Rachel Pardi
Deering High School alum Rachel Pardi (No. 2, center) prepares to spike during a recent volleyball match at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. This is the team's first season of intercollegiate competition. (Courtesy SMCC)
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Southern Maine Community College women’s volleyball practices always start the same way.

Coaches and players set up two nets across the basketball court of the Hutchinson Union Building Athletics Center in South Portland, working in unison to get ready for their regular evening practice. Every team-building moment, even a simple one like setting up for practice, is seen as valuable during the program’s first year.

“It is a learning process for all of us for the most part,” said Rachel Pardi, a Portland native and 2020 Deering High School graduate studying liberal arts. ”Traveling to the games, setting up the nets, the practice times, it’s all new to us … but it’s exciting.”

Talia Catoggio
Talia Catoggio (No. 5), of Gorham, is one of six Mainers on SMCC’s inaugural eight-player volleyball roster. (Courtesy SMCC)

SMCC previously had a club volleyball program in the 1980s and 1990s. SMCC women’s volleyball’s 21st century debut season arrived one year later than expected due to the coronavirus pandemic. All intercollegiate athletics in the Yankee Small College Conference, where SMCC is a member, were canceled during the 2020-’21 academic year.

Six of the Seawolves eight players are native Mainers, including Pardi and Talia Catoggio, a 2020 Gorham High School graduate. All eight of the team’s players are first-time collegiate student-athletes.

“I was just really glad there was a team here” Catoggio, a health sciences student, said. “All of the girls are really welcoming.”

SMCC hadn’t added a new varsity program since women’s soccer in 2005, but in recent years the school wanted to expand its athletic offerings.

The administration chose volleyball, and Athletic Director Matthew Richards said the reasons included the sport’s growth statewide in recent years: The number of high school varsity volleyball teams in Maine swelled from 25 to 44 over the past seven years.

“(When thinking about volleyball) we looked at where we could continue to make impacts with athletics,” Richards said. “Part of the way we can assist in athletics is recruiting unique students to campus to help meet enrollment benchmarks, and we felt this was a way we could make a positive impact in that area.”

Building the foundation

SMCC officially announced the team’s launch in March 2020, at about the same time the pandemic took hold.

While the pandemic impacted sports at all levels, SMCC’s volleyball student-athletes sat on the sidelines for all of the 2020-’21 academic year. They did small-group practices, which Pardi and Lauren Kiss, of Lyman, participated in a bit, but their overall engagement was limited.

And in addition to the pandemic, the program faced another obstacle: Danielle Kane, who was hired as the first coach, abruptly left the program in May.

So Richards quickly pivoted and found a new coach by June in Garrett Lewellen, a former college volleyball and basketball player at Ambassador University in Big Sandy, Texas. Lewellen owns and operates Cornerstone Chiropractic and Rehabilitation in Portland, where he treats patients with musculoskeletal disorders.

Lewellen had been coaching with the Saco-based Maine Juniors club volleyball program when he learned of the SMCC opening. He said he enjoys coaching and figured it’d be worth a shot.

Between being a new program and the pandemic, it wasn’t easy to fill out a roster. The team’s eight players are just enough because there are six on the court at a time.

Regardless of that, Lewellen says the program plays a critical role.

“If you think about a teaching institution like Southern Maine Community College, what is the objective of this institution for its students?” he said. “The idea is to provide services and experiences for these kids, not only in the classroom but extracurricularly, and I’m not sure there’s any better place to learn than on a team.”

Making a statement

The excitement leading up to the program’s first match was palpable.

More than 40 SMCC student-athletes from other teams attended in support, watching the Seawolves etch history into the program’s record books with not just their first match, but a 3-1 victory Sept. 16 over Northern Essex Community College of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

“We’re kind of setting the tone for everything,” Pardi said.

The Seawolves went 3-3 over the program’s first six games and have six to go before a potential playoff run. Richards, the athletic director, said he’s pleased with the program’s performance.

“We use the value of athletics here to recruit, engage and retain students,” he said. “Adding volleyball just gives us another opportunity to do that, so it’s a very positive experience for the campus.”

The program gives the players an opportunity they may otherwise never have had. Pardi didn’t plan on playing volleyball collegiately and Catoggio wasn’t sure she would either. Midway through the program’s first season, they agreed it’s been a blast.

“It does feel pretty nice to say I’m a part of a first-year volleyball team,” Catoggio said. “And I want us to be able to make a statement that we’re here and going to do our best.”

Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].