Williamsport preparing to start volleyball program.

By: Jon Gerardi | Williamsport Sun-Gazette | May 23, 2018

 

Kristin Whitehead didn't stray too far from the two volleyball nets set up in Williamsport High School's gym. As she watched some of the school's girls during the practice session, she'd routinely walk up to a player after they passed to a teammate during drills and give her advice.

For about 20 minutes all Whitehead did was talk to as many girls as she could, telling them how they can improve their skills. This is a a building year for Williamsport, which will have a girls volleyball team for the first time this fall, and Whitehead is laying the foundation for the program as the team's head coach.

Whitehead has been coaching any girl who has shown up for the team's open gym sessions throughout the month. It's a role she's excited to have as she imparts the basics of the sport to the players.

"I wanted to definitely be a part of it, I wasn't entirely certain I wanted to be the head coach at first, but I took some time thinking about it and when it came to it, I was like 'you know, I think I can do this. I think I can go out there and teach them,'" Whitehead said. "We'll definitely have to start at the lower fundamentals. Not like we're walking in and taking over a well-developed high school program, so I thought it'd be an easier transition start all the way at the bottom fundamental line."

Whitehead is an Ohio native who was a four-year volleyball player at Lycoming College and played in over 100 sets each year. She was a MAC Academic Honor Roll honoree her last three years, finished second in school history with 77 service aces and ended with 1,601 digs.

Having played volleyball in high school and college, Whitehead was glad to see Lycoming County finally get a varsity high school volleyball team. Williamsport will have the 16th girls volleyball program in District 4 when it begins play, but just the first in Lycoming County.

"That's one thing that I didn't like when I ended up staying in the area is that there's no volleyball here. It's actually really interesting that we have two colleges that both have a volleyball team, but there's no volleyball in our county," Whitehead said. "So the fact that we're starting to bring it in and we're going to grow this and (Williamsport atlhetic director Sean McCann has said that there's a couple other schools in the area that are interested as well and once we get started, they want to get started. So I think we're going to have a big boom here, so it's really exciting."

In 2016, Williamsport surveyed seventh through 11th graders asking which sports they currently participated in and which ones they would want to participate in if the district offered it. The one sport that stood out above the rest was volleyball.

"After discussing the interest in volleyball, our athletic committee met and decided that we wanted to move forward and try to implement a program for the students," McCann said.

Williamsport's athletic committee and administration had been working on developing the volleyball program for roughly a year. This past fall, Williamsport superintendent Dr. Tim Bowers gave the approval to incorporate volleyball into the budget for the 2018-19 school year and begin building a volleyball program.

"We had a couple meetings with the high school and middle school and we did sign-up sheets and we had kind of overwhelming numbers," Whitehead said. "We had maybe 40 from the high school and 60 from the middle school that came to the meeting. So having a mix of 40 girls on the different days at different times is a really good turnout."

The interest in those surveys translated into participation numbers early during the open gym sessions. In the sixth open gym session, there were 20 girls practicing. The week before there were close to 30 girls in some sessions.

Sophia Erb and Emily Pardee participated because it's a sport they enjoy playing in gym class. Classmate Chloe Erb wanted to be a multi-sport athlete and play another varsity sport. The girls participating in the open gyms have different reasons for joining, but it all boils down to being excited about volleyball.

"I played it down in Texas, so I have past experience with it, and I was really disappointed when I first came here in eighth grade that it wasn't a thing," sophomore Shawna Markle said. "And now that it is a thing up here, I'm really excited."

Williamsport already has been invited to several tournaments. McCann said the school has scheduled matches against schools from Districts 2, 6 and 11 as well.

For now, Whitehead's helping the players get a feel for various positions, ball movement, developing their platform and preparing their setting hands. While it make take some time for the skills of the players to come around, the enthusiasm has been present during practice, and for Whitehead, that's just as important.

"The girls come in gung-ho every day. They're excited to be here, I'm excited to be here. They're so open to learning," Whitehead said. "They're already going after balls when I would think they'd kind of be standing around a little bit more. But we got a lot of good movement from a lot of players and it seems they really want to learn and they're ambitious to get better so we can be competitive in the fall."

At the May 15 school board meeting, installation of sleeves in the gym floor to anchor the posts of the volleyball net, which will occur next month. In July, the lines for the volleyball court and two practice courts will be painted and sealed to the gym floor.

"I thought a lot of people would be intimidated by the fact it's a new sport and they've never played before, but I'm surprised to see how many people have come out and wanted to play a new sport," said Erb, a sophomore.

Players hope the formation of Williamsport's program can nudge other local school to begin programs as well. For now, Whitehead and her players are looking forward to the challenge of taking the program from its infancy and trying to turn it into a contender.

"I'm really excited for it, but I'm just hoping others have the same mindset that we do of actually trying to improve and get better and not just be here to be here," Pardee said. "Like be here to have fun and actually improve."

"I think just facing it head on was the best approach because coach knows what she's doing," Markle said. "She knows how to teach the fundamentals and that's really the most important thing. It's great she's not just throwing us in there, so it's definitely going to be exciting."