By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
The Needham Rockets girls volleyball team is heading into the season riding a thirty-three game win streak, and with COVID cancelling the playoffs for those sports moved to the “Fall II” season last year, the 2019 title-holders are technically the defending state champions, as well. But since every season provides new challenges, we reached out to coach Courtney Todesco to see what she’s confident about, what has her concerned, and whether the team anticipates having a third consecutive, undefeated season.
This season will represent a bit of getting back to normal for the Rockets. Todesco noted that other than mask-wearing, most of the COVID restrictions they dealt with last year are gone, and the team will play an eighteen game schedule instead of the twelve games they played last year. While she explained that in the Bay State Conference, schools would be in charge of deciding whether they wanted to limit crowd sizes of not, Todesco was excited about getting back to a normal season, including playing out-of-league games and getting a chance to compete in the playoffs.
But Todesco was quick to point out that those non-league games are gong to be tough ones for the Rockets. And while it’s easy to obsess over keeping a win streak alive, for her, whether the season is a success or not is going to depend on more than just wins and losses.
“It sounds kind of cheesy but I try not to measure an entire season’s success on wins and losses. I anticipate this will be one of our most challenging seasons yet. We have some really tough non-league games against Barnstable, Concord-Carlisle, Lincoln-Sudbury, Boston Latin, Newton South. We kind of packed our schedule. I try not to focus only on wins and losses and treat each season like it’s own. So we build off the momentum of the prior season, but then kind of look at the team: who do we have, what goals do we have for ourselves and where do we want to go for this particular season.”
While Todesco said there was no team rule that they couldn’t talk about the win streak, she said the team didn’t bring it up all that much last year, due in large part to the season being so unique with all the COVID restrictions and uncertainty about whether games would be cancelled. Still, Todesco has consistently reiterated to her team that they cannot play scared of losing a single game to keep the streak alive.
“It didn’t really come up that much, honestly. I don’t know if it was an unspoken thing not to mention it. In 2019, I don’t think any of us were expecting to go undefeated, and then when it happened it was like 'whoa, oh my goodness.' And then last season was such a weird season: we only had twelve games, we couldn't play non-leagues, there were no playoffs, so we were just so grateful to be out there and to get to play together, I don’t think any of us thought about it as 'we need to have another undefeated season,' it was more like 'we don’t want to take any day for granted.' It was amazing that it turned out that way. It’s a pretty big elephant in the room I guess, but I’ve been kind of speaking to my team about how we can’t play a season in fear that we’re going to lose a game. We should just be excited this is the position we’re in and be really proud of that and continue what we’ve done for the last two years, which is to take it game by game. That’s all we can do. We can’t be afraid of losing one day, because that’s not a way to enjoy the season.”
But while the team has a much faster turnaround than usual (there’s usually a ten year difference between the end of the season and it’s start, but moving from “Fall II” back to the fall season means there’s just a four-month gap), what really concerns Todesco are the seniors she lost to graduation. Last year’s starting outside Karen Nie was The Boston Globes’ 2019 Division One Player of the Year, while on the right side Lila Carr departed after playing a huge role for the team last year. In their place, Todesco is depending on Senior captain Ellie Streeper, a four year varsity player who was also named to the Boston Herald and Boston Globe’s All Scholastic teams, to step up and lead the team.
But as the team seeks to stretch the win streak into the mid-30s and the boys volleyball team prepares to defend their state championship later in the year, an obvious question arises: why is Needham so good at volleyball?
In Todesco’s opinion, a large part of the program’s success is the camaraderie between the boys and girls teams.
“We’re so unique as a sport in that our boys and girls fall in different season, whereas for most sports like basketball or soccer both teams are playing in the same season. So, it’s really cool that our programs have developed so much camaraderie and friendship; the boys come to all of our games, we have boys volleyball players that are managers, and then the same thing happens in the spring - the girls go to every game and they’re the managers on the boys team. And that camaraderie and mentality around volleyball has been brewing, and I think a lot of that is a byproduct of the girls and boys programs feeding off each other. I know the boys program has had a big influence on us, they’ve been so successful this entire decade, and I think that helps. We have a lot of siblings where the brother was on the boys team and the sister will play on the girls team, so it’s been really cool.”
But at the end of the day, Todesco explained that no matter how many matches the team wins, she constantly reiterates that they need to take it one game at a time and not think just because they've been too good for their opponent 33 times, that means number 34 is guaranteed.
“I think there’s something to be said about being humble. Obviously, we’re so proud of the success we’ve had but we don’t walk into any game or any gym like 'we’ve got this in the bag, this is a day off for us.' We really - and I preach this so much in our practices - we treat every game just like the last one with the same focus, doing the same warmup and having the same commitment. We want to exude confidence but be true to who we are and remain humble and remain focused because volleyball’s an interesting game, the wind can blow a certain way and people upset people all the time. So we try and instill the idea to never be comfortable and to never be complacent.”