Photo by Deborah Bethel
The Civic Memorial and Roxana high school volleyball teams scrimmage at Lewis and Clark Community College.
While most high school students look forward to summer to relax and take a break from school, volleyball players anticipate getting the team back together in the school’s gym to train for the upcoming season.
High school volleyball teams hold voluntary open gyms during the summer to get the players back in shape and back in the mindset of the sport, but only can do so much in regards to playing the game via scrimmaging. Most of the small schools in the area, such as Civic Memorial, Roxana and East Alton-Wood River, have a limited number of students in the sport, so it’s harder for enough players of the same level to scrimmage against one another.
The skills training portion of the summer practices are beneficial, but without playing the game, a player’s speed, ability and stamina are lower than if they would be playing other teams at the same level.
Within the past few years, coaches from Roxana High School and Lewis and Clark Community College have reached out to area coaches to start summer leagues to keep the teams scrimmaging all summer long. In 2011 Mike McKinney, Roxana’s head coach, and JV coach Derek Dempsey came up with the idea to start a summer league to keep the players in competition.
“Instead of playing in tournaments that cost a lot of money or just playing our JV and varsity teams against each other, we thought to find teams in the area that would like to scrimmage every week,” McKinney said.
Initially, seven other teams were asked, but only the varsity teams of Alton, Jersey and Civic Memorial were interested. The four-team league wasted no time getting started, and played one or two one-hour matches every week in Roxana’s gym. After a few years, they started alternating school gyms.
The four varsity teams continued to play this summer league until last year, when former LCCC head volleyball coach Jim Hunstein approached the teams to start a new league that would be played at the River Bend Arena. Starting in the summer of 2015, 10 teams began playing in a six-week league, including Roxana, Carlinville, Alton, Marquette Catholic, Gibault, Jersey, CM, Highland, Christian (O’Fallon, Mo.) and H2 Saint Louis Volleyball Club. These teams have come back again this summer to play in the same league, with the exception of Highland and the addition of EA-WR and Bunker Hill.
“I started the league to help grow volleyball in the area and to help build awareness of the LCCC volleyball program in the community,” Hunstein said. “Plus, it was a great way to get all those high school players and potential recruits in one gym at the same time. Since we give each team T-shirts, there are now 120 or so LCCC volleyball shirts out there in the community.”
This summer, with the 12 teams playing, coaches and players alike are happy with the chance to scrimmage with teams that they wouldn’t necessarily play in the regular season.
“It’s good for them to see different types of hitters, styles, offenses and speeds of the game, and it keeps them constantly learning and giving them that opportunity to observe and play some different competition,” CM coach Amanda Biggs said.
Scrimmaging also is beneficial for the coaches.
“There might be things that I see another team doing that I recognize as something that would work for our team,” Biggs said.
Hunstein starting the league was a win-win for everyone involved. The players benefit by getting to handle the ball over the summer, and Hunstein got to scout for potential Trailblazers.
“It was good for him to see the players during the summer, because our season starts in the fall and so does LCCC’s,” McKinney said.
Even now, after Hunstein accepted a head coaching position at Blackburn College, the league plays every Monday and plans to keep doing so.
“As for this year, I don’t have anything to do with it,” Hunstein said. “I got the teams in and the schedule set before I left. The current LCCC volleyball players are running it and doing a great job, from what I hear. That doesn’t surprise me, knowing those young ladies and how dedicated and committed they are to the overall program there.”
While Hunstein’s summer varsity league expanded what McKinney and Dempsey had created, the two thought once again to start a new league, this time for freshmen and JV teams.
For the first summer of this younger league, the four original teams, CM, Alton, Jersey and Roxana, scrimmage one another for six weeks. The JV and freshmen teams rotate each week so each team gets three weeks of matches to play.
Coaches are excited to get teams other than varsity playing during the summer as well. While there have been leagues for varsity teams for six years, JV and freshmen teams had yet to have one of their own until this year.
“The big thing is that everyone’s getting a chance to play,” McKinney said. “We’re not just telling kids, ‘Hey, go to open gym and we’ll see you in August.’ They’re actually getting the touches and getting used to playing with each other.”
Jersey head coach Bob Siemer also gives his praise to the summer leagues.
“Any time you can get the girls to have a volleyball in their hands, whether it’s passing, serving, etc., it’s going to help you out in the long run,” Siemer said. “The more times they’re in the gym playing, the better off they are.”
In addition to the freshmen and JV summer leagues being started this year, Roxana also started an eighth-grade league to be played every Thursday at Roxana for five weeks. It started June 16. The league includes play between Trimpe (Bethalto) and Illini (Jerseyville) middle schools, St. Francis Holy Ghost (Jerseyville), Lewis and Clark (Wood River) and Roxana.
“The whole idea for the initial league was to get our kids as much opportunity to improve their skills against nearby rivalry schools,” McKinney said. “It became evident that this was doing wonders for the girls and allowing coaches to see where their individual players’ and teams’ strengths were and weaknesses as well. I believe these types of leagues can only aid in the development and skill progression for the young ladies who play the sport.”
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