There’s something haunting about an old school after dark. Gone is the shuffling of feet, the aroma of school lunch, and the tutelage of teachers and cat-calls from the playgrounds are silenced. Behind the large plate-glass windows of Carrboro’s Grey Culbreth Middle School after dark, there is only more darkness.
The entire campus seems unaware as you progress along the driveways until you drive to the very back of the school and descend the embankment toward the gymnasium. There, each Tuesday and Thursday evening from 7 to 10 p.m., bright light pours out of the wide door and echoes of shouts and laughter roll out into the parking lot.
Shrouded in darkness, there is light and life here, just inside, just as there has been for years—some say decades, thanks to one of Carrboro Recreation and Park’s longest-running programs. While more and more high school players play solely for school and club teams, and while younger players seek out competitive leagues, the Tuesday-Thursday Drop-In Volleyball provides a chance for fun, casual pick-up play for everyone from novices to one-time avid players seeking to keep a hand in the sport.
The Carrboro Recreation and Parks Department drop-in program allows participants the opportunity to play in an informal setting and to meet others of similar interest in volleyball, the agency’s website ( www.carrbororec.org
Players are mostly aged 16 and older (younger players can attend if accompanied by an adult), and the cost of participation is just $3 each night. The Culbreth gym is open from 7 to 10 p.m., generally for six-week periods each season. The current session began on September 4 and runs through Oct. 18.
Carrboro Recreation and Park’s Aaron Fisher, who supervises play on two courts in the gym, said he suspects the program has a considerable history.
“I’ve done this for the last three years, and I know it’s been longer than that,” Fisher said, “so I’d guess at least 10 years.”
But Wes Quinn, a longtime participant, said the program dated back nearly 50 years.
“I’ve been coming since 1997,” Quinn said. “It was back in the 1960’s when it started, but (attendance) has been up and down. I’ve seen at least 300 people come and go over the past few years. Usually it’s about 20 people here, but lately it’s been slowing down.”
“It’s never so crowded that people have to wait to play,” Fisher said. “There are usually two games going on.”
Quinn said the proficiency level of players waxes and wanes as well.
“They used to have a good team here (at Culbreth Middle School) that used to come, but they haven’t come in a few years,” he said, “and there were some folks from UNC who used to come, but I haven’t seen them in years.”
“There were (a few ringers), but they haven’t been here in over a year,” Fisher said. “There was a guy who played in beach volleyball tournaments, and he and some of his teammates would come in—of course they never lost.”
For former East Carolina University player Christine Belgado-Smith, the program provided the chance to return to the game she’d once mastered.
“This is just my second time this season, but I’ve come in the past,” she said at last Thursday’s session. “I came last season, but only about four times.”
Belgado-Smith said it was a little tough to get back into the swing of things at first.
“When I played at East Carolina, it was back in 1993, so it’s been 20 years since I played competitively,” she said, chuckling. “I could hardly move on Tuesday night. Afterwards, I had to take ibuprofen, and my legs were throbbing, I had to ice my knee. I was like, ‘I’m falling apart!’ I’m just glad to be moving out here tonight.”
Belgado-Smith said the competition could get tough at times, but the attitude was consistently casual.
“People make pretty good calls, but it’s good: it’s totally fun,” she said. The competition is pretty good though.”
For Jorge Delima, drop-in volleyball provided a chance for a solid three hours of fitness and fun.
“I get my exercise,” Delima said, “and they play quite well here.”
Fisher stressed that the program welcomed players of all skill levels.
“Most people here know how to play,” he said. “Not everyone’s running up and spiking the ball or diving for it, but there are several people who started out never having played, and now they play just fine.”
“It’s totally pick-up,” Belgado-Smith said, “so as soon as you come in, you sort of divvy up (into teams).”
“If there’s someone — you can tell that he can really play — and he carries the ball, I’ll call them on it,” Delima said, “But it is called recreational, so you mostly let people do what they feel like.”
Fisher encouraged anybody to stop by some dark night over the next few Tuesdays and Thursdays to find their place under the bright lights of Culbreth Gymnasium.
“Even if you’re a player who hasn’t played much or maybe hasn’t played in a long time, just come on out,” Fisher said. “They’ll find a place for you.”