Last spring, Milford and Lincoln-Sudbury Regional were the two most successful Division 1 boys’ volleyball teams in Central Massachusetts.
This year, however, each must overcome a new challenge — one that neither program’s long-tenured coach has ever encountered — if it is to recapture and exceed its 2012 achievements.
Since defeating Lincoln-Sudbury last June to capture its first sectional postseason title in 13 years, Milford’s Scarlet Hawks left the Midland Wachusett League for the Hockomock League. It was a change that benefited most of Milford High’s sports teams, but not boys’ volleyball.
“When we got moved to the Hock, I knew there wasn’t boys’ volleyball,” said coach Linda Zacchilli, in her 24th year at Milford. “Taunton had a team, but that was the extent of it. We considered staying in the Mid-Wach just to put together a schedule, but they didn’t really want us.’’
Left to scramble, she debated where to go. Potential options included the Merrimack Valley Conference, which was full at the time, and the Southern Alliance, where Taunton played.
“We felt like we should be with Taunton because they’re in the Hock,” said Zacchilli. However, the athletic directors “in the Southern Alliance did not want their teams to travel all the way to Milford.”
“I gave our AD, Rich Piergustavo, a list of 18 schools, some of which were challenging — top programs that I would have loved to play — and some were teams I thought would be willing to play us.”
What resulted is an independent schedule that could very well be the state’s toughest. Matchups loom against four teams from the Globe’s top-10 a season ago — Lawrence, St. John’s Prep, Haverhill, and Newton North — along with contests against Western Massachusetts powerhouses Chicopee Comprehensive and Minnechaug Regional.
“It’s definitely more competitive than we’ve ever played,” said Zacchilli, who returns seven seniors this year after graduating seven last spring. “But the kids are very confident. We feel we can make another run.”
Without the benefit of league play, Milford must win 50 percent of its games to qualify for postseason play. It’s a considerable challenge, but one that could help propel them toward the state title they narrowly missed last year when they were upset by Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in the finals.
“We were used to weak competition last year in the Mid-Wach and we wouldn’t always try hard,” said Kane Wittorff, a senior cocaptain and the team’s 6-foot-5 middle hitter. “Now all the games are important, so we’ll be used to strong competition and tougher players.”
Along with Wittorff (161 kills), the Scarlet Hawks feature three other returning senior starters: cocaptain and setter Tim McManus (655 assists), 6-foot-3 middle hitter Michael Soares (107 kills), and libero Kevin Marshall (289 service points).
“Returning this many experienced seniors is definitely a huge benefit,” said McManus. “We’ve had a lot more people play during the offseason, which really makes a big difference in volleyball. Everyone just seems more in tune with each other.”
Six-foot-4 junior outside hitter Michael Antonellis is also expected to be a key contributor.
A year ago, Milford’s only loss (22-1) was to Cambridge. This season, the talent-laden team knows that whatever might have been lost in depth has been replaced with intangibles.
“We’ve all been together for two-plus years,” said Wittorff. “I think that we’re a meshed team. We know what we should do, how to go off each other, work well together.
“Now when people get upset, we know how to deal with each other, get them back and out of their funk.”
For Lincoln-Sudbury, complete turnover
Lincoln-Sudbury — which finished 19-2 last spring and captured its seventh Dual County League title in 10 years — comes into this season having lost all 14 varsity players to graduation.
“To me, it’s kind of exciting and thrilling in a strange way,” said 13th-year coach Elizabeth McClung. “I’ve never had the experience where I’ve actually graduated my whole roster.”
With a deep program and a strong coaching staff, McClung expresses optimism when asked about the potential of this year’s team.
Unlike other schools, where students have been drawn to other spring sports, like lacrosse, Lincoln-Sudbury’s volleyball squad continues to attract multisport athletes.
Among this group is senior tri-captain and libero Josh Reinstein, who also captained last fall’s varsity soccer team.
He and fellow tri-captain Clay Williams “knew that some people were going to come into this season with their heads down and thinking it’s a comeback year,” said Reinstein. “But the past few months we have been telling them it’s going to be fun. We have an amazing coach who’s going to teach us. And we’ve been making sure that everyone knows they can’t be on this team with their heads hanging. They’re going to need to come in excited and willing to work.”
While it’s likely that five of the Warriors’ eight primary players will be in their second seasons, like Reinstein, there’s still reason for guarded optimism. Sophomore outside hitter Andrei Rakitin is a solid player with great technique. Reinstein brings excellent speed on defense. And Williams, a third-year setter and another captain, is a dynamic on-court leader who is developing a strong attack.
And while the experience and poise from last year’s senior-loaded roster will be difficult to replace, this spring’s team will also have some advantages.
“It’s more difficult when you’re expected to perform,” said McClung. “I think people were not satisfied with not making it to the finals last year. That’s unfortunate because it was a successful season.
“I think it’s easier for this group to feel satisfaction along the way, and I am excited about that. I was in a situation back in ’09 — we had been in the state finals in ’08, where we were expected to win, and people felt badly that we took second. But the next year we won the state championship when no one expected us to. This year, it could be a good year for us.”
Paul Lazdowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.