For a number of the strongest boys’ volleyball programs in the state, there is a common theme to their sustained success: club players.
Needham and Newton North have competed for state titles on an annual basis thanks in large part to the ability to replace their graduating stars with new players who play throughout the year on local club teams.
The Taunton boys’ volleyball team, however, has thrust itself into the short list of teams vying for a state title despite a much different roster makeup.
One of just three undefeated teams remaining in the state in Week 6 of the season, the Tigers sit atop the Southern Alliance at 13-0 despite the presence of just two club players on the roster: senior opposite hitter Lance Law and junior libero Gage Kingman , who both suit up for Beantown.
“I actually like that factor that we have because it gives us the element of surprise,” said senior outside hitter Malik Charles , who plays basketball in the winter.
“People don’t think we’re as good as them because they play year-round and we don’t, when we’re just as good as them or even better . . . They never really know what we have.”
Nine-year coach Toby Chaperon has focused on recruiting players based on their athletic abilities. He hit the jackpot with his current senior class. Charles and middle blocker Lens Esquil are basketball players. Setter Ricardo Da Fonseca plays soccer and used to run track. Collin Hunter , a 6-foot-3 outside hitter, is also star receiver on the football team. Add Law, who has racked up 867 kills in his four-plus seasons (including 136 this season), and the Tigers had the pieces to spark a dramatic five-year turnaround.
“At the end of every season, I kind of break it down to them,” said Chaperon.
“Look at what you guys can do in three months. By the time that you’re a senior, you literally have only played one calendar year of volleyball if you started as a freshman, whereas the other kids are playing all this other time. So you look at how good we are, but also look how good we could be.”
The path hasn’t always been easy for Taunton.
The current seniors were part of an 0-20 season as eighth graders. The Tigers produced a total of eight wins from 2014 to 2016.
“The first few years were rough,” said Da Fonseca.
“We went 0-20 and then we started getting better, we started practicing more, we became a better team, and we’re here now. It hasn’t been necessarily an easy road, and I want people to know that. We’ve been through the ups and downs together, and now we’re finally seeing the reward. We talk about family all the time, and this team really means it.”
Since that forgettable 0-20 spring, Taunton went 3-15 in 2015 and 5-15 the following season. Last season was the breakthrough, a 16-5 run that ended with a three-set loss to Wellesley in the first round of the South tournament.
With a second consecutive playoff appearance already booked, the Tigers now shift their goal to winning the first Southern Alliance title. They already own a 3-0 sweep of 17th-ranked Milford, a 3-2 victory over No. 7 North Quincy, and a 3-0 win over No. 6 Greater New Bedford.
“We’ve wanted this Southern Alliance championship since freshman year,” said Charles.
“I always remember Greater New Bedford or North Quincy at the top, and now we’re finally at the top because we’ve come together as a team and we worked hard for this. It would be a very big accomplishment for me and all the seniors on the team. That’s one of the big steps we want to take this year. We want to start off with the Southern Alliance and then we want to make it far into the playoffs.”
Chaperon hopes the program’s surged will start attracting more athletes to start playing volleyball at both the high school and club level.
“Some of the younger kids are seeing the success that we’re having and I feel like more kids want to be a part of it,” said Chaperon.
“I’m sure that’s what happens for the Newtons and the Needhams. Kids see success and they want to be a part of it. We now have a few kids at the JV level and they’re really interested in playing and now they’re even talking about playing club and really getting involved in playing volleyball, which is something that we’re really hoping happens because it would give our program a level of sustainability not only for this year, but for the years to come.”
■ With a 3-0 sweep of Presentation of Mary on Tuesday, Malden qualified for the postseason for the first time in program history. The Golden Tornadoes (10-4), led by senior captains Arthur Kossoski , Felipe Niero and Peter Teixeira and junior setter Ryoma Yonetani, have found success in their first year in the Commonwealth Athletic Conference after spending the first four years of the program’s history as an independent.
“I have a lot of seniors who have been with me for a few years, so they kind of knew this was their last chance to get something done that has never been done before,” said third-year coach Dan Jurkowski.
“ . . . Right now, we’re just trying to make sure that we’re playing our best volleyball going into the tournament. Everyone is very excited that we made it into the tournament, but we also want to win a game or two in the tournament. We’re not going to be satisfied with a one-and-done kind of deal.”
■ With a 3-0 sweep of Lexington on Friday, Winchester wrapped up its ALS benefit with a second annual Spike Out ALS game. Between the match and the ALS One Tournament at Winchester and Needham in April, over $3,300 was raised and donated to help ALS research . . . Needham (16-0) and Taunton (12-0) both capped off unblemished weeks to remain undefeated. The Rockets take on the defending state champ, undefeated Westfield (14-0) on May 21, assuring that one will pick up a loss. Taunton faces a tough road with Greater New Bedford (11-3), North Quincy (10-2) and Milford (10-3) still on the schedule.
Players of the Week
Lucas Caetano, Milford — The junior setter dished out 27 assists in a sweep of St. John’s Prep before adding 22 more in a sweep of Millis in a 2-0 week.
Eric Chabon, Brookline — He tallied 17 kills, 14 digs and five aces to pace the Warriors to a 3-2 comeback win over Framingham after logging 14 kills in a loss to Newton North.
James Chung, Winchester —
Spencer Dellea, Haverhill — In a 2-1 week for the Hillies, Dellea posted 13 kills in a sweep of Methuen, 11 in a 3-0 loss to Chelmsford, and 16 in a four-set win over North Andover.
Mike Wishart, Braintree — He distributed 32 assists against Norwood and 19 against Weymouth, both sweeps, in a 2-1 week as the Wamps closed within one win of the state tourney.
Games to Watch
Monday, Acton-Boxboro at Lexington, 5:15 p.m. — Both teams look to rebound from tough losses against fellow teams ranked in the top 20.
Monday, North Quincy at Taunton, 5:30 p.m. — The Tigers won a five-set matchup two weeks ago to hand North Quincy its first loss of the year and could potentially clinch at least a share of the Southern Alliance crown with a win.
Monday, Natick at Needham, 6:30 p.m. — The undefeated Rockets got the best of Natick earlier this season to hand the Redhawks their lone loss of the season and now host a rematch of the top two teams in the Globe’s Top 20.
Wednesday, Winchester at Acton-Boxboro, 5:15 p.m. — The Sachems head to Acton riding an eight-game win streak to face a Colonials team that sits near the top of the DCL.
Thursday, Malden at Greater Lowell Tech, 5 p.m. — The host Gryphons can likely clinch the Commonwealth Athletic Conference title with a win; the Golden Tornadoes look to close the two-game gap.Dan McLoone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.