Reborn home to volleyball scores a hit

Gym: Players arrive from near and far to play in one of the region's few volleyball-only facilities.

Howard At Play

January 25, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Here's a test of your knowledge of Howard County sports lore:

Name the indoor athletic facility that counts among its hundreds of regulars several who drive from Pennsylvania and Richmond, Va., to play - sometimes on a court with a Native American quilt displayed at one end - and that loves love.

Clue: It's the same place where, if you feel the need for a lavatory, just scan the lobby for a wall bearing three big stuffed geckos.

Answer: It's the "reborn" Volleyball House, on Furnace Avenue in old Elkridge.

The six-court gym in what had been a trucking warehouse is in its second year of operation, and its president says it has more volleyball players now than did the original Volleyball House in the decade it operated in Columbia's Gateway Center industrial park.

The original, which many in Howard County knew better for also housing Howard's only indoor soccer field at the time, lost its lease in an acrimonious fight with an absentee landlord who wanted to convert the space into offices. A year passed before new digs, to twist a volleyball term, could be found.

But dropping out of business for a year before starting over in Elkridge, said president Judith DeJong, proved something of a blessing.

"People played elsewhere, but when we opened, not only did just about everyone come back, but they were like little missionaries," she said. "Some brought in new players and even other teams."

Lease worries are over for DeJong and her space scientist husband, Paul Mahaffey, who together bought the Elkridge property. They have refurbished space there to rent out, maybe for a doctor's office and studios for working artists, DeJong said.

DeJong said proudly last week that the new Volleyball House recently turned down what could have been a lucrative offer from a developer.

The couple, who also were involved in establishing SoccerDome last year in Jessup, split permanently in August with Clif Everett, that facility's owner and an original Volleyball House soccer zealot.

"Volleyball alone is easier for us," DeJong said. "It's a breeze to handle. We have so many people who want to work here, everybody who does is overqualified. But they just love volleyball."

Take Donna Stam. The Ellicott City native who lives in Pikesville, met husband Eric, a computer programmer, when they played on different coed teams at the original Volleyball House in 1992.

"He sprained an ankle, and I took pity on him," she said. They married in 1995, have a daughter, Kristin, 5, and have kept volleyball a big part of their relationship.

Donna Stam is one of four league coordinators. "I work here Tuesday and Thursday nights and play Sundays and Mondays, and my husband plays Tuesdays and Wednesdays," she said. "We live here."

They're part of that "love" thing DeJong and others at Volleyball House revel in noting. The Stams rattled off five other couples who have met at Volleyball House and married. Many players, it turns out, start in the sport not because of their skill, but for fun and socializing.

You have to zigzag three narrow old streets off northbound U.S. 1 just before you leave Howard County to find Volleyball House. But the phrase made famous in the baseball movie Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come," apparently applies to volleyball, too.

Players arrive daily, year-round, including weekends, from Central Maryland and beyond to play in one of the region's few facilities dedicated to volleyball.

Few were top-flight high school or college players. Many are neither single nor young. DeJong's over-50 women's team, which has won three league titles, includes two cancer survivors and a woman who has had heart surgery.

Tuesday, a men's team from Harford County won a league title. Then, while a team photo was taken for the House's Hall of Fame, players held up a handwritten card bearing team captain John Rowland's name. He was absent, on his way to military duty in Iraq.

"We told him we'd win it for him," said acting captain Frank Medley. "We're e-mailing him the picture."

You can tell by team names that not everyone's dead serious about the sport. A wall includes pictures of Scared Hitless, a four-time women's champ, Kaboom, the Frog Angels and DeJong's team, VSOP, short for "very slow old people."

About that quilt. It was a gift that DeJong said she received from the Oglala Sioux, among her clients as a full-time psychologist.

And those geckos? Whimsy, she said. Something to help make her avocation "kind of a friendly, `Cheers' place, where people know your name."

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