Athol spikers have reason for optimism
Junior hitter Kevin Marigliano is a newcomer to the Red Raiders this season.
Athol junior hitter Matt Drazek will try to the lead the Red Raiders back to the postseason this spring.
Athol junior hitter Erik Aikey will try to lead the Red Raiders back to the postseason this spring.
Coming off a year during which an extremely young and inexperienced Athol High School squad recorded a 10-10 regular-season record and a trip to the Western Massachusetts Boys’ Volleyball Tournament, where it lost in the first round to East Longmeadow High School, head coach Donna Lajoie enters the 2014 season feeling positive about her maturing team’s outlook.
“We only graduated one senior last year and even though we barely qualified, the 10 losses were strong matches for us, most of them anyway,” Lajoie said. “There were a couple of teams we played that we weren’t ready for, such as Agawam, but many of our other matches went five games. I feel we should do well in our league this year. The boys have grown in height and strength, and that is some of what we were lacking last year.”
Returning for the Red Raiders are senior hitters Wyatt Doiron-Larue and Brandon Thomas, junior hitters Matt Drazek and Beau Guimond, and middle hitter Erik Aikey, along with sophomores Tyler Lajoie (setter/middle hitter), Lorenzo Carra (setter), Carter Amadon (hitter), and Nelson Leadbetter (libero).
For Leadbetter, it will be his first foray into the libero role, as he takes over for lone departing graduate Jose Sierra.
“We lost Sierra as our libero but Nelson should step into that position nicely,” Lajoie said. “He only has one year of experience but was quite consistent last year in the back row. With some work, I don’t think we will skip a step putting him in the black shirt.”
As far as how the Raiders look up front, Lajoie expects her returning players to step up their game.
“I need a couple of heavy hitters in the front row that can be consistent,” she said. “There were games last year where Wyatt, Tyler and Erik would put down double-digit kills, but then only have a few the next game. Amadon and Guimond are hitting better than I have seen, so that should help if they could bring it to the game court.”
Her overall take is both confident and cautious.
“Tyler and Lorenzo are entering their fourth years playing, and that experience should pay off,” she said. “They need to bring their game to the next level and start running a quicker offense. (Tyler) Lajoie was hitting well in the first practice. Lorenzo is tending a sore knee from a wrestling injury so we are trying to get him ready for full action. Drazek’s biggest asset is his desire to compete. He gets so pumped up out there that it’s contagious. He is pretty steady all around but we could use his positive attitude out there when things get rough. Brandon has the potential to be a factor in the front row, but what he lacks is aggressiveness. If we can find a way to tap into that, he is the missing sixth hitter we so desperately need.”
Lajoie also pointed to five newcomers who have shown potential: hitters Cruz Chi, Ryan Whelpley, and Ryley Saisa, defender/hitter Kevin Marigliano, and with position yet to be determined, Kevin Findlay. Saisa played two years ago but missed all of last year due to a shoulder injury.
“We can’t keep them all permanently, but at the very least they will all practice varsity and as they grow, they may get some playing time. Some may have to see some JV time to build their skills, but it’s too soon to tell.”
The expectations entering this season are in marked contrast to those of a year ago, when Lajoie had this to say:
“To us, this is a two-year season. We are getting ready for next year. We just hope to be able to compete in some games but have no misconceptions of where we will end up this year. We may not win many matches but you can bet we will be the most improved by the end of the season.”
Well, they won as many as they lost, earned a trip to the tournament in the process, and you can bet that they were the most improved by the end of the season. There is no reason to expect the improvement to stop as the new season gets underway, though Lajoie takes nothing for granted.
“Overall, our goal is to qualify again and pick up some of those close matches we dropped last year. We are very excited to begin the season.”
The Red Raiders won’t have to wait long, as they begin their new campaign when they host Ludlow High School on Monday at 5 p.m. at Mallet Gymnasium.