AUGUSTA — Two games remain on the Cony volleyball team’s schedule, but for all intents and purposes, the Rams start the playoffs against Ellsworth on Saturday.

Ranked 11th in the Class A Heal points standings, the 3-9 Rams were six points behind Thornton Academy for the 10th and final postseason bid as of Thursday afternoon. Pending Thornton’s match with Biddeford last night, a win at home against Ellsworth on Saturday (11:30 a.m. game time) could get them in. A win at home against powerful Mount Desert Island on Monday would certainly extend their season.

The Rams know the task before them is difficult, but they are optimistic. They are coming off a strong performance against Yarmouth, the No. 1 team in Class B. They took a set from Ellsworth in its home gym earlier in the season and tend to raise their level of play against the best teams, especially on defense.

“The defense is definitely our strength,” said Emily Russell, an outside hitter and senior co-captain. “It’s going to take great defense to beat both (Ellsworth and MDI) because they have unreal serves and hits. But if our defense is on top as I know it can be, then we should have a chance.”

That the Rams are even fighting for a playoff berth in the final week of the season is a bit of a surprise. Last year’s team finished 7-8 and made it as far as the preliminary round, then was gutted by graduation.

Outside of their four senior co-captains, Russell, Courtney Mills, Erica LaPlante and Kelsey Rohman, and a couple of veteran juniors, the team is comprised mostly of players who started the season with very limited or no competitive volleyball experience. Of the 21 girls on the roster, 10 are freshmen.

“We’ve obviously revamped this year,” said coach Dennis Dacus, in his third year as the Rams’ coach. “I had six solid veterans, two juniors and four seniors. A couple of the new juniors picked it up pretty well, and a couple of freshmen have proven they can play at this level.”

As the only MPA-sanctioned team in central Maine, the Rams are at a competitive disadvantage compared to the other two dozen teams in the state. Most of those teams are from the Portland area or Downeast, so they are able to play against each other in summer programs and have their players join a variety of club and AAU teams.

“There are no opportunities off-season for these girls to play,” Dacus said. “If there were six teams within 25 miles of us, like a Winthrop or a Hall-Dale or Gardiner, then you know someone is running an AAU program or a big-time summer program. These girls, the only chance they have to play outside of what we do is Portland or Downeast, which is an hour-and-a-half one way and two hours the other.”

“The schools down in the south, they play year-round,” said Mills, a senior outside hitter. “We only play through the fall and some over the summer, but we don’t play as much as they do.”

To try to close the gap somewhat over the summer, Dacus would open the gym twice a week and his captains would organize practices and intrasquad games. The sessions gave newcomers an idea of what to expect and helped build team chemistry.

“We had a lot of new people playing, even ones who weren’t freshmen,” said LaPlante, a middle blocker. “When preseason started, we tried to integrate drills with them and partnered with them to kind of get the team spirit going so they could see what Cony volleyball was all about.”

Right now, it seems to be all about getting bigger. The Rams have had their ups and downs in the standings the last few years, but interest in the program has been building.

“When I was a freshman, we almost couldn’t have a team because there weren’t enough girls,” Russell said. “(The numbers) almost doubled since I was a freshman. It’s definitely growing.”

A big win or two to finish the season could spark another growth spurt.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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