Volleyball leader proves an ace

Commissioner: The youth volleyball program has doubled since Mary Jane Rudnicki, known for her encouraging style, took over.

Howard At Play

September 23, 2001|By Carol Sorgen | Carol Sorgen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Mary Jane Rudnicki was nominated to become volleyball commissioner of the Howard County Youth Program, she didn't even know how many players were on a volleyball team.

"I never played any sports myself," Rudnicki said. "I knew nothing about sports at all." But she did know kids - Rudnicki has been a preschool teacher at St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City for 13 years. She also knew about the youth program, because she had served on the softball board of directors.

So when her name came up to take over as volleyball commissioner, she said she figured, "I care about the kids, I know I can recruit kids and coaches, line up gyms for them to play in and do fund raising."

In short, she would be the biggest booster of the only pre-high school volleyball organization in Howard County.

For what she didn't know how to do - design ads on the computer, set schedules, for instance - she knew she could count on her husband, Joe.

"Somehow, it all fell into place," said Rudnicki. And even though the Rudnickis' children are grown, the couple stays involved with the Howard County Youth Program.

"I stay with it because I can't explain it to anyone else," Mary Jane Rudnicki said, laughing. On a more serious note, she added: "It's important to get involved. When you sit around and do nothing, that's just not the way it should be."

When Rudnicki began her tenure as the volleyball commissioner, her daughter Jill was in the fifth grade. Today, Jill is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and many of the friends who started playing volleyball with her now play on college teams all over the country.

The Howard County volleyball program was in its infancy then.

Today, the intramural program, which includes children from fifth grade through high school, has 120 players in three leagues (the minor league, for fifth- and sixth-graders; the major league, for seventh- and eighth-graders; and the high schoolers).

In past years, as many as 150 kids have played in the leagues, said Rudnicki. But the closing of the privately owned Volleyball House this year forced her to scale back the program because practice and game sites were limited.

This season, the volleyball players practice Wednesday evenings at Centennial High School and play their games Sunday afternoons at Long Reach High. The season, which began after Labor Day, will end on the first Sunday in November.

Although boys are welcome to join the volleyball program, for the most part it includes only girls, said Rudnicki. She believes the reason for that is that many players choose a sport when they're young that can carry them through their academic career and Howard County high schools don't offer volleyball programs for boys.

Girls, on the other hand, have varsity and JV volleyball programs in high school.

The Howard County Youth Program is close to the Rudnickis' hearts, but their volleyball involvement for many years also extended to the Howard County Volleyball Club program, for which their daughter played. Club volleyball is more competitive, Rudnicki said, and the girls play teams from all over the country and compete in national tournaments.

Howard County Youth Program volleyball is an intramural organization, meaning the girls are divided into teams that play one another. Trophies and medals are awarded at the end of the season.

"With HCYP," Rudnicki said, "if your daughter never picks up a ball, she can fit in. On the other hand, if she's a great athlete, she can also fit in. Everyone gets a chance to play, whether she's a star or not."

The youth program also gives children opportunities to play a variety of sports, said Rudnicki, who noted that in high school, kids can play only one sport each season. In the youth program, one season doesn't start until the previous one has ended.

"It's important for the kids to have the chance to try as many sports as they want," Rudnicki said.

It's that encouraging and supportive attitude that Howard Carolan, Howard County Youth Program president, finds so special about the commissioner.

"Mary Jane is really wonderful with the kids," he said. "She has a nurturing way of developing them, and in turn, of developing the league."

The volleyball program has doubled since Rudnicki became commissioner. Though it's still not a large program, compared to some of the other sports, its numbers are significant, "considering the state girls' sports were in before Mary Jane took over," said Carolan.

In a sense, he said, when it comes to girls' volleyball, "Mary Jane is the program."

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