Between AAABA and sandlot baseball, softball, tennis and roller hockey along with any number of walkers, Johnstown’s Roxbury Park is a beehive of activity on most summer evenings.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the summer, the activity level ratchets up another notch as 60 teams in the seven leagues of the Greater Johnstown Volleyball Club hit the sawdust. The league serves up play at the end of May and will continue into the beginning of August.
The volleyball club attracts a wide variety of players and there are leagues for boys, men, women, junior high girls and high school girls as well as two coed leagues, which covers a wide age-range of participants.
“The majority of players that aren’t in high school or junior high are probably in their 30s or 40s, but we also have adults who are into their 60s and occasionally older,” said Denny Cruse, the director of the league for the past 19 years. “They usually start here in high school.
“We get all types of people that play in the league. We have leagues for the more experienced players and recreational leagues for the less experienced. We have different levels for adults. They can just be a beginner just learning the game or women that play in the women’s league that are some of the best college players in the area.”
The idea to expand volleyball play in Johnstown blossomed when Cruse and league president Don Civis asked the city for permission to use a drainage area at Roxbury Park that was not being utilized. In 1978, the club constructed one court by hand and, two years later, the city brought in a backhoe to help install two additional courts. In 1983, the city helped the club construct the final two courts and, using fees that had been charged to the teams to play, the club installed lights for all five courts.
“We asked permission to use the land here, which was basically a drainage area for the tennis courts and softball field,” Cruse said. “The city agreed to it. As the interest grew, we had five courts. At one time, we actually had a portable sixth court that we set up, but the AAABA took over that area (for the batting cage).”
Many of the players in the leagues have been involved with the sport at various levels throughout their lives.
“When I was a youngster, we used to go to my church camp, Pine Springs, and we played volleyball out there and our whole family would go on Sundays every week out there with other families from our church,” Cruse said.
Terry Lyons of the Gunby Trucking team in the Men’s Four League also became interested in volleyball because of family.
“My parents were into it and my sister, who was older than me, played in high school,” said Lyons said, who learned about the Roxbury league in high school when he played at Richland. “I have been playing for almost 20 years since I was 14.”
There are generally six players to the side, much like high school or college volleyball, except in the men’s league, which has four.
And, because of weather, the outdoor ball is bigger and heavier.
“The wind, the sun, weather conditions - we play when it rains - as long as it’s a light rain, you can play,” Cruse said. “The down side of that is for the younger kids, it’s sometimes harder to get the ball over the net on their serve, but they usually learn to adapt to it. It could help give them a stronger serve when they use the smaller ball. Passing and setting it will help strengthen your arms a little bit.”
The High School Girls League acts as a set-up for many teams for the fall.
“Some coaches come and hang with their teams, but some of the teams come down here on their own,” said Cruse, who is a volleyball referee in the fall. “The coach sort of lets them do their own thing because this is more of a fun league for them. What I always tell them is in high school, they go to a match and they warm up for an hour and play like 20 or 30 minutes and here, you warm up for five minutes and play for an hour so it’s a lot more fun and is not as intense and there is not the pressure of the high school season.
“You can see them down here laughing and having fun with each other. When it comes down to the playoffs, the intensity increases again. It basically keeps them in touch with the sport during the offseason. At the conclusion of our season, the fall season starts for high school so they are still in touch with the game.”
Cruse said that interest spiked in the volleyball leagues in the 1980s and 90s.
“I have to say that there are not as many participants as we’ve had in the past,” Cruse said. “We probably had 15 to 20 teams a night up here. It’s not as strong probably because of less population through the years. There’s also less interest in all sports throughout the area than there used to be.”
Lyons and Cruse said that the league builds camaraderie among the players.
“These are like your friends now,” Cruse said. “The sport is a lot of fun and that’s what keeps bringing people back.
“Another thing is that for the adults, a lot of people played basketball or football in high school and volleyball is something that they can continue to play. They don’t usually play basketball or football after college, but we have a lot of people that are way beyond that and still play. It gets them out a night and gives them some exercise. That’s one good aspect of it.”
Lyons said he is going to continue to play as long as he can.
“As long as somebody wants me on their team, I’m going to play,” Lyons said. “It’s awesome.”