Islands have what it takes to go far
Orkney volleyball club will be the first from outside the mainland to play in the final of the Scottish Women's Plate competition when it faces Edinburgh's Jets II at the Kevin Hall in Glasgow on April 23.
It will be a landmark occasion for the Scottish game and the final stage of a journey that started out in Orkney's two secondary schools, Stromness Academy and Kirkwall Grammar.
All the Orkney players came through the school system and two of the Jets, Mandy Ross and Ruth Fraser, learned the game in Orkney before settling in Edinburgh.
Belinda Warnock, who coaches the Orkney women's team, is a physical education and guidance teacher at Stromness Academy. She first organised volleyball on Orkney after moving from Falkirk 15 years ago. The Orkney Volleyball Association was formed 10 years ago after the game took hold in the two secondary schools and Nick Moody, the former technical director of the Scottish Volleyball Association, was the first senior coach to visit the island.
Organised volleyball does not begin in Orkney until S1 level. "The traditional school sports still dominate, with rugby and football for the boys and hockey and netball for the girls," explains Ms Warnock. "Badminton is also strong and volleyball comes not far behind that."
Last year, a mixed ability league for children and adults was formed with nine teams. "The game is getting stronger all the time," she says.
Both secondary schools include volleyball as part of their Standard grade PE course and Stromness Academy offers it as part of the Higher curriculum.
"The school clubs meet once a week after school but there are also sessions at lunchtimes in the schools," explains Ms Warnock.
"The Orkney women's team trains twice and sometimes three times a week.
"We entered the Scottish Cup tournament this season, but had to forfeit in the first round and so got entry to the Plate.
"We've had to play away from home and there has been a lot of travelling and expense involved, as we played in Edinburgh and Dundee, but it's been worth it.
"We've been lucky in that some of our players who went away came back to live on the island. Usually, it's a case of getting players to a certain level and then losing them as they take up jobs or go to college or university on the mainland."
The Orkney women's and men's teams competed in the biannual international Island Games held in Shetland last summer and have set their sights on competing in the 2007 games in Rhodes. The standard of the competition is strong, but the women's team managed to win two matches last year and this gave them the confidence to go on to enter the Scottish Volleyball Association's Scottish Cup this season.
Ms Warnock admits the financial costs of the women's team playing in a national competition has been heavy, but it has put the area on the map in Scottish volleyball terms.
Vicki Copland, a sports development officer for Orkney Islands Council, plays for the women's team. She has played a big part in bringing on the next generation of volleyball talent.
"The good thing is that everyone is pitching in and it is not all down to me as coach," says Ms Warnock. "Other members of the team are taking on administrative roles and that is what it takes for a club to work."
It is an ideal school-club model, which works in such a tight-knit community.
At a youth festival in Inverness last year, Orkney girls were placed first and the boys second.
Ms Warnock is convinced the local game can only get stronger.
"The SVA's director of coaching, Tommy Dowens, and national development officer, Jenni Lloyd, came last year and that was absolutely brilliant for us," she says.
"Tommy took introductory and level one coaching courses, which were well attended. That has given us ideas which will feed back to the schools and help the next young players coming through."
Whatever the result in Glasgow next month, the game in Orkney will benefit, with island players in both teams.
"I don't think the day is too far off when we will see an Orkney player in the Scotland team," says Ms Warnock. "Already, we've had Kirsty Balfour, who first started playing here in P7, in the Scotland under-16 squad and Amy Cromarty in the under-18 squad.
"Katie Stevenson, who is still at Stromness Academy, was scouted for the under-18 squad last year at the age of 16. She has the attributes, at just under 6ft, to go on to play for Scotland at senior level."