East Lothian has found success in volleyball by adopting Dutch club structures. Roddy Mackenzie reports
Margaret Ann Fleming has big plans for Tranent. "This is an ideal location for a national volleyball team to be based as there are tremendous facilities here. If there was a Scotland women's team, there would be no better place for them to be sited," says East Lothian's development officer for volleyball.
Edinburgh traditionally has been one of the strongest Scottish volleyball-playing communities but until four years ago there was little evidence of it being played in areas around the capital.
Then, in 1996, East Lothian Council appointed six sports development officers - for rugby, swimming, football, badminton, hockey and volleyball (after the Scottish Volleyball Association put a strong case for its inclusion instead of basketball). The success of the scheme has been marked and last year the council agreed another three-year contract with the six sports officers.
Miss Fleming says: "The beauty of taking on my job was that I had a clean sheet of paper on which to work. It was quite intimidating at the time but I did not have to deal with any political in-fighting from established volleyball clubs as there was only one, Aberlady Bays.
"It meant I could put my own structure in place and I've based it on the Dutch model. I've been over to the Netherlands as a player and a coach and their club structures are amazing. They have nursery school teams right through to grandparents' teams and they all feed off each other."
Now East Lothian is "effectively the biggest volleyball club in Great Britain", she says.
When Miss Fleming took up her post, only six of the 32 primary schools in the area and one of the six secondary schools (Preston Lodge High) had played any volleyball. Now all the primaries play the game and the six secondaries have it on their curriculum. "Knox Academy, in Haddington, will offer a Higher grade course in volleyball next term for the first time and four of the others offer Standard grade," she enthuses.
"From a club point of view," Miss Fleming says: "Aberlady Bays now have two district league teams, East Lothian Jets have four national league sides with a fifth on the agenda for next season, East Lothian Falcons have three junior national league teams with a fourth to follow next season, nd a new club, Bass Rockets, who are based in North Berwick, have 26 to 28 adults playing recreationally every week." Now there are proposals to organise a recreational league for adults in the near future, "It all goes hand-in-hand with a coach education programme in the area, so everything is coming together."
When the Rucanor Jets moved from Edinburgh last summer to base themselves at the Meadowmill Sports Centre in Tranent, the area became a focal point for first division volleyball. The club's men's and women's first teams were prominently placed in the Scottish League and Jets women won the league title in 1999.
Miss Fleming reckons that having such a strong club set-up in East Lothian moved her development plans forward by 10 years. It also means the area's best junior players have somewhere to go when they mature to that level.
"We can hold on to the talent we develop in the area and the best players do not need to go to Glasgow or Dundee to join national league clubs," she explains. "Even if our players go to university, they can still return at weekends to play for the national league teams.
"We already have young players breaking through, with two Preston Lodge pupils, 16-year-old Jill Runciman and 17-year-old Martin Johnston, coming through to their respective Jets men's and women's first teams."
East Lothian is starting to stage prestigious events at Meadowmill. The Scottish Junior Open on May 21 attracted more than 500 schoolchildren to Tranent, with 20 outdoor and three indoor courts in operation, even after nine senior teams pulled out when the Higher chemistry and English exams were scheduled for the Monday and Tuesday after the event. It was the biggest outdoor junior volleyball competition ever staged in Scotland.
Though the game is now firmly established in East Lothian, Miss Fleming is still pursuing new avenues of development. In July, beach volleyball for secondary school pupils will be on offer three times a week in North Berwick. Beach volleyball is a medal sport in the Olympic Games and Scotland had a representative in the last Games in Atlanta. Audrey Cooper, of Whitburn, West Lothian, finished ninth with her English partner, Amanda Glover, and is on course to qualify for her second Games appearance, in Sydney this summer. Perhaps a future medal winner will come from East Lothian.