Gorham High volleyball coach Emma Tirrell made roster cuts this fall after 45 players tried out for the team – the first time she’s ever had to do so. Falmouth Coach Larry Nichols experienced the same thing after 40 players tried out.

The popularity of volleyball continues to swell at Maine high schools, even though last fall’s indoor season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Teams did compete in a shortened “bridge season” from February to April, but there were no playoffs and no champions crowned.

Tirrell, who had 15 freshmen out this fall despite the loss of Gorham’s middle school program during the 2020-21 school year, is not surprised by the turnout.

“You hear a lot of girls say how positive it is,” she said of the sport. “It is a positive environment, because you have to play as a team. I think the surge will continue.”

Volleyball was first sponsored by the Maine Principals’ Association in 1997, with most of the teams located in Downeast Maine during the early years. Since then, the sport has exploded in popularity, particularly in southern Maine. In the past seven years, the number of varsity programs in the state has grown from 25 to 44.

Lewiston is fielding a varsity team for the first time this fall, becoming the first Androscoggin County school to play varsity volleyball. Edward Little High in Auburn has launched a junior varsity program in hopes of playing at the varsity level in two years.

“We saw Westbrook and Nokomis in 2019 and Messalonskee and Hampden were new ones last year,” said Michael Bisson, the MPA’s assistant executive director. “Where you’re going to see growth next is from Lewiston to Bangor.”

Veteran players said the teamwork involved in volleyball is helping to drive interest.

“One person can’t carry the team. You have to learn to work together. And you don’t want to bring each other down,” said Scarborough senior Gwen Dorsey.

Dorsey’s teammate, senior Madeline Strouse, said high school volleyball in Maine also has become much more competitive – which makes it far more fun.

“Coaches have mentioned when they were in high school, there were only two or three teams that were good,” Strouse said. “Now, any competition in any town, every match will be tough. And the fun matches are the ones where you fight for every set, and it goes to five sets, and where the student section shows up. Those are the ones we look forward to.”

Yarmouth senior Sophie Dickson, a competitive club player for seven years, thinks there are many reasons the sport continues to surge at Maine high schools, including that the level of play has improved. More fans are coming to matches, she said, and that energy draws younger players to the sport.

“It’s crazy how the sport grew during the pandemic,” Dickson said. “I thought no one would come out for middle school volleyball this year. And 40 girls showed up. It’s crazy.”

Cape Elizabeth Coach Sarah Boeckel, who also had a large freshman turnout this fall despite losing middle-school play last year, believes the intensity of the play will be back at 2019 playoff levels before long.

“I think there are a ton of solid programs with great numbers with great coaching, there’s no question. It will just take some time for our team to really gel,” Boeckel said.

The popularity of the sport also is reflected in the number of former players who are now high school coaches. Tirrell played at Scarborough before graduating in 2015. South Portland Coach Sarah Marckoon played at Ellsworth High and Thomas College before coming to South Portland to coach the junior varsity program in 2015.

Justine Bouthot is a 2011 Biddeford graduate who played for the Tigers and is now an assistant under Coach Ruth Shaw. Bouthot coaches the Biddeford middle school team. It’s an addition to the program that will benefit an already strong Tiger tradition, Shaw said.

“She’s motivating for all of us. She’ll coach the middle school, then practice with the (varsity) later in the day,” Shaw said. “It will really help the high school program.”

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