PITTSFIELD -- St. Joseph's volleyball player Virginia Goggins had to stifle a giggle when she was asked if she was a volleyball veteran when she first went out for the varsity team.
"No, I hadn't played," she said.
Volleyball, unlike every other ball-based team sport, is a varsity sport where the players learn the game as much as refine their skills.
"One of the problems is that volleyball played in middle school or in the gym is kids slapping the ball around," Monument Mountain coach Steve Piazzo said. "With a game like soccer, kids are four or five years old when you roll the ball out."
Soccer has its extensive youth programs; baseball has Little League and Cal Ripken for young players; and youth basketball has programs that go all the way down to kindergarten. Even recent growth sports, girls' softball and lacrosse for boys and girls, now have more extensive youth programs up and down Berkshire County.
The Pittsfield Catholic Youth Center runs a youth volleyball program and schools like Lee, Lenox and Mount Greylock get an opportunity to develop young players thanks to the fact that seventh and eighth graders can play on junior varsity teams since they are in the same building with varsity programs.
Volleyball players actually do participate in the sport in elementary and middle school, but not to the extent of a player on a varsity or junior varsity team.
"It's completely different learning the positions,
Rachel Cogswell is a captain at Lenox. Like Goggins, Cogswell had no idea of what varsity volleyball would be like until she started playing at Lenox. Cogswell's history with volleyball was in gym class or maybe at a family picnic.
"It was actually really exciting for me," she said of her first days as a volleyball player at Lenox. "It was just something that I could pick up and learn. I could figure out ways to dive on the ground and hit balls really hard and being able to have fun with a sport."
A seventh grader when she began, Cogswell is now a mainstay on a Lenox team that is in the thick of the battle for a Berkshire County volleyball championship and a berth in the Western Mass. Division III tournament.
She said that while there is no youth program in Lenox, some of the veterans on the Lenox varsity have formed what one might call a buddy system to teach the incoming Millionaires how to play.
"A bunch of the varsity players this past year helped the incoming seventh graders with the basics -- how to set, how to pass -- over the summer," said Cogswell. "They kind of get the feel of how to do it. Hopefully, that will continue and they'll have a way to learn how to do it before they get thrown into it."
Lenox coach Ed Paquette said for him, and other coaches, it does feel a little like starting over every year. Paquette added, however, that some of his new players don't start at the same disadvantage as his earlier athletes did.
"Some of them have no experience. Others have played in the CYC," he said. "Some of them just play in the backyard. During the summer, there's a lot of volleyball happening in Berkshire County that wasn't available to students, probably even five years ago."
That's what Piazzo said he sees when he drives around Pittsfield. It's something he'd like to see in Great Barrington and elsewhere.
"They have outdoor courts and I see them playing on the courts all summer," the Monument coach said. "You need something like that."
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