When the Pilgrim boys’ volleyball team moved up to Division I this season after a D-II championship last year it thought it would be in for a significant challenge. Three matches into it, the Pats’ suspicions have been confirmed – D-I is very, very tough.
Right off the bat, Pilgrim played three straight Division I contenders. It opened the season with a 3-0 loss to Coventry, then lost 3-1 to North Kingstown last Tuesday. On Friday, the Pats lost 3-0 to defending state champion South Kingstown.
Coventry and NK are both state semifinalists from last year, and the combined record of Pilgrim’s opponents so far is 7-1. The only loss in the group came when Coventry beat South Kingstown.
“I had very low expectations coming into this season early on,” Pilgrim head coach Mike McGiveron said. “We’ve got a very hard schedule. They came out and gave us pretty much the top three teams in the state.”
But the Pats aren’t hanging their heads. In fact, they’re doing just the opposite. While it’s been rocky so far, McGiveron is expecting brighter days on the horizon. And, in the long run, he thinks the tough schedule will be good for his team’s development.
“That’s what I told these guys,” McGiveron said. “I was like, ‘You’re going to see some really good teams at first. Don’t get down. Just play your hardest, scrap, play like you’ve got nothing to lose and then by the fourth game of the season we’ll be fine.’”
On Friday, against the Rebels, the Pats did hold their own, and they showed signs of a team that can play consistently at a D-I level. While they lost 25-17, 25-16 and 25-21, they held leads in all three games, and were tied as late as 19-19 in game three.
They were also playing without two of their top passers – sophomore Wendall Thao and junior Alec LaBitt – who were both out with foot injuries.
Essentially, it should get easier from here on out. The team’s next match is today against Exeter-West Greenwich, which is 0-2 so far after also moving up to D-I from D-II. That match is at Pilgrim at 6:30 p.m.
“They haven’t been playing all that well, so hopefully we can take advantage of it, win a match and see where it goes,” McGiveron said.
The Pats will be trying to iron out some serving issues that really set them back against South Kingstown. They led early on in game one, but committed five service errors in the game. The Rebels scored 14 of the final 19 points to claim the win.
In game two, the Pats were up 9-6 thanks to a block and a kill by Dan Colabella, a block by Chris Fitta and a block by Phil Nemirow, but still committed three service errors during the first 15 points.
South Kingstown came storming back, winning 11 consecutive points to take a 17-9 lead. Ryan Casci – considered to be one of, if not the, best hitters in the state – had three kills during the run, and Kevin Delany added a kill and two blocks.
The Pats did go on a small run of their own late, as they were down 22-13 and climbed back to 22-16 on a big hit by Josh Salinger, but the Rebels closed out the game with three straight points of their own to go up 2-0.
“The service errors killed us in the first two games,” McGiveron said. “Once we started fighting through points and getting our passing there, it got better. We’re not getting all the aspects going at the same time.”
Game three was far and away Pilgrim’s best showing, as it went toe-to-toe with the high-powered Rebels almost the entire way. The Pats went up 10-7 on a kill by Christian White, then 12-9 on a block by Colabella. An ace by Nemirow made it 13-9.
“No one on this team is afraid of anything,” McGiveron said. “You could throw the best volleyball players in the world in front of these guys and it wouldn’t make a difference. They’re just going to go out there and play as hard as they can. I’ve got guys, one through 12, who will give you everything they’ve got on every single play.”
South Kingstown started to find its footing after that, tying the game at 14 and taking a lead at 15-14. But Pilgrim grabbed the lead right back at 16-15, and later tied the score at 19 on a strong serve by Fitta.
Still, the Rebels had a little too much. A service error and a hitting error by the Pats made it 21-19, and a hard hit by Delany made it 22-19. Pilgrim climbed all the way back to 22-21 on a hit by Christian White, but a push to an open spot in the back of the court by South Kingstown’s Jon Fagan, an ace by Tyler Stafford and a kill by Casci ended the match.
“The communication in the first match of the season wasn’t there,” McGiveron said. “I think once these guys understand no matter who you are, where I put you in, what’s the situation, we have a good team.”
Colabella led Pilgrim with five kills and nine blocks, while Fitta had two kills, four blocks and 27 assists. Nemirow finished with two kills and five blocks.
One thing that stood out for the Pats was how they dealt with Casci. While he was effective, he never took over the match.
“We put up blocks against the best hitter in the state,” McGiveron said. “He’s the best hitter in the state, there’s no doubt about it. And we kind of minimized him. I think we’ll be looking good towards the middle of the season.”
After taking on EWG, the Pats will travel to Chariho next Tuesday and then take on East Providence on Thursday.
Pilgrim hopes things are looking up.
“It’s just a matter of consistency to stay through the games,” McGiveron said. “We’ll be all right. By the time the season is over, we’ll be pretty hot.”