The Pilgrim boys’ volleyball team moved to Division I last year. This year – even in the midst of another tough start – they feel like they’ve actually arrived.
The Pats fell to 0-3 with a narrow, 3-2 loss to South Kingstown on Tuesday night, but outside of the win-loss column, the positives are out-weighing the negatives. The Pats took their lumps against Coventry and North Kingstown – two powerhouses – but were up to the challenge against another one. South Kingstown was the D-I state champion in 2012 and the runner-up last year. Pilgrim pushed the Rebels to the brink and lost by just three points in the decisive fifth game.
The schedule can’t get any tougher from here, and if the Pats keep playing like they did Tuesday, they’re poised to get their first real taste of Division I success.
“I like where we are right now,” said Pilgrim head coach Mike McGiveron. “It’s tough to say that at 0-3, but it’s not your typical 0-3.”
Last year, the Patriots were adjusting to life in D-I, on the heels of a Division II championship. They finished 3-13, and against the state’s best teams, they looked the part of a D-II team trying to hold their own at a higher level.
They look like a D-I team now.
“It’s night and day,” McGiveron said. “Last year, we kind of used it as a learning experience. You take that first year to adjust to it. Now, they don’t really fear anything and it shows on the court.”
Something to show on the scoreboard would be nice for the Pats, but they couldn’t quite finish the job against South Kingstown. After losing 25-23 and 25-16 to start the match , they rallied for a 25-19 win in game three then forced a winner-take-all fifth game with a hard-fought, 25-22 win in game four.
In the fifth game, they led 11-10 but saw South win five of the next six points to escape with the victory. The Rebels improved to 2-1.
“Those are two equally matched teams right there,” McGiveron said. “We’re getting better every match. It’s just the consistency.”
In the first game, the largest lead for either team was three points, and the score was tied as late as 23-23. But the Rebels got a kill from Alex Mason to go up 24-23 and clinched the game when Pilgrim couldn’t get a return after a hit.
In game two, the Pats had their struggles, falling behind 4-0 and 12-4. They made a game of it when they got within four at 19-15 but South won the next five points to pull away.
“The first game was really close,” McGiveron said. “Then it’s just a matter of making sure the second game doesn’t go downhill, but it did.”
But the Patriots were undeterred. They raced to a 6-1 lead in game three and never trailed, holding off every South Kingstown charge to stay alive. Rob Quaine had two key kills late in the game to keep the Pats in front.
In game four, it was South that jumped ahead. The Rebels led 5-0, but Pilgrim slowly chipped away and worked back to several ties. After South won four straight to go up 17-13, the Pats answered with seven in a row to take their first lead. Phil Nemirow had three aces to power the surge. The Rebels stayed close, but Caleb Fournier landed a pair of kills in crunch time to get Pilgrim the 25-22 victory.
In game five, neither team led by more than a point until South’s late surge. The Pats had gone up 11-10 on a kill by Blake Doelling and an ace by Nemirow, but Nemirow’s next serve hit the net. With the match tied, Quaine tried a push to the sideline but the ball landed out of bounds, giving the Rebels the lead. A miscommunication kept the Pats from returning a hit on the next point and they couldn’t return John Vaccaro’s next serve, either.
Suddenly, the Rebels had match point.
Pilgrim stayed alive when the ensuing serve went long, but South’s Michael Gross gave his team the victory with a kill on the next point.
The Pats were disappointed but they remain hopeful that better days are ahead. Even in the loss, the performance against South was probably Pilgrim’s best since its move to D-I.
“We did things we haven’t done yet this year,” McGiveron said. “Coventry and North Kingstown, this is what we wanted to happen. Blake and Rob are starting to learn and my older guys know it. It’s a good group. These are all guys that have been in my system three or four years. They’re doing a great job.”
Quaine led the Pats with 12 kills. Fournier and Doelling had eight each, with Doelling also tallying eight digs. Alec Labitt had 35 assists and Nemirow notched four aces.
“Once we get our defense and our passing down, we’re going to be a very hard team to beat as the season goes on,” McGiveron said. “Now we’ve just got to focus on winning our winnable matches and not playing down to lower teams. The whole goal is to get to the playoffs. Then you never know.”
Pilgrim will be pushing hard for its first victory when it visits Exeter/West Greenwich on Friday at 6:30 p.m. The Scarlet Knights moved to D-I along with the Pats last year and went 1-15. They’re 0-3 this year.