ELLSWORTH — For six weeks, Hancock County players and coaches experienced the game of volleyball like never before.
From weather variables to grass playing surfaces to masked participants, little about the playing environment this fall was familiar for those who have spent lifetimes playing the sport indoors. There were no Gold Balls or postseason berths on the line, and the matches, when they weren’t being postponed or canceled, were few and far between.
Nonetheless, local coaches said the outdoor season was a worthy endeavor with indoor play being off-limits. Better yet, they said the lessons from the current campaign are ones they can use going forward once the sport makes its return to Maine’s arenas and gymnasiums.
“I think the season went really well, given the circumstances,” said George Stevens Academy co-coach Bonnie Marckoon. “I think there was a bit less pressure to be competitive, and that allowed our players, especially our younger ones, to focus on having fun and improving.”
Originally approved for an indoor season, volleyball was dealt a cruel blow Sept. 1 when the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development released new guidelines saying the sport could not be played indoors between opposing schools. Eight days later, the Maine Principals’ Association announced that volleyball, the lone indoor fall sport, and football, the lone “high-risk” fall sport, were on hold until early 2021.
The MPA didn’t, though, prohibit contests between local teams if said matchups were played outdoors. Ellsworth, Bucksport, Mount Desert Island and GSA thus began practicing on outdoor fields Sept. 14 before a three-week season began Oct. 6.
Whereas matches are usually best-of-five contests with 15-point tiebreakers if a fifth and final game is required, competitions this year were different. Instead of playing to the specifications of official MPA matches, teams played for as long (or as little) as they liked and put more emphasis on playing time than stats, scores or records.
“One advantage of it is that we were able to adjust as we needed whenever we were playing,” said John Dyer, who coached the Ellsworth junior varsity team and also filled in for head coach Jamie Calandro during the team’s final match last Tuesday against GSA. “We made it work to benefit both our varsity kids and our JV kids.”
Weather, a non-factor during indoor play, became one of the biggest factors of all this season. With no roofs above their heads, players and coaches dealt with rainouts, soggy grass, extreme winds and, in one instance, a little bit of “fowl” play.
“On the positive side, we didn’t have to work in a hot humid gym, we were dealing with surface (grass) that is lower-impact than hardwood, and the added dimensions of wind and sun forced us to work on reading more,” MDI head coach Corey Papadopoli said. “On the negative side, I’ve never had to cancel a practice or match due to rain or move a court because of geese droppings.”
GSA, fresh off a 13-3 season and appearance in the Class C semifinals, continued its success in outdoor play with wins against Bucksport, MDI and Ellsworth. Bucksport swept both matches against MDI, which played its full varsity team in an Oct. 23 rematch against GSA and came away with a 4-1 win.
GSA had already gotten some experience playing outdoors over the summer, during which it held practices on the sand courts at Wadsworth Beach in Castine. Although the grass surfaces and cooler temperatures this fall provided a much different setting, Marckoon said those days spent by the shores of the Penobscot Bay paid dividends in October.
“We got a bit of time in there, and I think that helped them in terms of their footwork and stamina,” Marckoon said. “Playing on sand requires a lot more agility than playing on the hardwood, so it taught them a lot.”
Even with the transition to outdoor play, players were still required to wear masks at all times. Marckoon said her players and fellow coaches were diligent about abiding by those protocols, but doing so still made certain matters fairly difficult.
“They get it, and they’re doing it, but it’s obviously not the most comfortable situation for anyone,” Marckoon said. “It also doesn’t help you with the communication piece, which is very important in volleyball.”
Despite dealing with the numerous obstacles, Papadopoli said the season stands to have an impact on how he approaches future campaigns. He plans to add outdoor practices to MDI’s regiment in the future and has also expressed support for an outdoor high school league that would take place in the summer months.
Marckoon, whose team had been hoping for an indoor season, wants to be back in the gymnasium as soon as possible. With that option not available this fall, though, she was pleased with her team’s positive attitude in the face of such challenging circumstances.
“They want to be competitive, and they want to play, but they certainly realize that this is what they’ve got,” Marckoon said. “As a team, our mentality has been, ‘Do this the way the school wants it to be done, stay safe and stay healthy, and hopefully, we can have a spring season.’”
Whether that season takes place in the late winter or early spring, not until next fall or even further down the line remains to be seen. Whenever it does, Dyer believes players will draw upon the memories of fall 2020.
“Perspective is key in life, and these kids, after playing outside and dealing with staring at the sun, the breeze and the cold, they’re going to think back to this, Dyer said. “Whenever we get back inside, they’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, it’s room temperature in here right now, and there’s no wind; let’s have some fun.’ They’ll be better for it.”