue, the tryouts will be Nov. 11 and Nov. 18. Check-in both days is 1 p.m. for U16 candidates and 3:30 p.m. for U18 candidates.
The Northeast U14s will hold their tryouts Dec. 2 and Dec. 9.
“Gold is the higher level,” said Scully. “They’re the more skilled, more experienced players. It’s more of an all-star team.”
At that level the players have discovered where they prefer to play or where they play best, said Scully.
“Volleyball is a sport with a lot of specialization,” said Scully. “Some like to play just in the back row, some like the front row and some play every position.”
The rosters generally number 9-12 players with 12 being preferred.
“It’s much easier [to organize] practice and to have enough for travel teams. Not everybody will be able to travel to every tournament,” Scully said.
Silver is a notch below gold with players almost as skilled as the gold ones but a little less experienced. Bronze level generally is for players who have been playing for only a year or two.
Skill levels are measured at the tryouts and the coaches at all levels participate in evaluating the players. Teams are then drafted based on the evaluations.
The number of players varies each year but seems to be on the rise, according to Scully.
“Last year, southern Maine had several hundred going through the U16 and U18 tryouts,” said Brophy, while he had 42 try out for 36 spots.
That number should be higher this year because high school players from Bucksport and Narraguagus of Harrington are expected to participate.
Last year there were 180 players total in U12 through U18, said Scully, and there were enough in the south for four U18 teams and five U16 teams, one gold and one silver each and the rest bronze.
“I’m not certain what we’re going to find this year [for numbers],” said Scully. “With South Portland, Cheverus and Windham [high schools] adding programs, it wouldn’t surprise me to have well over 200 players.”
That adds two more areas of concern.
“We’re always scrambling for practice space and time,” said Scully. “But that’s a really, really good problem to have.”
There is also a greater demand for officials.
“We’re kind of on the cusp of great things happening in the state,” said Scully.