Always consistent, the challenge for the Pilgrim boys’ volleyball team the past few years was getting over the hump.
After 11 consecutive seasons finishing .500 or better, the Pats finally did it, going undefeated last season in Division II-South and sweeping Barrington in the championship for the program’s first ever volleyball title.
The challenge now will be a whole lot different.
Thanks to the dominant run through D-II last season, the Rhode Island Interscholastic League gave Pilgrim the option to move up to Division I and compete with the state’s best. The Pats accepted, and as a result will now be part of the 12-team D-I that will offer a drastic change in competition night-in and night-out.
And they’re excited.
“I felt like to take this whole thing to another level I was going to move us up,” Pilgrim head coach Mike McGiveron said. “We could have stayed down and competed for another championship, but I want to get to the top of the state and the volleyball rankings. I felt that this was probably the best way to go about it.”
Division I, which was one nine-team division last year, is now split into two, six-team sub-divisions. Pilgrim will be competing alongside Chariho, Exeter-West Greenwich – which also moved up from D-II – perennial powers Coventry, North Kingstown and defending state champion South Kingstown in D-I-South.
Barrington, which is in D-I-North, also moved up from D-II.
While it was a given that the Pats would pick up a few wins every year against the bottom feeders of Division II, that won’t be the case any longer. Every team is competitive, and nothing is guaranteed.
“The game is going to be faster,” McGiveron said. “You’re going to come across teams that are just better than us right now. We’ve got to get to that level.”
It’s going to be a process, but the Pats feel like they have the horses to step in and make some noise in their first year, even after getting hit hard through graduation.
Pilgrim said goodbye to standout Sean St. Jacques, a second-team All-State selection last year, as well as first-team all-division selection John Zuffoletti. Gone, too, are setter Jason Ferguson, middle hitter Matt McCabe and Tilden Thao.
Oddly enough, however, the graduation losses were a factor in why Pilgrim moved up in the first place.
“I knew I had a lot of younger guys coming in and I thought I would get them the experience at the younger level,” McGiveron said.
Between the JV and varsity teams, 14 of the 23 players are either freshmen or sophomores, giving them ample opportunity to grow and learn to compete at a D-I level. Pilgrim also won a JV state title last year, so there is already some talent within its young group.
Plus, the team has some solid returners. Third-team all-division middle hitter Dan Colabella, a senior, is back in the fold and serving as a captain, and much of the offense will run through him.
“Dan is playing front row, and we’re going to rely on him a lot,” McGiveron said. “He’s going to play all the way around.”
The other two captains are seniors Chris Fitta and Christian White, both of whom were big parts of the championship team last year.
Fitta will be an outside hitter who could also do some setting, while White will be one of the team’s top hitters on the outside. McGiveron has seen marked improvement this year from both of them as well.
“You win a championship and you’re eager for more,” McGiveron said. “Instead of wasting time in the summer, you’ve got kids going out and playing in leagues outside of school and things like that.”
Stepping up from the JV squad and joining the varsity full-time is junior Phil Nemirow, who is slotted to play in the middle alongside Colabella. At 6-foot-4, he’ll provide another big threat at the net.
At setter, junior Alec LaBitt is stepping in for White after a strong season on JV.
“He’s been getting a lot better as time has been going on,” McGiveron said.
Senior Josh Salinger has shown a lot of improvement at outside hitter after registering some varsity time last season, and junior Caleb Fournier – a solid hitter – should also be a nice addition on the outside after playing JV last season.
Senior Chris Thao is in line to play some defense this year, while junior Tyler Mantaian will swing between JV and varsity and play some defense.
Other swing players are sophomore Blake Doelling, sophomore middle Rob Quaine and fellow sophomore Wendall Thao.
“Some of these guys that were freshmen last year got a lot better this year,” McGiveron said.
The top four teams in each of D-I’s subdivisions make the playoffs, and McGiveron thinks that’s a very realistic goal for the Pats. They haven’t finished below .500 in a season since 1999, and have four straight seasons of 10 wins or more.
Of course, those accomplishments came in D-II. Now, the Pats will look to continue their upward progression, and do so against the state’s best.
“No one ever came up to me and was like ‘Why did you do this, why did you do that?’” McGiveron said. “It was always like, ‘Let’s go.’ That was the attitude we’ve taken since I got here. Never be satisfied, always look for where you want to