Thursday’s volleyball match at North Kingstown High School was intense, with two rivals going at it in front of a big crowd. After it ended, several South Kingstown players made their way to the North Kingstown side while the Skippers were packing up.
And they hugged.
Rivals in the fall, they’re teammates for the rest of the year with the South County Juniors volleyball club. In its fifth year, the growing club has become a family for players from North Kingstown, South Kingstown and many other schools.
“They play eight months a year with each other,” North Kingstown High School coach Brian Garrepy said. “It’s a real family experience. We’ve got kids coming in to our practices, walking in from La Salle, because they’re having a sleepover with their friends down here.”
It’s a family that’s also doing a lot of winning. North Kingstown is the top team in the state. South Kingstown has the second-best record in Division I. The majority of players on both teams play with the club.
South County Juniors players have also helped Prout have a bit of a resurgence this year and have provided an injection of young talent at Narragansett. East Greenwich also features many members of the club and is annually one of the top teams in Division II. Portsmouth, Cranston West and La Salle are among the other schools to benefit.
The club was started in 2015 by North Kingstown’s Mike Harrington, the longtime coach at Bishop Hendricken. His daughter, Jaime, had been around the sport since she could walk, watching games at Hendricken and Pilgrim, where her mother, Kelly, was the head coach. She had played club volleyball growing up, but she decided she wanted to start something new with a group of friends.
It exploded from there.
“The plan was to start small with one team, with Jaime and her friends,” Harrington said. “Then [North Kingstown assistant coach] Corey Maack said, ‘I’ve got a younger daughter, why don’t we start a team for her age group?’ Word kind of spread quick. People wanted to know what we were doing. We held a tryout and ended up with 100 kids, 60 on competitive teams and 40 for our in-house, young programs. And now we’re up to about 300 families, with boys, girls and younger kids.”
The club competes in the New England Region Volleyball Association. Last season, its competitive girls teams won 25 NERVA gold medals, more than any club in New England.
There are other successful clubs in the state, but with volleyball’s popularity growing, there was room for more. According to the National Federation of High Schools, volleyball is now the second-most popular sport for girls nationwide. Boys volleyball is one of the fastest growing sports in the country.
A club with South County as a home base had built-in potential. There’s a tradition of success in both boys and girls volleyball at the high school ranks, and there’s also a large coaching tree. The club has tapped into the talent on the court and the sidelines.
Local high schools are seeing the fruits of the off-season labor.
“Kids are playing volleyball now at 11, 12, 13 years old, so when they’re walking in the gym, more and more players are coming in with experience,” Garrepy said. “Years past, we’d get a basketball player who was looking for an off-season sport, or we’d try to get some soccer players to come out. Now we’re getting volleyball players. The club has a major impact.”
Players benefit, too. With the club only in its fifth year, the alumni list is still relatively short, but it currently features 12 players in the college ranks, including South Kingstown High School graduate Molly Pincince at Division I Central Connecticut State.
While college destinations and championships are welcome, the family atmosphere persists as the club’s dominant feature.
“It’s not even just the volleyball,” said North Kingstown High School senior Clara Oates. “It’s also the social aspect. We know so many girls on SK and a bunch of other teams. It’s pretty much every time we play, we know somebody.”
With his daughter on the court, Harrington watches every North Kingstown match. He cheers for the Skippers – and for plenty of players on the opposite side of the net.
“The best part of it is seeing these girls who are teammates with the club, playing against each other,” Harrington said. “It’s a lot of fun. Everywhere I go, I can’t wait to see the players from our club.”