The Absegami High School girls volleyball team is gearing up for the state Group IV playoffs. The Braves just aren't sure when their match will be.
Like many other New Jersey sports, the postseason schedule has been shaken up by Hurricane Sandy. Most New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association playoff games in boys soccer, girls soccer and field hockey have been postponed until next week.
Absegami volleyball coach Kerri Flukey said, the Braves are scheduled to travel to Ridge for their first-round match at 4 p.m. today. She was unsure if the match, which has been rescheduled twice, will get delayed again.
But one thing that isn't up in the air: Absegami is the first team to win a Cape-Atlantic League girls volleyball title.
The Braves (11-8 overall, 9-1 conference) played in the CAL's six-team inaugural season. Middle Township, Oakcrest, Our Lady of Mercy Academy, Pleasantville and St. Joseph also participated.
"They're just so excited. We've had the program for six years, and they finally have something they can achieve instead of looking at the state playoffs. (Success in the state tournament) is not necessarily attainable for my little group of girls," Flukey said.
Coaches and players in the area volleyball community hope a
sanctioned league will help draw attention to the sport, which is slowly growing in popularity in the southern half of the state.
Southern Regional, Barnegat and Lacey Township all have teams in the Shore Conference.
But, prior to this year, CAL schools had two choices. They could operate on an independent schedule or join another conference as an associate member.
Even as associate schools, teams often went unrecognized in their conferences in both matches and all-star lists.
"It was more like an intramural team instead of a recognized sport," Absegami athletic director Steve Fortis said.
The establishment of a Cape-Atlantic League for girls volleyball tremendously eased traveling time and expenses for the six schools. In the past, teams would often have to travel longer than an hour for matches multiple times a week.
Our Lady of Mercy Academy coach Helen Shollenberger understands the stresses of traveling far distances to play a beloved sport.
Growing up in the area, Shollenberger played on coed and women's teams that both played regularly in Delaware or northern New Jersey. The closest gym she played in was for a coed league in Collingswood, but even that sometimes ran too late on weeknights.
Shollenberger's husband Scott is her assistant coach at OLMA. The couple switches duties at St. Augustine Prep, where Scott is the head coach. Pleasantville is the only other CAL school with a boys varsity team.
Girls who play on the area's few club volleyball teams now face each other multiple times during the high school season.
"It's nicer to have that vicinity and have our own division," Shollenberger said. "Hopefully, that will get more interest in the sport in this area farther south (in the state)."
Volleyball enthusiasts like Flukey, Fortis and Shollenberger have hoped to see the sport develop in the area for years.
Why hasn't girls volleyball grown as quickly in the area as it has in the northern half of the state?
Much of the reason is accessibility.
"There's a lack of exposure to it. There are no feeder programs down here," Shollenberger said. "There's no middle school teams. In a lot of other communities, (sports like) soccer start at age 5."
The first CAL season draws attention to a sport that, albeit slowly, is growing in the area. Communities like Galloway Township have built successful PAL leagues.
The Richard Stockton College women's team is the elite program in the New Jersey Athletic Conference and has earned back-to-back NCAA Division III Tournament bids. Beach volleyball is popular among coastal towns.
It is still relatively new to Cape-Atlantic League high schools. Girls volleyball was growing in the area, but budget cuts have hampered expansion, Fortis said.
Like many others, he hopes the start of the CAL will help the sport rebound.
"It's another option for female athletes to say, 'Hey, this (sport) really isn't my cup of tea, but that (volleyball) looks like fun, let me try that,' " Fortis said.
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