NORTH SMITHFIELD — When Dave Houle returned from a vacation to Florida's East Coast back in the fall of 1990, he greeted fellow Gator's Pub co-owner Tom McGee with what he deemed a “fantastic idea” to bolster interest in their new venture.
“He had watched some beach volleyball down there outside a restaurant, and he thought it'd be great to start one of our own,” McGee explained recently of his former partner's notion. “He just raved about it. What sold us was there was nothing like it in our area at the time. We were out here in the boonies, and we needed to put ourselves on the map.”
McGee, along with Houle and Mich Grenier, had purchased Gator's Pub back in 1989, finally opening its doors in 1990, but business was slower than they had wished. Naturally, they employed Houle's idea, and it took.
What started as a 10-team men's-only category in that late spring of 1991 has exploded into a five-division league comprising 88 squads and a whopping 480 players. Gator's now is home to nearly non-stop, outdoor action in several male, female and co-ed divisions, those that take place each summer and fall.
“I'm like the Col. Sanders of Gator's, (as) I'm the only original owner left, but I've surrounded myself with a lot of talent when it comes to taking the league to another level,” Tom McGee smiled. “I really can't believe it's lasted this long. My youngest son, Jack, wasn't even born when it began, and now he's 23 and a bartender here.
“He doesn't play; he's too busy behind the bar, but I can't believe (beach volleyball's) still here,” he added. “It's all because of Jim and Deb. They stepped it up and made the league what it is today. They've made it so good, so comfortable, that people keep coming back. We actually have to turn some teams away because there's so much interest. We even have a waiting list.”
Tom's brother, Jim McGee, and his wife of nearly 20 years, Deb, have played critical roles in the expansion of volleyball fandom in northern Rhode Island. Neither his brother nor sister-in-law are owners; they just control the intricacies of directing the league.
“We ran it for years without them,” Tom stated of the early days. “We had to build the volleyball courts before we started up, and we didn't have the money to do it. We (as tri-owners) decided we'd have to start slow, work the pub ourselves, then build the courts in our spare time, which was really hard.
“It was just me and my fellow partners,” he continued. “Mich was big (contributing to) the construction, and then we signed on some guys to play in the league. The response was overwhelming. I have to thank Dave and Mich; they worked so hard to put it all together. Here's why: Dave not only managed the pub singlehandedly – he cooked and cleaned – but he also took care of the the schedules.
“He did it virtually by himself,” he added. “And Mich did, too. He did it for about 10 years, and then (my brother) Scott came in (as partner), and we were expanding, so we had Jim and Deb take over.”
Tom, who now co-owns the establishment with Scott and wife Kerry, admitted he signed on as a player the first year, and that his contingent, representing McGee's Plumbing, was hardly stellar.
“We were the worst team in the league that (season), and later on, but we were also the funniest,” he laughed. “We were there to make the other teams feel good about themselves. I mean, we stunk! The guys were just hysterical with their jokes.
“Seriously, we had a couple of guys who wanted to play but didn't want to show how white their legs were. I mean, they were ivory, so they wore dungarees to cover them up.”
When asked how they played volleyball donning not shorts but heavy jeans, and why Tom and Jim kept them as teammates, the former explained, “We let them. They were two of the best players we had, so we didn't have a choice!”
As word spread about the pub's food, drink and atmosphere, so did intrigue in the sport.
“When we first started, it was a picnic, cookout-like atmosphere, like we were playing in our own backyard,” Tom noted, adding that contests were utilized six a side, as high school and collegiate indoor volleyball matches are.
“We attracted just recreational guys – plumbers, electricians, guys from other restaurants who just wanted to de-stress from their days. It was all for stress relief. They'd bring in their families, and we had a huge sandbox for their kids so they could play.”
Noted Jim: “Some of those kids are our best players now!
“It was a lot of laughs, a lot of fun, but – in, like, 1993 – we went to two different divisions,” he continued. “One was (called) 'Co-ed B,' which was for recreational players, and 'Co-ed A' for those guys who wanted to take it more serious.”
It later developed, perhaps eight-nine years later, into a league that catered to those with assorted competitive juices.
“In about 2001, we had some guys in the men's A (competitive) division who didn't like playing with six guys; they wanted to play with four, which is more in line with (the traditional beach sport),” Jim said. “We disbanded that men's division and moved to four-men teams; they wanted to do that because there's more action. You're not just standing around.
“They were craving that (change), and it worked well,” he continued. “We still had the men's B division (of six each), and also the co-ed A and B categories.”
Then came 2004, “or maybe it was '05,” Deb McGee chuckled, when a woman named Danielle Byrne approached Jim, still a competitor and referee. (He and Deb married in 1994, and still play).
“She said, 'Hey, what about a women's league?!'” he said. “At that point in time, we were overwhelmed with what we had, so I told her, 'You find the players and teams, and we'll start one up.”
They did, and rest is history.
“We had so many Co-ed B recreational teams, we had to increase the amount of nights they played,” Jim indicated. “Originally, when we first started, we had just one division, and they played Monday and Wednesday nights. Now, on Monday nights, we have the ladies' (four-player a side) between 6-10 p.m. on Court 2, and a new (category) 'Any 4's' (which may include any combination of the genders) on Court 1.”
Tuesday evenings are reserved for Co-ed A 6-person squads, as well as another “Any 4's” division (due to the popularity), while Wednesdays feature Men's B and Co-Ed B 6's and Thursdays yet another Co-ed B 6's league.
Because of how busy the establishment is on Friday and Saturday evenings, action ceases, but regains momentum on Sunday. In one more Co-ed B 6's section, 24 contingents take to the sand courts between 4-10 p.m.
According to the McGee clan, none of the success it's snagged would be possible without John Zoltek, who at age 89 still officiates matches at the complex behind the pub that bears his name.
“As (the league) grew bigger and bigger, Scott and I couldn't run it the right way, so we hired Jim and Deb as the professionals,” Tom said.
Deb immediately interrupted, “They begged us for help, so we said, 'Sure, why not?' As Gator's was expanding as a restaurant, and the more people came in, they told us they had heard about the beach volleyball.”
Jim noted Zoltek, a member of the Volleyball Hall of Fame, was to the eruption in volleyball interest.
“He's a volleyball genius; he took basically a bunch of hacks who were in it just for fun into some of us who wanted to get better,” Jim mentioned. “He changed the mentality for a lot of us who wanted to be more competitive and serious.
“That was back in about 1993, and we have to give him thanks for that,” he added. “He's still one of our best refs, and he's still teaching to this day … Except for me. He'll tell me, 'McGee, don't even bother warming up. You're not going to get any better!
“It's hard to believe it's been 22 years (actually, Gator's is in its 23rd spring/summer season, and is currently closing with divisional championship matches). I started as just a young kid, but it's amazing how the league has grown, how interest continues.”
Offered Deb: “It's 18 weeks of our summer, and it goes by so fast each and every year. We had a fall league for a couple of years a long time ago, but we dropped it because it could get so cold. We re-instated it about six years ago because people said they wanted to player after the summer league ended.
“We brought it back, and we have four divisions who play four nights of the week. Right now, we have 35 teams signed up, but we're looking for four or five Co-ed B 6's and more Any 4's teams to sign up and play on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We usually register only teams, but we'll try to match up singles (with a squad).”
The fall campaign lasts five weeks (beginning soon), with a two-week championship run, unlike the spring/summer session's 18 weeks (the final three for playoffs).
For more information, contact Jim McGee at (401) 663-7060 or Deb at (401) 663-6029.
“It blows my mind at how this has exploded,” Deb stated. “I can't believe it. Now we have people coming in from as far away as Seekonk and Rehoboth, eastern Connecticut, Worcester, East Providence and Pawtucket, even from up around Boston. It's really unbelievable.”