ELLSWORTH — Jamie Calandro isn’t used to Mother Nature affecting his practices.
In his years of volleyball, Calandro, the head coach of the Ellsworth volleyball team, has always done his practicing and coaching in a controlled environment. From the comforts of gymnasiums throughout the Northeast, Calandro has never had to worry about the sun, the sky, the wind, the temperature or the condition of the playing surface.
“Those are some things that you don’t really have to think about when you’re indoors,” Calandro said. “When you walk into the gym, you don’t have the rain, the sun in your eyes and the somewhat-wet grass.”
With no indoor volleyball this fall, those are facets local teams will simply have to embrace in the weeks ahead. Yet even if the added external factors provide challenges, the scoring, the strategy and the competition are all the same as teams prepare for a season outdoors.
Indoor volleyball was one of two fall sports to have its season postponed by state agencies and the Maine Principals’ Association in early September. Although volleyball is categorized as a “medium-risk” activity in the state’s guidelines on community sports, concerns over holding indoor athletics resulted in the season being postponed until early 2021.
That’s left Ellsworth, Bucksport, Mount Desert Island, George Stevens Academy and other Maine schools looking to make a fall season work out in the open air. Teams have been practicing since mid-September with the first slew of matches taking place this week.
Although local high school athletic facilities weren’t necessarily built with outdoor volleyball in mind, assembling outdoor volleyball courts couldn’t be easier. Schools already have portable nets and paint markers for lining the grass, and with ample green space and facilities such as baseball and softball fields not in use during the fall, there’s plenty of room to find a playing area.
“We’ve set up two courts and can even tie some rope together for an additional court,” said MDI head coach Corey Papadopoli, whose team is playing and practicing on the school’s softball field. “Even with that, we still have a lot of room left over.”
Volleyball, a sport that’s been surging in participation statewide in recent years, has lost little to no momentum despite the postponement of the indoor season. Although some players have opted for other sports, Calandro and Papadopoli both said their teams have healthy rosters of roughly 30 girls.
Many of those players were convinced that a fall volleyball season wouldn’t come together in any capacity. Nevaeh Warren, a member of a large MDI senior class, is happy to be playing any way she can after the pandemic left the entire fall sports slate in peril.
“I didn’t think we would get any season at all, indoor or outdoor, but I think we’re all happy they were able to make it work,” Warren said. “We really wanted just to be able to have something, and it’s great that we can even be playing again.”
The elements, unfortunately, have cut a few practices short; rain last week resulted in Ellsworth and MDI practicing just twice, a circumstance that would not have arisen during an indoor season. Even on days without rain, wet or matted grass prevents players from getting the natural spring they receive when leaping from the gymnasium floor.
Still, playing outdoors has its benefits. Whereas gyms can get hot and stuffy at any time during the year, the cool late-September and early-October weather to date has provided a bit of a reprieve for players during periods of physical exertion.
“We’re used to being inside in the gym, obviously, but it’s good to be out here, too,” said MDI senior Victoria Del Cid. “When you’re working hard and sweating, it’s nice when it’s cooler and you have a bit of a breeze.”
Between a late start to the season and the MPA restricting the number of countable contests, teams will not be able to play their traditional 14 matches. Ellsworth and MDI will instead play six matches each, and Bucksport and GSA are scheduled to play five and three, respectively.
Those matches will be played over a 16-day period that began Tuesday and will end Oct. 21, meaning the outdoor volleyball season will be remarkably short by any standards. Yet with the MPA looking to offer indoor volleyball in the late winter or early spring, there’s a chance that Maine teams get two seasons out of the 2020-21 school year.
“That would be great, if it happens,” Calandro said. “If it does, it’s going to be in that transition period between winter and spring sports. We have a few other kids who play other fall sports that have said they’re interested in the spring, so we might have even more bodies than usual.”
Matches began Tuesday as MDI hosted Bucksport in the 2020 season opener. The action will resume today, Oct. 8, with Bucksport hosting GSA at 3:30 p.m. and MDI hosting Brewer at 4. Wednesday’s scheduled contest between Ellsworth and MDI was called off because of rain.
Competing in the raw elements of the outdoors and without the noise of spectators or the echo of gymnasiums, players competing in those matches will experience an atmosphere unlike any they’ve taken in before. As long as there’s a ball and a net, though, few are going to complain about the moments spent playing their favorite sport.
“You might say it’s not ideal, but what today is ideal?” Papadopoli said. “We’re excited we can even be doing this, and any time we can get playing is something we’re going to take advantage of.”