LINWOOD – It was a little more than two years ago, but it seems like a lifetime ago in volleyball terms, according to Olivia Goff and Sarah Harvey.
The Mainland Regional High School student-athletes, then sophomores, were on the court that September day as the school's new girls volleyball team began its varsity history in a game against established powerhouse Absegami. It wasn't pretty, according to Goff.
"We lost 25-5 in the first game," Goff said. "We were just in over our heads. We didn't know what to expect. We were just trying to work on our skills, but we were overpowered."
Fast forward to this past Monday, when Goff and Harvey, now seniors, led the Mustangs back on the court against another strong Absegami team. The results were starkly different: though Absegami won by game scores of 25-13 and 25-16, the match was much more competitive. Mainland pulled to within three points in the second game but Absegami drew away behind the play of Adriana Gonzalez (14 assists, four digs and two aces), Kaylin Flukey and Mariyah Betancourt.
Absegami improved to 15-1 while Mainland, now in its third year as a varsity program, fell to 7-8.
"Today I think we really proved that we've evolved as a program," Goff said. "Definitely we can compete."
"We've had a good season so far," said Mainland coach Rick Martin. "We played them really tough. Gami is a good team, undefeated in the CAL. We had some good moments, so I'm really proud of them."
While acknowledging the importance of Goff and Harvey to the program, calling them the "foundation of the team," Martin is already looking forward to next season, when the Mustangs will be loaded with younger players who are already getting valuable experience.
"We're looking to build the team," Martin said. "We don't have any juniors on the team, and our freshmen and sophomores are coming along well. We have some jayvee people that are stepping up a little bit."
Mainland didn't have a jayvee team when the program started in 2015. About 26 girls tried out that first year but only 16 were accepted to play on the varsity. Now, there is a competitive jayvee team at Mainland which also gave its Absegami counterpart a tough struggle before falling by a close score.
"That was a big thing, adding a jayvee team so we could build a foundation for our varsity team," Goff said. "A lot of our varsity girls this year were on jayvee last year, so it was a good way to get them introduced to the sport before they played varsity."
In the Cape-Atlantic League, there are eight schools with girls volleyball teams. New teams at Cedar Creek and Atlantic County Institute of Technology are also having early success.
Harvey said she grew up watching her dad play volleyball, while Goff’s father was an avid volleyball player in college. Harvey and Goff each played on the Belhaven Middle School team in Linwood. They played on the club team at Mainland as freshmen and were involved in getting the sport started as a varsity program. The process included creating a petition to show there was enough interest in the sport and justify the budget needed to fund the program.
"It was definitely hard to get our team going, even though there was a significant amount of interest," Harvey said. "It took us awhile to get to this stage. We had to jump through a lot of hoops."
But that's all in the past. Martin and his assistant coach, Jen Carey, attend middle school volleyball games in Northfield, Linwood and Somers Point, where they talk about the new program and run clinics for the younger players. One of the girls that heard about the program that way is current freshman Frankie Pilli, who is already establishing herself as a strong presence in the middle for the Mustangs.
"I feel like we're progressing a lot, getting better every day," said Pilli, a multi-sport athlete (soccer, basketball,lacrosse) who likes the teamwork that goes into volleyball."With most sports you need to get your own physical and emotional self into the game, but this is all teamwork."
Goff and Harvey said there have been moments of frustration, to be expected with a program just getting off the ground, but those have been transcended by a positive outlook and enthusiasm. "The girls on our team have a really good attitude and work ethic," Goff said. "Everybody tries to improve as an individual so we can better the team."
"We try to teach them not to get down on themselves," Harvey said of the younger girls. "We try to be really positive, just encourage each other, like, 'Get the next point,' because we're so young and we don't want them to get discouraged."
Goff and Harvey are also unofficial "ambassadors" for the sport at Mainland, encouraging other students to try out for the team or at least attend the games.
"Everybody I see, I say, 'C'mon out and play volleyball, it's a lot of fun,'" Harvey said. "A lot of people aren't even aware that we have a team."
"We always say to girls, 'You're so tall, you should play,'" Goff said. "We try to get people to come out and support the games, just trying to get some awareness for the program. We want to make it a big varsity sport at Mainland. We have such big followers of soccer, baseball, basketball and football, and I think volleyball should be right up there with those."