Winchester co-captain Grace Thompson says the team’s motto embodies a girls’ volleyball program that has emerged as one of the state’s elite.
“There’s no traffic on the extra mile,” said Thompson, a senior middle.
For the past two-plus years, Winchester has been nearly unbeatable.
After its 25-15, 25-13, 25-14 victory over Woburn in Tuesday’s quarterfinals of the Middlesex League Tournament, Winchester is 11-0, has not lost a set, has won 29 consecutive league matches dating back to the 2018 season, and is 36-1 overall since the start of the 2019 season. That one loss came against unbeaten Needham in the 2019 Division 1 state final.
A potential Middlesex League final with undefeated Melrose is still on the table.
Winchester played its first varsity season in 2010, the same year Melrose won its first of three consecutive D2 North titles. Melrose also reached the state final in 2011 and 2012, winning the latter. Then, by the middle of the decade, Winchester began its sharp rise thanks to its willingness to achieve consistent success.
“It was an amazing experience to see the growth from 2010 to 2019, but once you get there, you want to be able to get back there,” said Winchester coach John Fleming, who’s been at the helm for all 11 seasons.
Competing in Division 2, Winchester went 9-8 in 2010 and won a game in the tournament. But the program advanced past the second round of the D2 North sectional just once from 2010-15 and failed to win a league title, despite winning at least 12 games every season.
Then in 2016, Winchester rolled with a 20-2 regular season, sharing the Middlesex Liberty title with Melrose, and then defeated the Red Raiders for the first time in program history, 3-2 in a D2 North quarterfinal.
Winchester lost to Bishop Fenwick in the semis. But that fifth set against Melrose, Fleming recalls, was a turning point for the program. Winchester trailed 12-4 in the deciding set. But with Gabby McKinley at the service line, Winchester went on an 11-0 run for a 15-12 victory.
“That win definitely gave a lot of the girls who were coming back a lot of confidence,” Fleming said. “I think that motivates the kids more to ask what potentially could we do?”
In 2017, Winchester went 19-3 and won an outright league title for the first time, setting the stage for a move to Division 1 in 2018. The team finished 15-9, its most losses since 2014, but the new level of competition primed it for a historic 2019.
A number of this year’s seniors, including Thompson and fellow co-captain Tia Fiorentino, got their first postseason experience at the state’s highest level.
“We all really had an intensity and I think the program was starting to move upwards. It’s been really interesting to look back and see how much we’ve grown,” Fiorentino said. “It’s a really great program and I think it’s built to improve and continue to get better.”
In 2019, Winchester’s 3-2 win over state power Barnstable — which had reached three of the previous four state finals and won two — in the Division 1 state semifinals was the announcement to the rest of the volleyball community that Winchester had to be taken seriously. Dasha Smolina, a former Globe All-Scholastic and senior on the 2019 team, was named Massachusetts Gatorade Girls’ Volleyball Player of the Year.
“It was like a three-month adrenaline rush,” Thompson said of that season. “It never stopped.”
The success, Fiorentino said, comes from top down with Fleming. He’s now 172-63 as the girls’ coach.
“It’s mostly holding yourself accountable and bringing everyone up. That stems from him,” Fiorentino said.
In the Fall II season, the Winchester players have focused on maintaining the same level of effort and intensity in practices and matches despite playing an all-league schedule and with the lack of a traditional postseason. Their consistency and voraciousness are their hallmarks.
After the state final loss to Needham, Thompson already started counting down to Aug. 24, 2020, which is when the season was scheduled to start pre-pandemic.
“We were hoping for more than a shortened season but we were excited about the opportunity to have the 10 matches in the league and then the league tournament, which is a nice addition to this season,” Fleming said.
But Winchester is hoping its best addition comes Saturday, doing something it wasn’t able to do in 2019.
“Definitely want to close out on a win,” Fiorentino said.
▪ The Boston City League semifinals will take place Thursday with the championship game Friday. The top two teams in the North and top two teams in the South will participate. Entering Tuesday, the North leader is Latin Academy (10-1) and the South leader is O’Bryant (10-0). East Boston and Charlestown are tied for second place in the North (8-2) and Boston English (6-5) is in second place in the South.
▪ Durfee senior Emma Rezendes notched her 1,500th career assist last Tuesday in a 3-0 win over Norwell. She recorded her 1,000th assist as a junior . . . Sophomore Sophia Furxhi broke Woburn’s single-game record for aces with 12 in Monday’s 3-1 victory over Wilmington in the first round of the Middlesex League Tournament.