The Westwood High School 2021-22 varsity volleyball team
By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
With no state playoff tournament or Tri-Valley League Championship, for the Westwood girls’ volleyball team last season, it was all about being together and giving their seniors one final hurrah.
But now that the vast majority of COVID restrictions have been lifted and the schedule has returned to normal, the team’s nine returning starters have their sights set on a much more concrete goal: winning the TVL for the first time since the 1980s.
Details on the story are hazy, but what is known is that at some point, the Wolverines were practicing in their gym and noted the banner displaying how long it’s been since they were TVL champs. According to junior Yvette Easton, it was then that the team decided “this needs to change.” But while many teams might be afraid of being so vocal about their championship aspirations, rather than shy away from that challenge, they’re openly embracing it.
“We hope to be the first Westwood volleyball team to win it this decade, which I think is a goal that’s very attainable because we have such a strong team this year,” Easton explained.
“We are really big on setting goals to keep us driven," added Her coach, Jenny Murphy. "We have daily and long term/season goals, and winning the TVL is the stepping stone before making a hard drive for the state championship. Coming off our COVID season, having no states to play for was tough, as I strongly believe we could have made deep push. But with nine returning players, we have faith we can do it this season.”
Last year, the Wolverines went 9-4, including dropping two games to Ashland their first week of play, which Easton and her teammate Shelby McKim chalked up to not having the team chemistry they do now - a result of COVID cancelling the preseason and captain’s practices. This year, they’ve already avenged that loss and are 3-0 with wins over Norwood, Walpole and Ashland at the time of print. But if they’re going to win the TVL, this year’s crop of seniors is going to have to replace some elite players.
Coach Murphy spoke of having to replace “unsung hero and outside hitter Hermea Haile,” while noting: “Senior captain Chloe Hicks has stepped up as our setter and is settling into her role as the leader of our offense. Senior captains Meredith Doherty and Emily Liu are both strong leaders, both on and off the court, and have been amazing outside hitters thus far. Returning juniors Shelby McKim, who’s our middle and a TVL all-star. Yvette Easton, who’s our libero and a TVL all-star, and right-side Cara McManus round out our starting lineup, all of which are younger players who have been rising stars since their freshman seasons.”
But there’s one player from last year’s team who is going to be very hard to replace. The player Shelby McKim deemed both “iconic” and “a bit of a legend” is MVP, TVL all-star and three-season starting setter Katy Dumais. What made her so legendary?
“She made varsity as a freshman, she was captain for two years and she was our setter, so she really set up the offense. She was such a leader on the court also, and a hugely positive force on the court.”
Still, while she also noted Dumais was a great player, Easton was quick to point out how excited she was to embrace the leadership of the team’s new seniors.
“Although I will miss all of our seniors, I’m very excited to play with the new, but also experienced leadership of our new seniors, particularly our senior captain. We have a great group of new varsity players who worked so hard to earn a spot on this team and I can see in practice that every day they’re giving it their all, and we’re all working toward a common goal.”
Along with a new crop of seniors, the team is excited to see crowds return. This year there are no fan capacity limits, which means Westwood’s famous den can return to dressing up in their themed outfits and harassing opposing players.
“Last season taught us that we have the ability to control our own energy and intensity, and we know we always have that within us now,” Coach Murphy explained. “That being said, we LOVE having the den there! It's electric and can really push us to fight even harder, it's definitely an element of it's own and it's great to feel the energy they bring in. The den in 2019 was the best I've had the pleasure of coaching in front of since I started in 2007, and I hope 2021 can top it!”
Both McKim and Easton played AAU basketball for MGA’s under sixteen team, making it as far as nationals in Orlando this summer. But when she compared playing AAU volleyball to playing for Westwood, Shelby McKim noted the Westwood fans were what made the experiences so different.
“I think the main difference I’ve noticed is the energy level. At MGA, there was definitely still the energy there that we needed to succeed, but the setup is a little different. At tournaments there’s so many courts in the venue that there are only so many people that can sit and watch, but in Westwood you’re the only court in the whole gym and everyone’s watching you. It’s so exciting. There’s a higher level of energy for Westwood.”
McKim and Easton both noted the high level of their opponents at nationals, with both pointing out how good a Puerto Rican team they played was, while McKim touched on some really lopsided losses to a few Florida-based teams. Still, while they didn’t win the AAU Championship, Easton spoke highly of the trip, explaining how much fun it was to share the experience with McKim. She also noted how much better a volleyball player she's become with both the coaching of Fabian Ardila (who longtime Hometown Weekly readers will recognize as the coach of Wellesley High’s male and female volleyball teams) and the reps she gets by playing year-round.
“I think it gives me a great advantage. I do work very, very hard in the offseason in club, to earn a starting spot at the high school. I think playing club helps you develop your techniques, get some good reps in and keep practicing. I want to pursue, hopefully in the future, a collegiate-level volleyball team. I think it gives me a great advantage in terms of skills and just getting those reps in, so I think it’s very beneficial for people like me.”
But while she feels it gives her a great advantage, she made it explicitly clear she wouldn’t pressure any Westwood players into quitting another sport they play to pursue volleyball year-round. One group of people who aren’t immune to Easton’s intimidation tactics, however, are her AAU teammates-turned high school team opponents. She explained that if an AAU teammate is on a team Westwood is facing, in good fun, she will often send them a menacing “see you tonight” text before the match.
One place you’ll probably be seeing Easton is playing at the collegiate level; she’s currently being recruited by schools like Boston College and Harvard to play at the next level, which is something in which she’s expressed a strong interest.
But that’s still a few years away.
For now, the question is whether, in a few months, we’ll see Doherty, Liu, Easton, McKim, and Murphy, brushing the dust off the one from the 80s and hanging their 2021 TVL Championship banner.