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Schools | Girls' volleyball notebook

At Austin Prep, a focus on fundamentals has paid dividends during pandemic pause

Reading, MA: 10-13-20: Molly Ardito (left) and teammate Amanda Patti (right) of Austin Prep are pictured in action. Austin Prep hosted St. Mary's of Lynn in a girl's high school volleyball match.  (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Reading, MA: 10-13-20: Molly Ardito (left) and teammate Amanda Patti (right) of Austin Prep are pictured in action. Austin Prep hosted St. Mary's of Lynn in a girl's high school volleyball match. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)Jim Davis/Globe Staff

To say Austin Prep’s volleyball team has nothing to play for this season would be diametrically opposed to what the Cougars hope to accomplish.

Austin Prep finally played its season-opening match Tuesday after a two-week pause for athletics after schools switched to remote learning through Sept. 28.

A 3-2 come-from-behind win over Catholic Central rival St. Mary’s showed immediate on-court improvement in communication, which was a factor in a 3-0 loss to Ipswich in the Division 3 North final last season, the end of an 18-6 campaign.

Austin Prep is one of only two EMass sectional finalists (Duxbury is the other) from 2019 playing in the Fall I season.

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“The girls and myself, we were upset that we lost [to Ipswich], but looking back and thinking about what we could be working on this season, [it’s] our communication and being able to run more plays during a game,” said coach Meg Harkins before the Cougars' match against undefeated Bishop Feehan on Thursday.

Combine that with experienced returnees, key contributions from first-year starters, and a smart in-game adjustment, and Austin Prep is starting in a better place — even though there will be no postseason this fall.

“It hasn’t changed my approach as a coach at all because I still emphasize our fundamentals as a program," said Harkins. “We’re constantly working on bettering our skills each practice and have the opportunity to [improve]. So getting that opportunity to go out and play for our school, they’re happy to do that.”

With the graduation of four players, the catalyst on offense is senior outside hitter Amanda Patti, a returning Catholic Central League All-Star and Mass. Girls' Volleyball Coaches Association Division 3 All-State selection. Patti (123 kills and 100 aces in 68 total sets in 2019) opened with a six-kill performance on Tuesday. She’ll be on the receiving end of sets from senior Molly Ardito (264 assists in 2019), and passes from senior libero Lindsey Cohen, who moved to that position this year.

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“Our passing was really good [against St. Mary’s] and I could see as we got to the third through fifth sets, our communication got a lot better,” said Harkins, in her fifth season as Austin Prep’s head coach.

Junior middles Julia Viana and Madeline Hickeyare also expected to bring balance to the attack.

There will be plenty of competitiveness in the Catholic Central in a short season. Reigning league champion Cardinal Spellman, a Division 2 South semifinalist last season, got off to a 2-0 start, as is league newcomer Bishop Feehan. Arlington Catholic is also always circled on Austin Prep’s proverbial calendar.

Austin Prep’s only hurdle is one many other programs are facing in the region. Many of the players' club seasons were canceled over the summer due to the pandemic, so players entered the fall season with fewer practice reps and experience.

But like the Cougars showed Tuesday night after falling behind 0-2 to St. Mary’s, they’ll adapt when the situation warrants..

“They really just want to play for themselves and their teammates," said Harkins. “It’s always nice to have the wins, and each game that they have, they always make a goal. If something didn’t work out the previous game, they always try to fix that and build on it.”

“Our passing was really good [against St. Mary’s] and I could see as we got to the third through fifth sets, our communication got a lot better,” said Austin Prep coach Meg Harkins (above).
“Our passing was really good [against St. Mary’s] and I could see as we got to the third through fifth sets, our communication got a lot better,” said Austin Prep coach Meg Harkins (above).Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Service points

▪ COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts are slowly rising again as the temperature drops and the days get shorter. New state data released Wednesday showed 63 of the state’s 351 cities and towns are designated as ‘red’ communities with high risk for coronavirus transmission. This has disproportionately affected the Merrimack Valley Conference, with six of its communities in the high-risk (red) designation. However, that has not affected the MVC’s plans to halt all fall sports. MVC superintendents and athletic directors will meet every Thursday morning through the remainder of the regular season to determine the viability of athletics for the upcoming week. So far, the conference sees no reason to alter its course.

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“We’re fortunate that our superintendents are letting us play and everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do in terms of safety,” said Methuen athletic director Matt Curran.

▪ After a 6-11 season in 2019 in which it started 1-3, Marshfield is off to an improved start (2-2) since joining the Patriot League. The Rams have wins over Whitman-Hanson and Silver Lake.

▪ Plymouth North senior Eyleen Dias is developing into one of the more well-rounded players in the Patriot League. Through four matches (14 sets played), the senior has 29 kills, 12 aces, and 49 digs to go with a 35.8 kill percentage.

Matches to watch

Billerica at Lowell, Saturday, 10:30 a.m. — Both teams are 1-0 and lead their respective Merrimack Valley Conference divisions.

Cardinal Spellman at Austin Prep, Saturday, 1 p.m. — Spellman is the early leader in the Catholic Central, and Austin Prep will be playing its third match in a span of five days.

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Marshfield at Hingham, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 5:15 p.m. — Both Marshfield (2-2 entering Thursday) and Hingham (3-1 entering Thursday) are chasing Duxbury for the Patriot Keenan division lead

Bishop Feehan at Bishop Stang, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 5:15 p.m. — Bishop Feehan was one of only two 2-0 teams in the Catholic Central entering Thursday.

Plymouth South at Quincy, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 5:30 p.m. — The top two teams in the Patriot Fisher go head-to-head in the first of two meetings this season.