ELLSWORTH — For Ella Hubbard, volleyball season has always been a sign of fall’s arrival. This year, unfortunately, was different.
As an indoor sport and a moderate-risk activity under the state’s guidelines on community sports, volleyball, an activity that’s been surging in popularity at the high school level in recent years, could not be played in Maine this fall. Instead, the sport had to be played outdoors as part of a modified season in which practices and games were delayed by several weeks.
“It was definitely pretty tough,” said Hubbard, a senior player at Ellsworth High School. “It was our first sports season in the new school year, and it was hard not being able to have a normal season for my senior year.”
Since playing matches in unusual outdoor settings, Hancock County volleyball players have been holding out hope that an indoor season would materialize in early 2021. After a five-month wait, that season will begin with the first practices Monday, Feb. 22.
A volleyball season in the late winter and early spring was first floated as a possibility in early September after state agencies disapproved of the Maine Principals’ Association’s plans to offer the sport indoors in the fall. Those plans progressed in November as the MPA announced Feb. 22 as its target date to begin a potential season.
Earlier this month, players, coaches and administrations got the official word that the 2021 season was a go. Since then, teams have been scheduling games and planning the first practices as players eagerly await the first opportunity to take the floor.
“We’re all really excited about it,” said Ellsworth junior Jocelyn Jordan. “We had all hoped back in the fall that it would happen, and now that it’s almost here, it’s one of those things that makes everything feel a bit more normal. We can’t wait to get started.”
Teams participating in the eight-week intersession season are eligible to play a maximum of 10 matches, slightly less than the usual 14. The first countable matches can be held March 5, and teams must conclude regular season play by April 9 and regional postseason play (should postseason tournaments be offered) by April 16.
Most players set to play volleyball this spring also took part in the modified outdoor season in the fall. Although playing in the elements was a different experience for athletes accustomed to playing the sport indoors, Hubbard said the abbreviated campaign was fairly productive.
“We had never really played volleyball outside before, and it was windy on most days, but it was good to at least be able to play,” Hubbard said. “We got some solid work in and were able to spend time as a team, and that’s something we can build on.”
With volleyball not sponsored at the same level statewide as some other sports, teams often find themselves traversing the state to play matches. Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island frequently travel to Augusta to take on Cony and the Portland area to face teams such as Deering, Greely and Yarmouth, and Bucksport and Sumner play regular contests against North Yarmouth Academy and Lake Region.
Under current state guidelines, though, teams are only permitted to play opponents from their own counties and adjacent counties. That means local schools will be limited to matches against their fellow Hancock County teams as well as opponents in Penobscot and Washington counties. Volleyball is not currently offered at any Waldo County schools.
“It’s going to have more of a local feel to it,” said George Stevens Academy co-coach Bonnie Marckoon. “My expectation is that it’s going to be more of a developmental time for us, and it’ll be a good chance for them to get in some playing time in the gym after the fall.”
Volleyball is set to commence as the traditional winter sports slate continues into late February and early March. Basketball, indoor track and swimming are still ongoing at Hancock County schools, and the potential conflicts will grow in the weeks ahead as cheer teams continue preparations for the conference and state championship meets.
For Hubbard and Jordan, who also play for the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team, that overlap will create a significant scheduling crunch in the coming weeks. Yet after a year in which many sporting opportunities were taken away from them, the two aren’t complaining about the chance to participate in two activities at once.
“It’s going to be hard, but I’m definitely going to do both sports,” Hubbard said. “It’ll take some balancing, but after everything that’s happened [over the past year], we’re going to embrace being able to play and all be together in both sports.”
Although Hubbard and Jordan are the only Ellsworth basketball players committed to volleyball at the moment, the two have been trying to persuade their hoops teammates to join them. With no fall sports to coincide with the indoor season this time around, Jordan is hoping the Eagles can get some new recruits this year.
“This year is the best year to try something new, so I’m definitely hoping we can get some more people to come out,” Jordan said. “With the way things are, you don’t know when things are going to get shut down, so you want to take advantage of everything that you can.”
The risk of a sports stoppage, as Jordan noted, will be a risk as long as COVID-19 remains a pandemic. Yet after watching the progression of winter sports, Marckoon is hopeful that the season can unfold smoothly.
“I’m optimistic,” Marckoon said. “The schools have all done an excellent job of keeping people safe, and I think the rollout of the vaccine is going to help as well. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get a good season in.”