Participation in high school sports nationwide experienced its first drop in 30 years for the 2018-19 school year.
Girls’ volleyball, however, is one of the outliers.
At Greater Lawrence Tech, a record 98 players signed up for coach Rob Mahoney’s program. On the first day of tryouts, 74 candidates reported. Thirty-nine players were assigned to the freshman, junior varsity, and varsity teams. Mahoney had 55 players at tryouts last year. In his previous stint at Notre Dame-Tyngsborough, he had 27 players in 2004.
Of the 98 who signed up, 78 were freshmen and sophomores.
The increase is the product of a larger trend.
According to the report from the national federation (NFHS), volleyball is now the top girls’ team sport in the country, with 452,808 participants in 16,572 schools. Only outdoor track & field has more. Volleyball added 6,225 participants from last year and nationwide participation has increased eight percent over the last seven years.
“Volleyball now has become a year-round thing,” said Mahoney before Greater Lawrence’s 3-1 loss to Whittier Tech on Wednesday.
“You go to the NCAA [tournament] there’s girls’ doubles volleyball. They even play outdoors on the beaches. Volleyball has definitely taken off.”
Schools across the region have also experienced similar levels of interest and increased numbers for the sport, which was introduced in Holyoke, approximately 100 miles, in 1895.
“When volleyball was first created it was created . . . as a sport for basketball players, to give them something to in the offseason,” Mahoney said.
Acton-Boxborough coach Darren Gwin, who also coaches the school’s boys’ program, had to create a second junior high school program, separating them into seventh and eighth-grade squads to account for the increased interest. A-B has had a junior high program for four years, one which has helped them be one of the top teams in the Dual County League year after year.
“The last two years, the numbers have been exorbitant,” said Gwin, who had 49 players last year and 53 this season. “The [one] junior high team had a negative impact [on participation] and we’ve worked to change that.
“[Volleyball] is extremely popular at younger ages in other parts of the country. You can see it in other parts of the country. Until recently, that hasn’t existed in New England.”
Boston Latin coach Kai Yuen has coached volleyball for 39 years, including the last 21 at Latin BLS for 21, and with the SMASH volleyball club for the last 12. He attributes the growth at the club level to growth nationwide.
Boston Latin regularly has 80-90 players try out and had 128 five years ago.
“There’s so much of a need for [club volleyball] now and the facilities are getting better around here,” Yuen said. “Every club that I look at, they’re doing cuts full of people.
And of course, popularity is a byproduct of winning.
That’s been the case for coach Tom Turco and Barnstable, a program which has won the last nine Division 1 South sectional titles, with six state championships in that stretch. The Red Raiders welcomed 72 players on the first day of tryouts, a number that Turco said is “way up.”
“If a school does well and they win a state championship, they always reap the benefits,” Turco said.
Turco also believes the constant momentum swings in volleyball attract players to the sport. Unlike soccer and field hockey, there’s continuous action and few, short breaks in between points.
“There’s a point on every single play. You don’t get that much in sports,” Turco said.
■ Like stepfather, like stepson? Lucas Coffeen, who coached the Newton South boys’ volleyball team to the South final last spring, accepted the girls’ coaching position at the school shortly before the season began. His stepfather, Richard Barton, is the longtime Newton North boys’ and girls’ coach. The two met in the boys’ South final last spring., in which North prevailed 3-1. The North and South girls’ teams are not scheduled to play this season.
■ Volleyball has followed football in switching from NCAA rules to national federation rules this season. The changes are minor and some rules were amended. One big rule change: players now must serve within 5 seconds of stepping behind the service line as opposed to eight seconds.
■ In 2021, when the MIAA is expected to transition to statewide tourneys in all sports, girls’ volleyball will expand from three to five divisions. Vocational schools will automatically drop down two divisions from their current division, and can petition the MIAA to drop down a third. Private schools will automatically move up one division. The only defending sectional champion to be affected by the private school rule will be defending Division 3 North champ Austin Prep, which will move to Division 2.
■ In a five-set battle between two of the top teams in the South on Wednesday night, Case took the last two sets to defeat New Bedford, 3-2. Alyssa Storm had 34 assists for Case, last year’s Division 3 South finalists. That’s a statement win to start the season for the Cardinals, defeating last year’s Division 1 South finalists.
Matches to watch
Notre Dame Academy-Hingham at Barnstable, Friday, 4 p.m. — NDA has experienced a couple of subpar years since its loss to Hopkinton in the 2016 Division 2 state final. But their rivalry with Barnstable is always one of the most competitive in the state.
Concord-Carlisle at Acton-Boxborough, Friday, 5 p.m. — The Dual County League has as much parity in girls’ volleyball as it did during the boys’ season; C-C and A-B are two of the early frontrunners.
New Bedford at Dartmouth, Monday, 4 p.m. — New Bedford will try to bounce back from its loss to Case to a Dartmouth team that reached the Division 1 South semifinals last season.
Winchester at Burlington, Tuesday, 5 p.m. — The Dasha Smolina-led Sachems face a tough opening-week matchup with the Red Devils
Melrose at Belmont, Thursday Sept. 12, 5:15 p.m. — A good early-season Middlesex League matchup featuring two of the top teams in Division 1 and Division 2.