Scarborough High volleyball players practice on the school’s softball field on Wednesday. Volleyball teams can’t compete this fall, but the Red Storm has had 25 of 28 players return for practices that must be held outside. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Kim Stoddard looked around earlier this week as her players practiced on two volleyball courts set up on the Scarborough High softball field. The scene was a far cry from what the team’s practices looked like before the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s nice to be out and see the other sports teams practicing. It’s nice to be out in autumn and see the leaves changing. We’re usually the only ones in the gym,” said Stoddard, the Red Storm’s head coach. “The biggest thing this gives them is the chance to be together as a team. It’s so important.”

On Sept. 10, the Maine Principals’ Association announced it would not sponsor volleyball and football this fall, and that it would try to arrange for those sports to play instead during a season bridging the winter and spring sports seasons. The MPA also announced that no sports could be played or even practiced inside this fall.

That was a problem for volleyball, the only fall sport traditionally played indoors. But teams in southern Maine pivoted quickly to make practices happen by going outside. The make-shift outdoor courts, the number of players at practice, and the style of courts are very different, depending on the school’s approach. And at least one team decided not to get together at all this fall, and York County schools are currently prohibited from all athletic activities.

The wish shared by all teams is for a competitive season early next year.

“We had two courts set up the next week,” Stoddard said. “I’ve gotten so much support from the athletic department. They kind of saw the writing on the wall this fall. If a spring season happens, we’ll be ready.”

The lack of matches against other teams – and the chance for seniors to showcase their skills in front of college coaches – has been a big loss, said Scarborough senior Shaelyn Thornton.

Scarborough Coach Kim Stoddard talks with her volleyball players on the softball field where the team must practice this fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Workouts outside also have been an adjustment for players. Having to control the ball in the wind and serve with the sun in their eyes has been a challenge. Thornton said what’s been even harder is not being allowed – because of COVID-19 safety measures – to bump fists after a winning point or a mistake.

But players who are showing up to practice are preparing for a possible shot at a state tournament in five months. Scarborough had 25 of 28 players return this fall.

“A big part of volleyball is the high-fives, those mini-regroups,” Thornton said. “But we’re making up for not having that by talking more. I wasn’t sure how the effort level would be, but so far it’s been pretty good. We’re playing good volleyball.”

Senior setter Mayne Gwyer agreed, and said the intensity in fall workouts outside is the same as it was last year in the gym.

“Honestly, I’m grateful,” Gwyer said. “This is not how I thought my senior year would be. But we’ve been able to scrimmage ourselves, four on four.”

And Stoddard has seen something else happening. She said because the pressure of chasing a state title has been lifted this fall, her players are taking more chances on tough shots.

“In the past, they would worry about making mistakes. There’s the same hustle, but they’re having fun,” Stoddard said.

At Gorham High, Coach Emma Tirrell met with her athletic director on Sept. 11, and the ordered two nets – sent overnight by express delivery. They set up two temporary courts on a section of grass beside the school’s track.

Gorham has been practicing four days a week, with two groups alternating days to keep the numbers small so players can socially distance.  Tirrell had 60 players turn out this fall.

She is counting on a spring season.

“My AD is very, very confident there will be a spring season. We will be locked and loaded,” Tirrell said.

Olivia Smith serves the ball during volleyball practice on the softball field at Scarborough High on Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Falmouth High also had an outdoor court constructed in a matter of days, although Coach Larry Nichols said they already were planning to build one. Now, a 60-by-28-foot sand court with nets set in concrete sits on a hill overlooking the football field – a permanent part of the sports complex.

The two-time defending Class A state champions have 30 players back, all of whom attend practice three to four days a week. Nichols said jumping and playing on sand has been an adjustment, but the players have embraced it.

“I’m obviously super sad we don’t have a fall season, but when we heard we were going to play this fall on sand, we were excited,” said senior Katie Phillips. “I’ve played in a couple of beach leagues so I’m used to it, but it is a big adjustment. We’re working hard, but keeping it casual. We’re all really hoping for a spring season.”

Yarmouth High also had a regulation-sized net and a grass field chosen for an outdoor court. But in the end, the coaching staff decided to shut down the season and free up players to pursue other opportunities, like jobs or new sports. Three of the starters went to the field hockey team.

“It’s my first time picking up a stick,” said Kathryn Keaney. “I’m still trying to figure out the rules, but the players and coaches have been really supportive. I probably won’t start. It’s more about having fun with my friends this fall. But I do still hope we have a volleyball season in the spring.”

Even without meeting as a team this fall, Yarmouth volleyball coach Jim Senecal said his team is hungry for a real season.

“I do not question the MPA’s commitment to offer volleyball in the gap between winter and spring sports. If the state and this virus let us, Yarmouth will be playing in March,” Senecal said.


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