TEWKSBURY - The longest training camp in program history will finally conclude on Friday when the Tewksbury High volleyball team opens up its season with a home game with North Andover.
When the pandemic hit, prior to the 2020 season, not only were new rules and restrictions put in place - including no postseason tournament - the Redmen had to pretty much rebuild the team due to 2020 graduation.
That season turned into a 10-game team development season, with designs on being ready to compete with everybody on the schedule in the Merrimack Valley Conference when play resumed for the 2021 season.
The time has arrived and Tewksbury is eager to getting back to playing somewhat normal varsity volleyball.
"It's super-exciting; I know we're relieved that some of the restrictions went away, like the covid line in the front row - our hitters and setters are relieved and excited about that," said Redmen coach Allie Luppi. "It feels more normal, we're not constantly freaking out about 'six feet apart,' it feels a little calmer. We're hoping that makes the girls feel more comfortable."
The players still have to wear masks but mostly everything else is back, including the girls being able to develop the team chemistry by cheering loudly together and huddling up and slapping hands between points and games.
"It's going to be a different experience in general, especially for my players who are sophomores and were freshmen on the team, last year," said Luppi, on being able to make contact with teammates between points. "It's not the same excitement level when you can't huddle in, and cheer and all of that stuff."
Two players graduated, but all but one of the rest of last year's roster is back. Sophomore Whitney Gigante, a star pitcher for the Tewksbury softball team, is taking the season off to take care of a shoulder injury.
The Redmen return their entire starting lineup, but they have also added five new players, and they now have depth and good competition at every position.
"We are on the upswing from where we left off last year," said Luppi. "My freshmen are now sophomores, they are more comfortable, they have more confidence in themselves, and that confidence is allowing their teammates to feel more confident in them, as well, knowing they don't have to overcompensate for this new player who is not familiar with the game, yet. It's great to see everyone settle in and trust each other, and I think that was a big part of why we struggled, last year."
Luppi kept 14 players on the varsity this year, instead of the 12 she had on the roster, last year.
"Having that extra level of competition between my hitters I think is beneficial for all of them," said Luppi.
One position where there is no competition is at libero, where junior Carinna Barron returns after earning All-Conference honors as a freshman.
Outside hitters are senior twins Katie Cueva and Maddie Cueva, who were playing their best when the season concluded, last year. They played in the off-season and should be even better once they get used to the setting of returning junior, Kiley Kennedy.
Tewksbury has three other players who will also be working at setter in first-year players, senior Izzy DeSisto and sophomores Ava Nordbruch and Chloe Burns.
Having depth at most of the positions is one of the strengths of this year's Redmen squad.
"Creating competition really elevates everybody," said Luppi. "I love that."
Another example of the depth and competition within the team is at middle hitter. Tewksbury brings back sophomore McKayla Conley and junior Madelyn Montejo, and now they welcome aboard junior Vanessa Green and senior Hayley Pote. Luppi says all four are in the mix heading into the start of the season.
Back at right side hitter are juniors Tori Rowe and Jennie Lester. Both shared time, last year, and that is what they will be doing again this season.
"It's a similar lineup to last year, but I have more options," said Luppi. "If someone is struggling at the moment, like in the middle where all four are similar in skill level. It will be interesting to see who solidifies that spot, which could change gamely or weekly."
The final returning starter is defensive specialist Ava Fernandes, a sophomore. She has put in a lot of work solidifying her skills and confidence. Luppi has seen a lot of growth in her since last year.
This year the Merrimack Valley Conference is experimenting with power ranking as a determining factory in qualifying for the postseason. The Redmen are back to a full schedule, which includes 19 games this year, and Luppi is definitely curious about what is going on with the teams that are on this year's schedule that they did not compete against last year.