Taunton is one of the few boys’ volleyball teams in the state that can still lean on seven seniors after the lost 2020 season. But the Tigers’ most experienced player had never suited up for the team before this year — or even lived in this country.
Mattia Casagrande has emerged as a leading talent and mind for the 15-1 Tigers in the South Alliance. The senior is a foreign exchange student from Italy who has adapted to a volleyball culture that significantly differs from his home country. High school sports teams don’t exist in Italy, which made joining Taunton a unique opportunity.
“I love the experience of playing sports for your school,” he said, “because I think it creates a sentiment for your school . . . that kind of patriotic feeling that you have for your school [and] for your town.”
Casagrande is a native of Cogliate, a small town outside of Milan, and picked up volleyball at age 10. Unlike many stateside players who play multiple sports within seasons, Casagrande focused on the sport year-round for nearby club team Pallavolo Saronno. He loves the fervor volleyball creates in Italy, and reminisces about the 2016 Olympic semifinals, when the Italian men’s national team knocked off the United States in five sets.
Though he took a break from the sport at age 16, Casagrande was ecstatic to jump back in when he learned about the Taunton program. He moved in with his host family in August and turned heads from his first winter tryout.
“He’s definitely one of the smartest players on the court at all times when it comes to volleyball,” said teammate Tyler Stewart.
As Casagrande acclimated, he noticed a number of technical differences between the American and Italian game. For example, the libero never serves in Italy, and positions are more rigidly defined. He approached coach Toby Chaperon with his experiences and suggestions, and Chaperon was all ears.
“Me being a visual learner, I told him to draw it out,” Chaperon said. “Tell me who’s where in each rotation and let’s see what it looks like, and I said, you know what, actually I like that. I think it’s going to fit our personnel.”
Casagrande thrives as an outside hitter in a utility role; he leads the Tigers with 34 aces and sits third in kills (114), digs (130), and assists (17). But he’s not alone. Daniel Medina slots in seamlessly as a first-year setter with 33 aces and 544 assists.
Then there’s Stewart, a 6-foot-6 senior who has racked up at least 10 kills in every match this spring. Stewart will be the second player in program history to make the state postseason in every year of his four-year Taunton career (albeit without a junior season).
“Of course, Tyler, he’s unstoppable,” Casagrande said.
“We weren’t really expecting to be this good, if I’m honest,” Stewart said. “Our expectations were pretty low but we’re pretty happy with where we are right now.”
As gyms heat up and pressure intensifies, Casagrande has adjusted to a new schedule as well. When he played club in Italy, matches only occurred on weekends, with weekday practices meant to ramp up players for competition. But Taunton has played 16 games in just over one month, a jam-packed schedule that leaves less time for recovery.
“Here we have to rest, because maybe we have three or four games a week. So usually practices are [used] a little bit to get rest,” he said.
Casagrande’s year as an exchange student ends on June 15. But he worked with his exchange program to extend his visa, and will be staying in Taunton until July 10 – enough time for a run through the state tournament.
“I am very thankful for that,” he said, “because I think we’re having a really, really good season, and it would have been a little bit disappointing — actually, a lot disappointing — leaving the team.”
The senior will stay to stamp his unique perspective on the Tigers. Chaperon thinks this year renewed a passion for Casagrande — one that could continue well past his time in Taunton.
“He even said something to me; He goes, ‘You know, I think I want to coach volleyball in the future. I’d like to be a coach,’” Chaperon said.
“He’s kind of like a coach inside of a player,” he added.
▪ Revere boys’ volleyball was supposed to make its program debut in 2020. The year-long wait was worth it, though, as the Minutemen have surprised even themselves in their first season via a 10-2 record.
“I expected a handful of wins at best,” said coach Lianne O’Hara.
Competing against mostly Greater Boston League and Boston City League foes, the squad has been led by Luis Palacio, a Colombian immigrant with a volleyball tattoo on his leg and a frenetic energy. O’Hara says Palacio lifts the spirits of everyone on the team.
“He goes out and he finds like the weakest player of JV when we’re overlapping, and he works with that kid. “He’s just incredibly kind,” she said.
The Minutemen opted out of the state tournament; O’Hara said she did not want to put too much pressure on her players in their first season.
“The goal was learning and having fun,” she said.
▪ Milford (14-2 overall) continues to pace the Tri-Valley League including a perfect 13-0 run in conference play. Coach Andrew Mainini says some of that success can actually be traced back to last summer, when beach and grass volleyball took hold of the Scarlet Hawks.
“That was a new thing for our program,” he said. “A lot of the boys talked about this year how beach and grass volleyball help them work on their fundamentals, because it’s a much more defensive game than playing indoors.”
Last year, the participating players joined summer leagues at Blue Fish Bowl Volleyball Club in Rhode Island. This summer, Mainini hopes to continue the momentum, and is starting grass leagues through the Milford Community School Use Program. The leagues are gaining steam in a short time.
“We’re actually almost full,” he said.
▪ Westford Academy (8-2) clinched its first Dual County League title this past week after splitting the week’s series with Lincoln-Sudbury. In the Merrimack Valley Conference, Chelmsford (9-0) secured an unbeaten record and its first league title since 2014 by knocking off 9-2 Lowell on Saturday.