It’s the middle of boys’ volleyball practice at Randolph High, and seven-year coach George Papalambros blows his whistle.
There’s a pause while he consults a bright yellow post-it note.
“Căn cú,’’ he says finally, Vietnamese for “base.” The players line up for a base position drill.
A bit later, the coach glances at the note again. ““Makinig,’’ he shouts, or “listen” in Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines.
It’s all in a day’s work for Papalambros and his team, which lost 10 seniors to graduation last year. But to the coach’s delight, newcomers from a variety of backgrounds stepped up to play.
Papalambros knew he had to do his homework.
“I wanted to learn the languages of my players,’’ he said, and he began with volleyball terms. “I’ve started with words like base, hit, listen, as well as numbers like one, two, three.”
The team has players from the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Haiti, and of course the United States. Some have only been here for one or two years and are still learning English, so Papalambros sensed a teachable moment, for both the students and himself. He’d help them with their English, while they returned the favor about their native tongues.
“It’s been a lot of fun learning English and teaching him Vietnamese,” said Tien Diep, a senior outside hitter. “It means a lot that our coach is so interested in the cultures and backgrounds of all the different nationalities. I think it builds onto our team chemistry and trust.”
Both coach and players hope that trust translates to a winning season for Randolph. The team features just two returning players, both now captains, on its varsity. Senior Adim Monteiro and junior JJ Mateo, both outside hitters, have played varsity since they were freshmen and will be expected to lead the squad, Papalambros said.
After practicing for a few weeks, Papalambros and the two captains agree that this year’s team has potential.
“We’ve never won a game in the sectional tournament, so that’s our goal this year,” Monteiro said. “We want to make the tournament and win at least one game, but hopefully more. I believe this team is capable of making a run in the tournament.”
Since the team was formed in the spring of 2011, Randolph has made it to the Division 1 South tournament twice, in 2015 and 2016.
In 2015, Randolph was the 11th seed and lost to No. 6 New Bedford in the first round. The 2016 squad earned fourth seed and a bye in the first round, but lost to No. 5 Quincy in the quarterfinals.
For Papalambros, though, as the team approached its first match of the season, tournament talk is jumping the gun.
The team’s main concern, said sophomore libero Jim Menzi, was how its members would communicate on the court. Instead of using words, the players have been employing actions, symbols, and a great measure of trust as they worked out.
“I think we understand each other better because we relied on our trust,” said sophomore middle hitter Michael Fajarillo. “It’s only been a couple of weeks, and I already think of these players as family.”
Oddly enough, even as the players readied for opening day, there was a lot of excited talk among them about the end-of-the-season banquet. It’s a popular topic because Papalambros plans the banquet differently than most teams.
Instead of having caterers bring in food or ordering pizza, Papalambros makes it a potluck dinner. He wants the families to bring their native foods, so parents and players can, through the shared pleasure of dining together, get some taste for each other’s cultures.
“Being a three-sport athlete,’’ said Menzi, “this is the banquet I look forward to because it’s more personalized to the players. You get a taste of every culture, and it’s special to be a part of it.”
“There’s nothing better than eating homemade Vietnamese, Filipino, or Chinese food,” Mateo said. “I’m starting to get hungry just thinking about the banquet.”
As for Papalambros’s personal goal, he wants to learn more about the cultures and become more fluent in the languages. Right now, it’s just the basics, but at the end of the season he wants to be able to speak sentences and have conversations with his players in their native languages.
He knows it won’t be the last year that students hailing from around the world play volleyball for the school, so he wants to make the team as inviting as possible for each youngster who wants to join.
After all, when all is said and done, sports are all about pagtutulungan ng magkakasama — teamwork in the Tagalog language.
“There’s six guys out on that court at all times,’’ said the coach, and “therefore we need to use every single one of them to win.
“Teamwork is key in this sport, and we need to continue building that teamwork until we reach our goals in the sectional and state tournaments.”