The George Stevens Academy volleyball team poses for a team photo Sept. 3 in Blue Hill. GSA, which is in its fourth season of varsity play, is in first place in Class C with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season. MARK MESSER PHOTO/GEORGE STEVENS ACADEMY

GSA volleyball team thriving in 4th season

BLUE HILL — For decades, the George Stevens Academy gymnasium spent fall evenings in silence. Now, it’s home to one of the rowdiest crowds in town.

From posters plastered on the walls to packed parking lots to stands filled with white-clad fans screaming until they grow hoarse, there’s been an energetic atmosphere throughout the GSA campus on select September and October nights. Long known for its athletic success, the school is now hitting its stride in a new sport: volleyball.

As recently as four years ago, volleyball, the fastest-growing sport in the state, wasn’t even offered to students at GSA. Yet in the short amount of time since the program’s arrival, the Eagles have gone from newcomers to title contenders and established a team culture that’s captivated the school.

“The crowds here have gotten really raucous,” co-coach Bonnie Marckoon said. “The school has really come around to embrace this group of girls and this sport, and that’s been great to see.”

GSA’s Sophie Peasley attacks during a high school volleyball match against Machias on Sept. 11 in Blue Hill. The Eagles lost just one set in their first four matches. MARK MESSER PHOTO/GEORGE STEVENS ACADEMY

Marckoon and Aleta Schmidt coach a GSA team with one of the state’s strongest right-side duos in Mara Pickering and Evelyn Dagan. The seven-member team also consists of defensive specialist Ashly Emerson, outside hitters Sophie Peasley and Frances Spangler and middle hitters Sophia Biggie-Jennings and Erika Hipsky.

With less than two weeks left in the regular season, the Eagles are in first place in Class C with a record of 9-2. Yet Hipsky, the team’s lone remaining player from its inaugural season in 2016, remembers when the Eagles were a far cry from where they are today.

“We had just started the program, and it was kind of new to all of us,” Hipsky said of GSA’s first two seasons, which saw the team go 2-12 and 0-14. “No one knew what we were doing.”

Even amidst those early struggles, GSA coaches and players knew their growing pains were a natural step in establishing a foundation for their program. That process paid off for the Eagles last year as the team went 6-8 in the regular season to clinch its first-ever playoff berth.

Following a quarterfinal loss to Washington Academy, GSA players made a pledge to get even better in the offseason. If they could improve from zero wins to six, the Eagles thought, there was no reason they couldn’t take another step forward in 2019.

“Last year, we got a taste of what we’re capable of, but this year, we’re definitely hungry for more,” Dagan said. “I think our general competitiveness has gone up this year.”

That was evident from start of the season as GSA dropped just one set in its first four contests. Even though the Eagles are no longer unbeaten, their two losses, which came Sept. 21 at Calais and Sept. 26 at Narraguagus, were competitive matches against fellow Class C contenders.

George Stevens Academy fans cheer on their team during a high school volleyball match against Bucksport on Oct. 1 in Blue Hill. The Eagles have had a strong month of October thus far with two wins over Bucksport and a five-set victory over fellow Class C contender Narraguagus. MARK MESSER PHOTO/GEORGE STEVENS ACADEMY

Yet the moment when everything clicked, Dagan said, happened before the regular season even began. Facing Mount Desert Island in a preseason scrimmage, the Eagles came back from two sets down to earn a comeback victory.

“After we lost the first two sets, we kind of had the mentality, ‘Hey, let’s just relax, go out there and play,’” Dagan said. “I think that was when we first got a feeling that we could be really good this year.”

The team’s fan base, which has packed the gymnasium stands dressed according to a variety of different themes, has grown as the Eagles have continued their winning ways. Having a boisterous crowd behind them has been a major boost for the Eagles, who are 7-0 in home matches this season.

“We’ve worked to get students out here and get faculty out here to see what we’re all about, and there’s always more and more people coming,” sophomore Sophia Biggie-Jennings said. “My first game here, we didn’t have a lot of people at all, but now it’s packed, and I have people come up to me at school a lot the day after games and tell me how excited they are about us.”

GSA will be on the road against Ellsworth (1-7) at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10. The Eagles will then play their final road match at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, against Sumner before closing out the regular season at home against Jonesport-Beals at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 21.

Staying atop the Class C field will be tough for GSA, which is in a tight battle with second-ranked Woodland and third-ranked Calais for the top seed. Yet should the Eagles continue their current run of form, they’ll be in position to add a new kind of Gold Ball to the school’s trophy case.

“We need to keep building off of every game and keep getting better because of something that we do,” Biggie-Jennings said. “When you’ve come a long way and have momentum like we do, you have to keep going and finish strong.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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