ELLSWORTH — Of all the sports dealt unusual hands at Ellsworth High School last year, volleyball might have been turned upside-down the most.
Plenty of volleyball was played at Ellsworth and other schools offering the sport, which was played on a limited basis outdoors in the fall before a competitive season was held in March and April. Yet with the outdoor season being exhibition-oriented and the indoor season being held much later than usual (and in empty gyms), both campaigns were a bit unorthodox.
“It was weird [playing indoors later in the school year],” said Ellsworth senior Bailey Clarke. “It was great that we were able to play, but we’ve definitely been waiting to get back in the gym again and have a more normal season.”
As September nears, that time has finally come for the Ellsworth volleyball team. With turnaround time short after the conclusion of the “tweener” season not even five months ago, the Eagles are match-ready with the first contest just over a week away.
Despite losing six seniors from last season’s 5-6 team, Ellsworth boasts another strong senior class this fall. The Eagles have a pair of standout captains in Jocelyn Jordan, one of the region’s top players, and Clarke, the team’s leader in assists last season. Grace Gumpp and Amber Rae-Pesek are also back after making noteworthy contributions in the late winter and early spring.
Elsewhere, Ellsworth has an elite server in junior Rachel Endre, who recorded double-digit service points in all 11 of the team’s winter/spring contests. Fellow juniors Maren Bishoff and Skyler Clayton have moved up in the rotation for the Eagles, and head coach Jamie Calandro has been singing the latter’s praises.
“Skyler has just been unbelievable so far,” Calandro said of the team’s new starting libero. “She’s liable to break passing-percentage records and hitting records if she continues with the way she’s going right now. She hits everything, and she puts it in the right place.”
There are, though, still a few holes for Ellsworth to fill after the losses of the aforementioned 2021 graduates. Replacing a veteran group that included former All-Penobscot Valley Conference players Jocelyn Boudreau and Ella Hubbard won’t be easy, but Calandro feels confident in his team’s ability to do just that.
“With what I’ve seen from them so far, I think we’ve been able to fill those gaps nicely,” Calandro said. “We have some hard-working girls, and they’ve stepped it up for us. You can see that in how they’ve been passing and playing smart volleyball.”
Ellsworth began preseason play Saturday with a round-robin tournament at Narraguagus High School, and Calandro was pleased with his team’s efforts. The Eagles defeated the host team and Calais and fell to Penobscot Valley Conference Large-School champion Washington Academy in the competition, in which teams played 40-minute sessions rather than traditional five-set contests.
On a hot morning and early afternoon in Harrington, the gymnasium atmosphere was not exactly a comfortable one for an Ellsworth team that spent more than five hours in the Narraguagus dome. Yet playing with fans in the stands and without masks on their faces was a welcome feeling for the Eagles, who were not about to complain after a year’s worth of lost opportunities.
“It’s a lot of volleyball, but that’s what we want,” Clarke said following the Eagles’ third match of the day. “It’s nice to be in here without masks and to have our parents here cheering us on. It was tough for us to not be able to have that [earlier this year].”
Ellsworth followed its winning weekend at Narraguagus with another victory Tuesday as it defeated Messalonskee in five sets (25-16, 22-25, 23-25, 25-19, 16-14) in Oakland. The Eagles got 18 service points, 10 aces, 10 digs and eight kills from Endre, 13 service points, five aces, five kills and three blocks from Jordan, eight assists and four aces from Clarke, 22 digs from Clayton and three kills and six aces from Tessa Lemoine.
Ellsworth will continue preseason play next week as it plays on the road against Bucksport on Tuesday, Aug. 31, and at home against Sumner at that time Wednesday, Sept. 1. The Eagles will then return to Narraguagus to open the regular season next Friday, Sept. 3. All three matches are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. starts.
With matchups against PVC Small-School champion George Stevens Academy, PVC Large-School runner-up Brewer and Washington Academy set to follow that opener, Ellsworth will be tested early on this season. Back in volleyball form, though, the Eagles feel ready for those challenges.
“We feel really good about it,” Gumpp said. “We work hard together and have great chemistry. I think we’re going to have a great year.”