Thursday is a day the Needham boys’ volleyball team has waited for … for almost two years.
The Rockets last played a match on June 7, 2019 when they were dealt a heartbreaking 3-2 loss on their home court to Newton South in the Division 1 South semifinals, ending their streak of four consecutive sectional championships and six straight sectional finals appearances.
Almost 23 months (to the day) later, Needham will play Braintree in its first match of the 2021 season. Members of the storied program, like many in Massachusetts, were extremely disappointed when all 2020 spring sports were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rockets felt they could have had one of their most successful seasons in program history.
“We had a team that we felt could compete for a state title,” Needham coach Dave Powell said.
So Powell and one of his senior captains, right side hitter Owen Fanning, spearheaded an effort to rally students and coaches to push the MIAA to allow full sectional and state tournaments this spring after last year’s athletes could not have one due to the pandemic.
Their campaign was successful: there will be a full state tournament in all sports. . Still, the season is different. Needham will play 14 Bay State Conference matches and a three-game BSC Tournament that precedes the postseason. The team will practice just eight times before Thursday. The Rockets are ready to play, and safely. Powell said every varsity player has had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“There’s a lot of work to do in a limited amount of time,” said Powell. “It’s still not a normal season. Our season got shortened, so there’s definitely a renewed sense of purpose.”
But what is normal for Needham is its level of talent, which seems to stay in the same upper echelon every year of Powell’s tenure. Even though a number of schools have reported a participation drop in spring sports this year, 56 boys tried out for Needham volleyball this year, an all-time high.
Many players stayed sharp with the SMASH volleyball club and playing beach volleyball at Babson College, Lasell University, and Carson Beach in South Boston. Practices are as competitive as matches.
“What’s so great about our team is that there’s a ton of interest,” said Fanning. “There’s a lot of talent, a ton of guys who play club and take it seriously … the good thing is that we can have competitive six-on-six scrimmages in practice because of the number of talented guys that we have,” Fanning said.
Fanning, who stands 6-foot-7 and hopes to walk on the men’s team at Harvard this fall, will be out for the first 4-5 weeks of the season due to a fractured pinky sustained in a preseason workout.
Until he returns the Needham attack will be paced by 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter Ben Putnam. Powell expects senior Andy Lin and sophomore Raymond Weng to compete for the setter position, so Powell doesn’t know if he’ll run a 5-1 and 6-2 offense. Senior Eli Blumenstein is the starting libero. Needham’s starting opposite is still to be determined.
“We were all looking forward to last season, so the fact that it got taken away definitely fueled us for this season,” said Blumenstein, who hopes to play club volleyball at Ohio State this fall. “Just to find out that we have that chance to compete … it gave us a bigger reason to give it our all.”
After the boys’ loss in 2019, the Needham girls won the Division 1 state title later that fall. The Rockets have won 33 straight matches under the direction of coach Courtney Chaloff, who has been the boys’ JV coach and Powell’s assistant since 2018.
That added success, stacked on top of making up for a lost season, fuels a high work ethic. The last state title for the Needham boys was 2015. The Rockets reached the state final in 2016 and 2018, losing to Framingham and Westfield, respectively.
“You step in the gym some years, you’re like ‘oh, kids are competing.’ This year, you step in the gym, and it’s like ‘no, these guys are on a mission,’” Powell said. “There’s an elevated sense of purpose that we would have had last year and is definitely in the gym this year.”
▪ Even though many teams will face a large amount of turnover due to the gap between 2019 and 2021, Wayland is an outlier. The Warriors went 14-8 in 2019 and lost to Boston Latin in the North quarterfinals, but they return seven players from that team who were either starters or received varsity playing time and are now juniors or seniors. Setter Porter Moody, outside hitter Michael Long, and middle David Lathan are all returners over 6 feet tall.
“I thought we had a very good chance at winning the state title [in 2020],” Wayland coach Phil George said.
That returning group, however, is expected to serve as mentors for newcomers. Twenty-eight new players, not including the seven returners, tried out for Wayland this year, so six of its new players are without varsity experience.
“A lot of the returning guys are functioning almost as assistant coaches. They’re really working one-on-one with a lot of the new kids to try to get them up to speed. We’re really compartmentalizing the skills that we’re trying to teach the new kids,” George said.
▪ Lexington and Winchester, who competed as independents in 2019 because a Middlesex League for boys’ volleyball does next exist, will compete in the Dual County League this season and play a 10-game league schedule. COVID-19 modifications require teams to play only league schedules to minimize travel. Arlington, traditionally a Middlesex League school, has played in the DCL in previous seasons.
▪ This year marks the last for only one division of boys’ volleyball. The sport will divide into two divisions in 2022 due to the new statewide realignment.