Eric Maxwell's volleyball career began in the backyard of the Eagleswood Township home where he grew up.
He got hooked on the game and was determined to play anywhere. Maxwell and older brother Charles used a clothesline as a net.
Maxwell, 46, has relied on that passion to build one of the region's most successful high school programs regardless of sport.
The Southern Regional boys and girls teams have become state powers under his leadership. Maxwell didn't have a tradition of success to lean on. He founded the boys program and took over the girls team in its fourth season.
The Southern boys (21-5 this season) are the two-time defending state champions. Maxwell won his 300th career game as boys coach last week. His career record is 302-72.
He has 251 career wins with the girls, who won the state Group IV title in 2008.
"It's really about all the players I've coached," Maxwell said. "There's nothing that bonds you closer than being in competition together."
Maxwell, a graduate of Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, grew up playing basketball and baseball. He got involved in volleyball, playing in local leagues, when he was a senior.
Once he started playing, there was almost nowhere he wouldn't go for a tournament or competition. Maxwell played beach volleyball throughout New Jersey and in Long Island, N.Y., and Ocean City, Md.
"It's a quick game," Maxwell said. "There's not a lot of down time. It's not like being an outfielder waiting for the ball to come to you."
Maxwell got a job teaching in the Southern Regional school district in 1999. The school was starting its volleyball programs. Maxwell coached the boys. His sister-in-law Cathy Maxwell coached the girls. The Rams were the first Shore Conference team to field a volleyball team.
"It's neat to know that the first practice we ever had was the first time the program ever existed," Maxwell said. "To be there from day one gives you an even more important, special feeling of accomplishment."
Southern finished 5-11 in 2000 - its first season. The Rams haven't had a losing season yet.
"I saw potential (that first season)," Maxwell said. "I said these kids are really taking to the game."
The Rams went 17-9 in their second season. Maxwell took over the girls team in the fall of 2002.
Ryan Fredrickson, a 2005 Southern graduate, was one of the Rams' first standout players. He went on to play at Springfield College, where he helped that school win the 2008 Division III national title. Fredrickson is now Maxwell's assistant.
"He's a huge part of my life," Fredrickson said. "He teaches players great volleyball skills and life skills. He is a guy you can go to about any situation, volleyball related or not."
Maxwell takes players who have never played volleyball before or who are burned out on more conventional sports, such as soccer and basketball.
"They're looking for something," Maxwell said, "and they jump into volleyball."
Current standout Ryan Logue is the typical Southern player. He, like Fredrickson, never played before high school.
"I just figured I'd try it," Logue said. "It looked fun."
Maxwell, according to Fredrickson, has a way of reaching beach kids or surfer kids and turning them into volleyball players.
"Maybe they didn't have a good time playing other sports or they might have never played sports," Fredrickson said, "but he finds what's good in them."
Many of the Southern players end up playing year-round for the Southern Ocean Volleyball Club headed by Maxwell's brother Charles. Alumni often visit the team when home from college.
Maxwell designs his practices to be fun and competitive. He wants players coming to practice because they want to not because they have to.
"That doesn't mean it's not hard," he said. "You can get a lot better by playing the game. Some coaches have the philosophy you have to drill, drill, drill. There's some truth in that. You can't afford to cut corners, but you have to let the kids play."
Southern has maintained success despite volleyball's growing popularity. There are now 16 Shore Conference schools that play boys volleyball.
The pioneers of a sport, like Southern, are often eclipsed by newcomers as the sport becomes more popular.
"It gets harder and harder," Maxwell said. "I work harder now. When I feel teams are catching up, I'm going to work a little harder. I think I've been able to instill that in our kids."
Often because of its success, Southern isn't the most popular team around.
Maxwell doesn't hide his feelings during a match. He is intense and passionate on the sidelines - a trait that when combined with Southern's success irritates many opponents.
The Southern players like their coach just as he is.
Logue said Maxwell's intensity shows he's got his players' backs.
"I think all the players that have played for him would say they love his style of coaching," Fredrickson said. "From the outside, a lot of people don't understand it. But when you're part of it, the passion he brings every day means he's going to fight for his players no matter what."
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