30 Nov 2022
The Eagles have landed: a soaring club with a bursting junior section in Winchester
For 30 years Winchester Eagles existed as a small recreational club with a tight-knit group of players playing out of River Park Leisure Centre in Hampshire.
When their sports complex was earmarked for closure in 2020, the club turned what could have been a problematic situation into a great opportunity.
Chairman Jon Bance and Andy Riley, who was the driving force behind the club’s formation, spent long hours working with Sport England and the developers of a new site, Winchester Sport and Leisure Park, to not only ensure volleyball facilities featured in the new build, but that the club was a core part of the centre’s long-term vision.
As a result, rapid growth has followed.
Before the move, Winchester Eagles had around 15 members, organised one training night a week and entered one men’s and one mixed team in the local Hampshire League.
In their new home, Winchester Eagles – which was shortlisted for Club of the Year in 2022 – is a community club bursting at the seams. From January it will have around 80 members, organise five training sessions a week, and enter two men’s, one women’s and two mixed teams in to the SADVA local league as well as a men’s, women’s, mixed and junior team into the Hampshire Grand Prix.
“Our new home has been a great springboard without having to market ourselves as the new complex has drawn lots more people in,” explained Jon Bance, a lifelong volleyball fan who co-founded the Eagles from the remnants of another club in 1988.
But the club’s phenomenal growth in recent times has been tinged with sadness as co-founder Andy sadly passed away earlier this year. He was immensely proud of the club and the work undertaken by volunteers to transform it. While his health had kept him away for a year, his teammates and friends were delighted that he was able to attend one of the clubs infamous social nights one final time in December 2021.
Emergence of the Eaglets
For the first time in the club’s history, Winchester Eagles now caters for budding volleyball players thanks to adult members stepping up to create playing opportunities for their children.
Growing the club’s volleyball offering wouldn’t be possible without these volunteers stepping forward, says Jon, with the club’s core base of volunteers going from a small band to a team of 12.
“The committee have been incredible with Andy Mackay the driving force behind the juniors while also coaching the men’s team. Andy is a force of nature and loves giving back to the sport that has given him so much. I’ve also got to thank the amazing Robin Hunt for helping to professionalise our finances, Saffi Burns for leading our junior coaching and Andy, Angie Marchant and Clarisa Choh who support our junior programme. There’s also Dave Winson who leads our ladies coaching and other committee members. I cannot thank them enough. I am very proud of the club and our members.”
Jon stressed the importance of having a clear understanding of safeguarding requirements, enough coaches and clear channels of communication with parents before launching a junior programme.
In Winchester Eagles’ case, once those foundations were established and the sessions advertised on their website, they couldn’t keep up with demand.
“It went ballistic,” Jon added. “Our junior session was full within a week just through word of mouth. We probably now get an enquiry from parents or from an adult wanting to join twice a week.”
While admitting to doing very little marketing, the club did liaise with local schools, colleges and the university so those institutes could signpost any children or students with an interest to their website.
He also believes the club’s focus on fun over performance has encouraged more people to want to join in – not that it’s held back their most talented athletes; three took part in Volleyball Futures, which supports the development of young players who aspire to play for England, in 2021.
“The first year of our junior programme has surpassed all expectations,” said Jon, revealing the club has 50 children currently on a waiting list to join. “We now have so much interest from juniors that we could fill Winchester Leisure Centre for the whole of Saturday!”