It was the third set of a nonleague girls’ volleyball showdown vs. Tewksbury, Burlington was looking for a sweep of the defending Division 3 state champion, and Ula Rinkeviciute just kept on serving. She was achieving something her teammates had never seen before.
The sophomore setter has been a big part of a 4-0 start for the Red Devils, ranked No. 18 in the Globe Top 20 girls’ volleyball poll, and her ability shined in that big set against Tewksbury. In a fiery start, she rattled off 21 straight service points en route to a 25-5 thrashing that announced Burlington’s arrival as a contender.
“I was pretty much in awe,” said Burlington coach Wingsze Seaman. “For the team to go through and go under the stress test is a testament to how hard they worked. They played through every single point and [there was] no holding back. They’re in it for every single point.”
Burlington typically faces Winchester early in the season, except in the COVID-delayed Fall II season, when they met in the tournament. In their season opener on Sept. 7, the Red Devils earned their first win (3-1) over Winchester since 2015.
“I’m really proud of how our team played,” said junior hitter Grace Seaman, the coach’s daughter. “Our first two sets against Winchester, it was kind of a surprise to us. After winning that fourth set it was incredible to see our team celebrate, because I know how much it meant.”
Rinkeviciute, who leads the team with 96 assists and 23 aces in four games, is the third in line of players who started on the varsity as a freshman. Senior hitter Keira Riley, the first four-year starter under Seaman’s tutelage, has a team-leading 67 receptions, and Grace Seaman leads the Red Devils in kills (50) and digs (60).
‘We were unsure how the year was going to go. We’ve come back so much stronger.’
Senior outside hitter Keira Riley, on the prospects for the Burlington girls' volleyball team after losing four starting players
A key element of the success has been camaraderie which has evolved over time..
“When I was a freshman, it was peak COVID, we’d go to practice with masks on . . . Naturally, we didn’t get to know each other that much,” recalled Riley. “My sophomore and junior year we were close as a team, but there was a bit of division. It’s noticeable this year that we’re so close.”
Starting as a freshman, Rinkeviciute was nervous, but now, with a year of experience and comfort with her teammates, she has a stronger handle on being the centerpiece of the offense.
“Setter-hitter chemistry is important,” she said. “It doesn’t just happen in practice, we’re close in and out of the court. You understand people more. Once you get to hang out outside, you build that connection.”
Grace Seaman played setter in her freshman season, but with Rinkeviciute’s arrival last year, she moved to outside hitter. Her experience makes her a second option to set, but she has focused her skills on hitting, where she has become a go-to.
“I think my power overall has improved,” Seaman said of her offseason work. “I’m hoping to cut back on the errors, even though we’ve been playing well.”
Though only Riley and Seaman have started for more than two years, the welcoming nature of the team has helped others step into key roles, like senior defensive specialist Lauren Saia, senior hitter Haleigh Collins, senior hitter (and first-year varsity player) Ria Gandhi, and junior libero Karina Boyadjiev.
“I think we have a lot of great communication on the court, calling your ball, calling where to hit,” said Boyadjiev. “It makes it a lot easier, you feel more comfortable on the court.”
Burlington has not advanced past the second round of the postseason in the past two seasons, but with a solid start and a group of versatile players, there is reason for optimism.
“I remember going into this year, we were a little bit nervous,” Riley said. “We lost four out of six of our starting players. We were unsure how the year was going to go.
“We’ve come back so much stronger.”
▪ Hamilton-Wenham (4-0) is well on its way to surpassing last year’s 11-8 finish, after rallying from two sets down to edge Lynnfield, 3-2.
Senior Hannah Ciriello (23 assists in the win) has seized the setting role from graduate Amber Scanlon.
“She’s starting to make plays I’ve never seen her make before,” said coach Marc Turiano. “She’s reaching the point now where she’s able to do good things with poor first contacts . . . She’s able to take the crazy situations and slow things down a bit, and better the ball to put the hitters in a good spot.”
Ciriello shares the captaincy with classmates Gaby Campbell and Maddie Wilson, leading a team that is able to apply concepts Turiano utilized at his previous coaching stops (Regis College, Salem State, and Missouri State-West Plains).
“When the kids are there, they’re locked in,” Turiano said. “Especially with this being year two of me with the program, the kids are really starting to get it. You see it in games, in action.”
▪ Chelmsford, which has played three games after one matchup (Sept. 7 vs. Revere) was postponed because of the heat, is also unbeaten.
In their first game back, senior Kyra Ward (seven aces) and junior Trinity Batchelder (six aces) picked it up from the service line.
“We had a struggle to start the game off, as if it’s our first game. Hadn’t played in a week,” said Chelmsford coach Edgar Valdez. “Kyra ended up getting nine points in a row, spaces, getting us opportunities to capitalize.”
Games to watch
Friday, Newburyport at Ipswich, 5:30 p.m. — A clash of unbeaten Cape Ann rivals.
Monday, Andover at Haverhill and Chelmsford at Methuen, 5 p.m. — It’s a big test for four top Merrimack Valley teams; four of the five teams still undefeated in the conference face one another.
Tuesday, Belmont at Winchester, 5:15 p.m. — The Marauders took down a strong Melrose squad Monday, and just over a week later they’ll face another in Winchester.
Tuesday, Hamilton-Wenham at Ipswich, 5:30 p.m. — If the Tigers manage to take down one of the other two remaining undefeated teams in the Cape Ann League, they could find out who is the last one standing four days later.
Thursday, Franklin at Bishop Feehan, 5:30 p.m. — Senior Taylor Lacerda, who recently notched her 500th kill, leads the Panthers against a strong Feehan team.
AJ Traub can be reached at email@example.com.