Mike Maddison graduated from St. John’s Prep on May 22, but his learning experience continues on and off the volleyball court.
The school’s valedictorian is part of a wave of first-time players for the Eagles. Initially urged to join by his chemistry teacher, Kit Stone, also a volleyball assistant, Maddison was so positively impacted in his short stint with the program that he carved out space to acknowledge his squad during his graduation speech.
“When I’m with my teammates, I can knot my shirt with a scrunchie and not get any glances,” he said. “I can cheer my friends on with gay slang and they know that is how I support them. With my teammates, I can exist without conditions. I can be myself as much as I want.”
The senior middle back is openly queer, and while he knew a number of friends on the team before joining, Maddison explained there’s always some hesitancy lurking whenever he enters a new social circle.
But from his first moments on the volleyball court, Maddison has felt his teammates and coaches embrace him for being his truest self.
“I actually painted my nails a few days before the speech,” he said in a phone interview Saturday night. “And I have just continued painting them since, and every time I got a new change of color, a lot of people were complimenting my nails — teammates especially. So these little moments of acceptance and embrace really matter on the volleyball team.”
Teammate Michael Clifford has played since his freshman year, and takes pride in developing a culture that allows players like himself and Maddison to feel free and expressive.
“I always felt like I could be myself around my teammates,” Clifford said, “and honestly, it’s really liberating not having to worry about what face I’d put up in front of my teammates, and I think it helps me play better.”
Inclusivity, togetherness, and a drive to learn have helped propel the Eagles to a 7-0 record in the Catholic Conference following Friday’s 3-1 victory over BC High. Every game is a teaching moment for the inexperienced roster; just two players competed at a varsity level before this season, and half never had played organized volleyball. But they are athletic, and a few have played basketball.
“When stuff is going wrong, I don’t even know that we realize that stuff is going wrong. They just play hard and they just want to win,” coach Kara Brown said. “At the end of the day, they don’t have all the touches, they don’t have all the volleyball knowledge, but they know they have to be the first team to get to 25 points, so they’re just doing what they need to do to make that happen.”
Maddison is also developing on the fly. He fenced at St. John’s Prep, and said the situational awareness required on the strip is similar to a court setting, but he had only played casual volleyball at family gatherings before joining the Eagles. Maddison is still working on the technical skills, such as solidifying a platform, and has managed a nagging thumb injury the past week.
The Dartmouth-bound Maddison credited Prep’s veteran leadership, including senior Aaron Saporito, for helping him transition to a new sport.
“If we mess up a pass or mess up a hit, the more experienced players aren’t on our case,” he said. “They’re like, that’s alright, reevaluate, take a breath, and let’s go into this next point.”
“The biggest thing was getting the team as one to play together,” said Saporito, a 5-foot-6-inch defensive specialist. “We had issues with communication at the beginning of the season, but we’ve been practicing hard every day and it’s worked out.”
The Eagles saw an unusually high number of players try out. Brown and the coaching staff had to make cuts for the first time in her six-year tenure. The spring success is a welcome surprise.
“If you asked me in the beginning of the school year [in] September what the outlook would be for the season, I’d probably say we were rebuilding,” she said.
But the Eagles are not rebuilding. They’re winning every match and preparing for the postseason — Prep has opted into the MIAA tournament. As new players, as learners, and most importantly, as themselves. And as Maddison said to conclude his valedictorian speech, that’s all a team can ask for.
“Our diversity is a gift. Inclusivity is how we celebrate it,” he said. “The greatest gift, a gift I wish for all of you, is to have the courage to be yourself.”
▪ In hotly-contested sets, scores can creep into the 30′s before one team gains the necessary 2-point advantage. But how about 48-46? That’s what happened Tuesday when Winchester (7-1) and Cambridge (6-4) engaged in a marathon bout.
Winchester came out on top in the set and ultimately swept.
“I haven’t seen any scores like that ever,” said 10-year coach John Fleming.
As the set wore on, both sides found themselves on the verge on set points, but the other team continuously battled back. Fleming said the Dual County League foes never let up energy despite the arduous tug of war.
“The good thing about it was: It was high-level volleyball back and forth. Both teams stayed aggressive,” he said.
▪ Needham continues to pace the competition, maintaining a 13-0 record in the Bay State Conference and the top spot in the Globe Top 20 rankings. This included a 3-0 win over Brookline (10-3) on Friday.
“We’re really happy with the progress we’ve made since the beginning of the year,” said coach Dave Powell. “But we’re even more excited to see where we can take this thing in the next couple of weeks before the [state] tournament, because I think there’s a new level we haven’t reached yet.”
Perfection doesn’t mean easy: The Rockets were without star senior Owen Fanning until last week due to a broken finger. Powell is proud of how his squad played in Fanning’s absence.
“We probably could have brought him back a little sooner, but we wanted to be cautious, and I think in that process it caused other guys to step up and assume some positions,” he said.
▪ The Bay State Conference will conduct a league tournament for the first time. The eight-team tournament starts Tuesday, and continues Thursday and the following Tuesday.