Scottish volleyball is taking steps to becoming a tougher international adversary, reports Roddy Mackenzie.
Scottish volleyball stands on the verge of a new era. This month, the Scottish Volleyball Association announced the appointment of its first high performance coach, who will be charged with attempting to make the country more of a force on the international front.
Following the Scottish Football Association's example with Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown, the job has been given to a schoolteacher. Tommy Dowens will leave his post at Shawlands Academy to take up the new appointment, which has been made possible by funding from Sportscotland. Mr Dowens has been coach to the Scotland national men's team for the past 10 years in a voluntary capacity.
There is now a chance that Scotland may have a full-time training squad in the not-too-distant future. Although funding may be a problem, it is the only way forward if the country is to compete equally with other European nations. It would also give school players coming through the ranks a possible career path in the sport.
Evidence that volleyball is thriving at school level was seen at the fifth Glasgow Junior Open last Sunday. A record number of 85 teams and some 500 players took part at two venues - Kelvin Hall and Scotstoun - with 17 courts in operation. Schools from all over the country sent teams to the event, including Orkney's Stromness Academy.
"The popularity of the event is incredible," says Iain Grubb, who has been Glasgow's development officer for the sport for seven years.
"We started off in 1996 at a games hall with 14 teams but now we have reached saturation point. We can't take any more teams without spreading the tournament over two days or bringing in a third venue, which we're a bit loath to do. It's now become a bit of a dilemma, as there are so many teams entering the event."
Mr Grubb, who is the current Scotland captain, believes that not only is the state of Scottish junior volleyball looking good in terms of participation, but the standard of players coming through schools is better than in his day.
The problem for volleyball - and many other sports - has always been keeping players in the sport after they leave school. The downside of volleyball being so well integrated into the school curriculum is that many will see it as a school sport and discard it when they leave.
Mr Grubb believes that if the clubs can become more established and set up stronger junior links (and thee is evidence of this happening already), then a lot of promising players will continue in the game.
"Volleyball has always been popular in the curriculum and I'd say that 85 per cent of the teams that played in the Glasgow Junior Open at the weekend would be playing volleyball in the curriculum," he says. "Most of the teams were from schools.
"There is still a limited number of clubs which are sufficiently organised to take on a lot of junior players. If we had a tenth of the children in the tournament going on to play in the national league, it would make a difference.
"There are more children now taking part in extra-curricular volleyball. There are a number of festivals throughout the country and junior events in places such as Glasgow, East Lothian and Falkirk. Much of that is down to the work started by Rona Brodie when she was appointed team sport co-ordinator by the Scottish Sports Council (now Sportscotland) about eight years ago.
"The standard of players coming through now is higher than before. The young players are starting with the two-a-side game and therefore get more touches on the ball and thus get more chance to develop their skills."
Mr Grubb believes that the appointment of a full-time high performance coach, and having the women's national team revived after a 10-year gap, will also act as spurs to players.
The SVA has run a successful Junior National League for the past couple of seasons and this year has started a Newcomers' League for Under-18 players, aimed at players not quite up to that standard. The move is designed to prevent young players being overawed by the talent at the top end of the junior league and enable them to progress at their own rate.
In a separate initiative, steps are being taken to strengthen club-school links. Four volleyball clubs have been chosen as part of Sportscotland's pilot club development programme which spans 11 sports, explains Ms Brodie.
"South Ayrshire, Queensferry, Renfrew and East Lothian Falcons have all been selected by the Scottish Volleyball Association as part of the three-year programme, which is funded through Sportscotland. Clubs that were organised and well run were looked at and those that showed willingness to try to improve in such matters as coach development, bringing on young players and improving officials.
"It is hoped that after the three years, some of the local authorities will come on board and admit that club structures are important for young people."