Soft-spoken, detail-oriented, yet methodical, Brandon Eang has directed the Westford Academy boys’ volleyball program to the top of the stacked Dual County League. The 6-0 Grey Ghosts take after his positive, experimental, and passionate approach to the learning process.
“They play stress-free. I sense that,” Eang said. “We play the game because we’re having fun.”
As a coach and multimedia teacher at the high school, the 51-year-old Eang takes pride in his positive impact on young people.
But to Eang, education itself is more than a concept. It’s a complicated, tragic, triumphant journey that has carried him from labor camps in Cambodia, to poverty in the United States, to the volleyball court at Westford Academy.
“All the material things — it’s just material things,” Eang said. “But education is always going to be with you the rest of your life. And once the doors open for you, you will hunger for more education.”
For much of his early childhood, the word “education” was tainted by suffering. He was born in 1970 in war-ravaged Vietnam, a B-52 was bombing his village. His father was a university professor, making him an enemy in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, a Communist faction which ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. His family was forced into a work camp, and for four years, Eang lived on the brink of death, losing two of his siblings.
In 1979, the remaining family members fled to a refugee location in Thailand, and two years later, immigrated to Colorado. But the sparkling promise of the “American Dream” masked the poverty and uncertainty ahead. According to Eang, his family moved at least 20 times between Aurora, Colo., Houston and Galveston, Texas, and Long Beach, Ca.
“You feel like you have a second chance in life, and this is heaven,” Eang said. “At the same time, when you’re faced with financial difficulties, a language barrier, a cultural barrier, racism, prejudice, discrimination towards you, the heaven is kind of crashing down on you.”
In Long Beach, Eang recalls living in a 9-by-12-foot garage-turned-shack with his parents and two other siblings. He remembers hopping from bus to bus in the city in an effort to dodge the physical altercations and street fights that characterized his poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Eang believes the racism, anger and general misfortune existed because of the gaps in education.
“When you live in that type of environment, there’s no information whatsoever — there’s none,” he said. “You don’t know where to go to; you don’t know how to seek or extract the information that’s of benefit to you. Everything is word-of-mouth.”
When Eang graduated high school, he was alone — his parents had moved to Lowell. So Eang made an eight-day cross-country drive in his 1981 Toyota Corolla, which topped out at 35 mph on steep inclines, to reunite with his family. He started at Bunker Hill Community College before finishing his college education at UMass-Dartmouth.
Decades later, Eang is in the first season of his second stint as coach of the varsity boys’ program. Previously, he coached team as a short-term replacement in 2001. He has coached the girls’ program the past eight years, leading the Grey Ghosts to the Dual County League title in 2017.
“It’s very gratifying to watch a coach like Brandon that respects and values everyone on his team, treats everybody with respect, [and] has a very calm demeanor at all times,” said athletic director Jeff Bunyon.
“He is very inspiring, and I just have the utmost respect for him and everything he’s doing for our student athletes.”
Senior captain Fabian Arnold sees Eang emphasize the one-on-one interaction between coach and player instead of laying down grievances in front of the team. To Arnold, it gives the players confidence to work through mistakes themselves. He already feels the Grey Ghosts have improved on serves and overall consistency under Eang’s watchful eye.
“If something’s going wrong, he’ll bring the team together and talk about it, but he’s not the type of coach to single out a player for making a mistake,” Arnold said.
As Westford continues through its season, Eang has focused on his players. He wants them to be successful so they have memories of joy when they win a game, make a play, or learn a new skill. His philosophy maintains that connecting with each other is just as important as playing a beautiful game.
“The skill sets out there, the foundation, the fundamental platform, all this stuff you’re going to teach them. But you also try to teach him about being a human being — being a caring human being,” said Eang, who lives in Shirley with his wife, Borany, and their children, Ethan and Hannah.
“So work together. Build a volleyball family . . . this is something that you guys truly love. Why else would you want to play the game?”
▪ Despite a year away from the court in a team setting, Cambridge has leaned on its chemistry in a 6-2 start. And a number of the Falcons have turned to an unusual source of motivation: Japanese sports anime.
Senior captain Nolan Tracey says a large portion of the team is engrossed with Haikyuu!! and its volleyball-centric world of competition. It even convinced three players to join the program.
“It really gets into the drama of the sport — it’s such a mental game,” Tracey said. “And then you can relate to it more, having the dialogue and the small things they break down in the TV show. So I think it’s kind of interesting that that’s what has brought people into the game.”
The story follows a squad of ragtag players looking to restore their school to its former glory. Tracey says he and his teammates frequently discuss the show at practice, comparing themselves to different characters. His favorite is one of the antagonists, Bokuto.
“It’s definitely easy to find someone that resonates with you,” Tracey said.
Coach Kelley Leary did not expect anime to help the Falcons this season, but she loves the energy it brings out of her players.
“They’re telling me it gets so much into detail about the game and the strategy,” she said.
▪ Three teams in Eastern Mass. have stormed to double-digit win totals thus far: top-ranked Needham (11-0), Tri-Valley power Milford (11-1) and South Alliance leader Taunton (10-0).