With handshakes gone due to COVID-19 protocols, Needham beat Braintree and immediately waved them goodbye, as is the new customary 'good game' message.
By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
The Needham High School women’s volleyball team didn’t lose a game last year, and despite a tough challenge from the Braintree Wamps in their second battle last week, which saw Needham hang on in a lengthy battle to take the fifth set, 16-14, they haven’t lost yet this year, either.
One of the unique things about this Fall II volleyball season is that teams play each other so rapidly; the Rockets played the Wamps on both March ninth and eleventh. But while Needham won the first match-up against Braintree, three sets to none (25-13, 25-21, 25-14), the second match was far closer, with Needham ultimately needing five sets to win. What was the difference between the straight-sets victory and the extremely close one, just two days apart? According to coach Cortney Chaloff, it was Braintree’s scrappiness and Needham’s experimentation.
“Braintree was playing great; they were really scrappy, and they were getting a bunch of balls up, which was really making life difficult for our hitters to kind of find those sweet spots to hit to,” she explained. “We also experimented a little bit with our rotation and what type of offense we were running, so we kind of threw in a couple different things - particularly in the third set - to kind of see how they would work for us. So I think it was a combination of a few things.”
Chaloff acknowledged that being on a 25-game win streak does add a unique pressure to close games, but noted that moving forward, this tight win may do a lot for the team, since they will have proven they can handle tough situations.
“Obviously as a coach, it’s nice when things are easier, but that doesn’t necessarily build a great team - if they’re not having those tough moments. So, I’m appreciative that they had a tough match and one that really challenged their mental toughness and put them into pressure situations; put them on the spot while serving, because that’s how they’re going to get better.”
Unfortunately, moving forward and getting better as a team does not mean defending their title. Chaloff acknowledged that there was a bit of disappointment when it was clear they couldn’t win back-to-back state championships, although it wasn’t especially surprising, having seen how fall and winter sports were handled. Still, Chaloff pointed out how happy the team was just to be playing, even if they couldn’t play for the ultimate prize.
“Truthfully, if I had to sum it up in one word, we are just so grateful. It’s been so long since we’ve been together because we do typically play in the fall, so I think the delay just made us that much more grateful and that much more appreciative to be back out on the court. Yes, there are no playoffs but when we’re in the gym together at practice or games, I think I can say for all my players, we’re just happy to be there.”
But just because they’re happy to be playing together and having fun, doesn’t mean the team is treating the games as exhibitions or scrimmages. Coach Chaloff made it abundantly clear this is not a year off, and that she fully expects the team to maintain, and improve on, the lofty standards they set during their championship season.
“We are trying to kind of compete within ourselves, too. We keep statistics every game and we have our last season statistics and we’ve looked at those: what were we serving in, what was our serving percentage, what was our ace percentage, what were our attacking percentages, because as a program we want to continue to grow. This isn’t a year off, even though it’s a shorter season. I’ve spoken a lot to my seniors, who have been incredible throughout this because if anyone were to be the most upset about not having playoffs, it would be the seniors. But they’ve been so amazing in terms of their mindset and understanding that this is not a season off, that it’s not a break. We still need to push ourselves, hold ourselves to our standards, set even higher standards, and understand how it’s going to impact us next season and seasons beyond. I like to think of my teams not just as isolated team, but as more of a program with continuity within it.”
Chaloff frequently complimented her seniors, from Lila Carr’s ability to lead the offense in the second Braintree victory (in which she finished with fourteen kills), to their overall ability to handle the emotional rollercoaster that came with the constantly-changing playing situation.
“I can’t say enough how impressed I am with all their leadership and their character and how they responded to that rollercoaster," the coach noted.
It was a bit of a close call against Braintree, but so far, even a rollercoaster of emotions hasn't been enough to derail the Needham Rockets.