TEWKSBURY — While every year presents its share of challenges at the sub-varsity level, this season was more challenging than ever for teams at that level. In addition to the yearly challenge of balancing the quest for as many wins as possible with the quest to prepare players for the varsity level, this season teams had to also deal with the shortened season and reduced practice time that came along with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Tewksbury High JV ‘A’ Volleyball team faced an even more unique challenge than many other teams this season, with literally half of their players being new to the sport of volleyball. Some of that inexperience certainly showed in the team’s 1-8 record on the season, but more importantly, the team made a dramatic improvement from the beginning of the season to the end under the direction of coach Kaitlyn Stokes.
“The team was made up of six returning players and six brand new players to the sport. Each day at practice, the girls were working hard improving on each new skill,” Stokes said. “In volleyball, serving is a hard skill to learn and I'm proud to say that by the end of the year, every player on the team had gotten at least one over. As a coach it is always so rewarding to finally have all the pieces click together and see the excitement when they finally achieve a goal they've set.”
That improvement and excitement was never more evident than in the Redmen’s lone win of the season against Dracut.
“With this modified season, we would play the same team on a Saturday and then that coming Wednesday,” Stokes said. “One weekend, we lost to Dracut in the third set. We knew we had two practices until the next time we played them and when we did at home, we ended up beating them in three sets after working hard on making corrections from when we first played them. It was great to see the girls dig deep and battle for that win.”
The Redmen got contributions from virtually every player on their roster, but a few players did stand out as potential future stars at the varsity level, including junior co-captain Grace Dockery, who was voted by her teammates as the team’s MVP.
“Grace took on a large role this year that often required her to play all the way around without a substitution,” Stokes said. “Our other junior co-captain, Izzy DeSisto was voted the 7th Player Award for going above and beyond the call of duty on and off the court. Izzy was our starting setter and unfortunately had to miss some of our season due to Covid precautions which only made her work harder the first day she was cleared to come back.”
Stokes also pointed to the efforts of sophomore Vanessa Green and freshmen Ava Nordbruch as standing out among this hard working group.
“Vanessa was brand new to our program this year, but she caught on quickly. She had one set in particular during our away match against Dracut where she served 13 balls in a row, many of which were aces,” Stokes said. “With her height, Vanessa was making blocks as our season progressed which will only help our defense against other teams.
“Ava was someone who stood out to our coaching staff during tryouts amongst her freshmen peers. She is an extremely hard worker and has a love for the game that translates on the court. Because of that, I often had her playing all the way around to develop her offensive and defensive skills. She is quick to get to balls and she is able to hit too which makes her a versatile player that coaches love to have. In recognition of all of her hard work and dedication this season, I named Ava my Coaches Award recipient.”
While those players stood put for their outstanding seasons, Stokes, a 2007 graduate of Tewksbury High where she played volleyball, lacrosse and basketball was pleased with the efforts of all the players representing her alma mater, particularly during this most unusual of seasons with rules changes and extra safety precautions.
“As a coaching staff, we were just happy to have a season in general and were willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. We took the necessary precautions to make sure all of our balls and equipment were sanitized each day and that our players were masked and socially distanced whenever possible,” Stokes said. “As a coach, it was hard to see players make amazing hits or setters save a ball, only for it to be considered "illegal under Covid rules". It was an adjustment to be mindful of these new rules, such as the "covid line" preventing any attacking more than three feet from the net. Once we got the line taped on the floor, we were back to teaching the skills and techniques of the game.
“Covid precautions had some of our players out for precautions which afforded the opportunity to be creative with lineups and players stepping up into new positions. It was hard not having the answers at times when players asked questions, but we were a unified program and our adopted motto was "we're just going with it".
In addition to the players mentioned above, other key members of the Junior Varsity ‘A’ team included Chloe Burns, Izzy DeSisto, Emma Hollien, Chelsea Keefe, Darya Mehrabani, Cadence Odams, Bella Oliveira, Riley Veits and Alicia Veno
JV 'B' VOLLEYBALL
The JV 'B' Volleyball team also struggled in terms of record this season, failing to pick up a win despite playing very well in some matches, but that didn't take away from the effort that the team gave each time they took to the court.
Redmen coach Erin Murphy, who is in her fourth year coaching in the volleyball program and is also the head coach of the Girls Lacrosse team, saw tremendous growth from her team this season despite their inability to break into the win column.
"Despite the fact that we did not have any wins this season I was very pleased with the way the team handled the season. As we all know this was unlike any other we have ever faced, and hopefully will face," Murphy said. "While volleyball is different from some of the other fall sports that ran in the sense that there is not nearly the same level of running, it is aerobic nonetheless and having to play in masks was no easy task. I often played with the girls during practice so I could definitely feel their pain! The girls didn’t let this hold them back though. They were vocal about needing mask and water breaks to make sure we were playing to our full potential each day."
And while it was not reflected in their record, Murphy felt like she and the team were able to recognize areas they needed to improve on, and proceeded to do just that throughout the season.
"I feel a few areas we really improved on were serving and overall game play. Every day at practice we do a drill in which each player must get one serve over the net as if we were in a game like situation," Murphy said. "For each missed players serve the team does an exercise of their choosing (squats, jumping jacks, pushups, etc) When we started the year we would only have one or two girls get serves over during this drill but at our last practice we had nine of 12 girls get it over. We were all thrilled!"
Keep in mind as well that these improvements were coming from a team made up of largely inexperienced players, who were competing in the Merrimack Valley Conference, which even at the junior varsity level is very challenging.
"Aside from serving I feel the girls really started to develop the fundamentals of the game. It didn’t take them too long to learn their rotation and were really functioning like a cohesive volleyball team," Murphy said. "We played a lot of strong teams despite having a short season and while there were certainly games where we struggled, by the end of the season had become quite scrappy. Even a few officials commented on our improvement."
While the team was certainly short on experience, they did have several players stand out among their teammates by the end of the shortened season, most notably Giana Craig and Alyssa Morello. Craig, in particular stood out for her stellar play, being selected as the team's MVP.
"Giana was my most consistent server. Serving was an area we struggled in as a team so having a few girls I could depend on to get behind the line and put a ball in play is always important," Murphy said. "Because of Giana’s consistency it earned her a spot all the way around in the lineup. Giana is a great passer and can make good contact with the ball on overhand attacks. I felt that this consistency should be rewarded with the added playing time."
Murphy also felt that Morello and several others made great strides this season as well.
"Alyssa was also a great contributor to our team. Alyssa took on the role of setter, not one many new players try to conquer," Murphy said. "We tried a few different players to also be a setter but in the end Alyssa was the only player to hold this position. This put a lot of pressure on her, as she needed to be a part of every play but Alyssa did very well. She has a natural ability for the sport and I believe could have filled a number of positions on the court.
"Additionally, Nykki Nguyen and Renuka Late were sold in the back row as well as Sheila Parma, Jenna Bradley, and Brooke Hatch came up big for us in the front row."
While these players certainly stood out, they were not the only ones who impressed her with their efforts throughout the season, as she felt like every member of the team contributed in some way.
"There are a number of things I could say about any of the players on my team this year. I feel each player brought something important to the table," Murphy said. "As a whole this group of athletes was a joy to work with. They were so supportive of each other and there is not much more a coach can ask of their team. It was clear the girls wanted to see each other succeed. During and after every play they were always clapping and cheering each other on.
"My two team captains Kiera Frechette and Sheila Parma were great leaders for our team. They always kept the spirit and energy! In a season that could have brought a lot of monotony and overall gloom with the large amount of practice and minimal games, these girls were truly a ray of sunshine. The girls came everyday with an eagerness and excitement to play which made my job incredibly fun and made me look forward to practice every day. Most days I had to drag them off the court at the end of practice."
Members of this season JV 'B' Volleyball team included Alyssa Morello, Sheila Parma, Nikki Nguyen, Alexis Rooney, Renuka Late, Giana Craig, Jazmin Ortiz, Gianna Flynn, Kiera Frechette, Kaylie Armstrong, Jenna Bradley and Brooke Hatch.
JV GIRLS SOCCER
Some teams of course fared better than others in their quest for success during the pandemic, and the Tewksbury High Junior Varsity Girls Soccer team appears to be one of those that dealt with the circumstances the best, posting a 3-1-3 record in the shortened season, picking up some very big wins along the way.
While wins and losses certainly aren’t the only measure of success for a sub varsity team, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a winning record. But beyond their superior record, the Redmen, under the direction of fifth year coach Jamie Bruno, were also very successful in developing players who will contribute to the success of the varsity program in the years to come.
“This was a very hardworking group,” Bruno said. “They worked hard on areas where they needed to improve. The team was focused, and worked hard at practices. It showed in the games we played.”
With the team limited in the number of games they could play, they had to take advantage of every opportunity when they were able to take the field. One such game for the Redmen was a big 1-0 win over Central Catholic late in the season, with the only goal of the game coming from Riley Sheehan on an assist from Ava Paquette, just one of several big plays the sophomore duo made during the season.
“That was a big win for us, but overall, in all of our games this year this team has played the game extremely well,” Bruno said. “They play their positions well and know how to pass the ball to feet. Not just kicking and running. Overall, I feel they are the best team that I have had based on how well they play the game with one another.
In addition to the contributions of Sheehan and Paquette, the Redmen also had many other sophomores lead the team to their successful season.
“I was very proud of my sophomores on the team who did a great job of leading and making our freshmen feel welcome to the program,” Bruno said. “As a result the team played extremely well together. In the center midfield position Ava Paquette and Alyssa Devlin had outstanding seasons. Alex Filmore had an excellent season at defense and anywhere else she is needed on the field. She plays hard and with a lot of heart on the field. Some others were Riley Sheehan, Jamie Constantino, and Victoria Lavargna and Lauren Bielecki.
Among those freshmen who contributed to the team were defenders Kristina Smith and Skylar Auth, along with forward Rhiannon Anderson.
“This was an excellent group of freshmen this year, a group with a lot of talent and skills,” Bruno said. “Overall, everyone on the team contributed to the games. I think a lot of these girls will have success at the varsity level”
Bruno, who is also a physical education teacher at the Ryan School, as well as the Freshman Girls Basketball coach at Tewksbury High and the JV Softball coach at Shawsheen Tech, has certainly had to do her share of adjusting during the pandemic, but she was very impressed with how her young players adapted to the new rules and schedule.
“With all the changes this season it was very different but the girls handled it very well,” Bruno said. “The refs did a good job of trying to keep things consistent each game. I am just glad even with the changes that our girls got to play games! The girls were just happy to finally be able to play.”
In addition to the players mentioned above, other key members of Girls Junior Varsity Soccer team included Sarah Boone, Madison Forgione, Mackenzie Hickey, Alana Price, Alex Fillmore, Delia Conte, Kate Kennedy, Alyssa Adams, Kimsan Nguyen, Gianna Ausiello, Stephanie Mercurio and Lily Boucher.
JV BOYS SOCCER
If the JV Girls Soccer team had some competition as the top sub varsity program of the year, it would have to be their male counterparts, as they Redmen’s Junior Varsity Boys Soccer team posted a 5-1-2 record on the season under the direction of head coach Patrick Bernardo.
Bernardo, who was a three year member of the Redmen’s varsity soccer team, including being a part of the MVC championship squad in 2011 under the direction of former coach Steve Levine, had previously been an assistant for the JV under Chris Burns 2013.
He left that post when he started working full-time, but was back this season to lead the JV squad. While the season presented its share of challenges, Bernardo was happy to go through those challenges with this group of players.
“The team played very well in a year that had a lot of unusual and difficult hurdles. Their focus was tested but I think they will be all better individuals for that,” Bernardo said. “They started the season as a team that relied on individual performance to achieve success and turned into a team that became greater than the sum of their parts which is a credit to their both competitive mental and physical tenacity and their eagerness to be a good teammate.”
That physical and mental tenacity was needed throughout the season as the Redmen battled their way through a challenging MVC schedule, but they continued to rise to that challenge, including in their final game of the season against rival Central Catholic.
“We had suffered our first loss of the season that previous weekend against them in a game in which we should have won but let the game slip away in some unlucky moments,” Bernardo said. “When we faced them again in the final game, we won by multiple goals in a comprehensive team effort. I was impressed and proud of the team for their competitive drive and mental toughness in the game following their first and only loss. In the short few weeks we were together, all of the players improved individually and as a team, and that final game was the consummation of that hard work.”
Of course, that hard work this season also involved battling through rule changes and a limited schedule, but Bernardo felt like his team adapted very well to the changes.
“The team showed great adaptability to the new rules. As the season went on, I was impressed not only how easy the team adjusted to these game altering rules, but also how they started to take advantage of the rules to their benefit,” Bernardo said. “We created many great chances and scored several goals off of free kicks simply due to being more clever than the other team handling balls in the air. The team was never shy when asking the ref for their ten yards of space on set plays.”
Freshman Peter Impink led the Redmen in scoring before an injury cut his season short, while freshman goalie Drew Rennell and his twin brother, defender Jack Rennell, also were key contributors to the team’s success while also being great leaders.
Other key members of the Redmen included Tyler Trodden, Ryan Fleming, Cooper Robillard, Alex Sovie, Pouriya Mehrabani, Rafael Beluco, Michael Gaglione, Jack Callahan, Shea Moynihan, David Timmons, Joseph Bourgea, Ian Shpritzer and Ryan Cuvier.
JV FIELD HOCKEY
The Tewksbury High Junior Varsity Field Hockey team entered the season under the direction of a new head coach, with Christine Smith taking over on the sidelines for Brooke Pacheco, who had coached the team for the past two seasons.
Smith, who is also the Boys Indoor and Girls Outdoor head track coach at Lynnfield High, did her best to put her imprint on her young team in the COVID shortened season, leading the Redmen to a 2-8 record in a season that saw several players step up and make progress towards joining the varsity program as soon as next season.
I feel that my team worked super hard to become better at the sport and they improved with every game,” Smith, a former varsity athlete at Newburyport High, said. “It’s hard to pinpoint one game that stood out this season, as this group of girls improved with every game they played. I'm very proud of them!”
The Redmen did have some outstanding performances during the season, with junior Michelle Kusmaul posting a hat trick against Dracut and fellow junior Ashley Demers serving as what Smith termed as the “backbone” of the Redmen from her center midfield position.
“It’s hard to pick just a few, however, as they all grew this season,” Smith said. “Our biggest challenge was using the whole field with only seven players total at time, but these young ladies took it all in stride.”
Members of the Tewksbury High Junior Varsity Lacrosse team included Rebecca Boudreau, Emily Carney, Kimberly Carney, Lauren Connors, Colleen Cremin, Courtney Curtin, Avery Della Piana, Ashley Demers, Paige Harrington, Rebecca Kelleher, Elizabeth Kenneally, Michelle Kusmaul, Jessica Lowry, Alexandria Macauda, Paige MacMillan, Maya Melki, Nina Moulton, Kamryn Pereira, Nicole Potito, Sara Rivard, Jacqueline Vitiello and Olivia Ward.