The Pilgrim volleyball team graduated most of its starting lineup from last season, and it brings back only two players with significant varsity experience.
But the Pats have no interest in taking a step back.
After reaching the Division II quarterfinals each of the past two seasons, Pilgrim head coach Mike McGiveron thinks his team is built once again to contend, regardless of the new faces.
“We’re going to probably maintain where we’ve always been,” McGiveron said. “Somewhere near that top-3 in the sub-divison. I haven’t seen all of the other teams yet.”
The Pats will take the court without last year’s setter, Pavel Malyuta, as well as middle hitter Tyler Little and contributors Gaston Thao and Nick Stocker.
Back in the fold, however, are seniors Sean St. Jacques and John Zuffoletti, and they should make any growing pains much easier to deal with. Two weeks into practice, that’s been clear.
“You never really know two weeks in,” McGiveron said. “It’s really hard to tell where you’re supposed to be. But this is their third varsity season for those two guys. Having those two guys on the court brings good leadership.”
St. Jacques played outside hitter early in the season last year before moving in to the middle for the latter half of the year. At both spots, he was among the team’s most consistent players.
With another year of experience, he’s ready for an even better year this time around.
“Sean is going to be one of the better players in the state, I have a feeling,” McGiveron said. “He worked really hard in the off-season to get even better than he was. He’s going to be one of the better hitters in the state.”
Zuffoletti was another one of the Pats’ cornerstones last season, as he made the transition from a more defensive-oriented player to a solid outside hitter.
He’ll man the side opposite of St. Jacques, giving Pilgrim a powerful combination.
“For the past couple years he had been more of a defensive guy,” McGiveron said. “At the end of the last season he was hitting really well.”
Replacing Malyuta at setter will be senior Jason Ferguson, who played junior varsity last year but got some time with the varsity as well.
“He’s got very good hands on him,” McGiveron said. “He knows volleyball very well. He’s a good decision maker.”
In the middle, the Pats are hoping for big things from 6-foot-4 senior Matt McCabe.
He’s new to the team, but he worked out in the off-season and has shown a knack for the sport already.
“He’s very athletic for his size, played on the soccer team,” McGiveron said. “I was completely shocked how he’s progressed so far.”
The other middle hitter will be junior Dan Colabella.
“He’s gotten a lot more athletic than last year, and he moves around the court a lot better,” McGiveron said. “He’s a better blocker this year, too.”
Serving as an off-hand hitter will be junior Christian White, who should bring a solid mix of hitting and setting.
Rounding out the core of the team is senior Tilden Thao and junior Chris Fitta, both of whom will play some back row, junior Josh Salinger and senior Ben O’Donnell.
That entire group is different than last year in that its strength will likely be in the defense. Last year’s team relied heavily on offense, putting an emphasis on staying aggressive from start to finish.
McGiveron isn’t planning on trying to dictate games that way with this particular group.
“This year is a little different,” McGiveron said. “Last year, we were kind of aggressive serving and we tried to put the pressure on them. This year, I think we have a lot better defensive team, and we can try to let the other team kind of make the mistake. It’s a lot different.”
On the other hand, the Pats are still hoping to rely on their serve, which should be slightly less aggressive, but significantly more consistent than last year.
“Our serve this year is off the charts,” McGiveron said. “Last year we had very aggressive serving. We probably had a lower percentage. This year we have a lot of strong, consistent serves.”
Pilgrim played its Injury Fund matches last week, where it took on Barrington and Warwick Vets in two games apiece.
The Pats beat Vets in both games, and it split with Barrington.
It wasn’t a masterpiece, but McGiveron was happy with the performance in the early going.
And with the team slated to begin its regular season against Warwick Vets today at 6:30 p.m., the Pats are planning on contending once again.
“The last two seasons, we’ve gone to the quarterfinals of the state,” McGiveron said. “Everyone knows we need to go further. That’s the whole idea, trying to get better. You can always be better than yesterday, that’s kind of our motto. Hopefully at the end of the season, that’s where we’ll we be.”