South Hadley boys volleyball team making strides in first season as program

South Hadley senior Connor Racine-Rocheleau leaps up to block a shot during the Tigers’ practice on Wednesday afternoon.

South Hadley senior Connor Racine-Rocheleau leaps up to block a shot during the Tigers’ practice on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/GARRETT COTE

South Hadley senior Jonathan Grim elevates for a kill during the Tigers’ practice on Wednesday afternoon.

South Hadley senior Jonathan Grim elevates for a kill during the Tigers’ practice on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/GARRETT COTE

South Hadley senior Beau Briere puts down a kill during the Tigers’ practice on Wednesday afternoon.

South Hadley senior Beau Briere puts down a kill during the Tigers’ practice on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/GARRETT COTE

South Hadley boys volleyball team posing for a picture following a game earlier this year.

South Hadley boys volleyball team posing for a picture following a game earlier this year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-01-2024 9:32 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Fighting toe-to-toe with Veritas Prep in the fourth set of its first varsity boys volleyball game in program history, South Hadley was on the brink of history.

The Tigers did just enough to pull away and claim a 25-23 win in the frame, which propelled them to a 3-1 (25-15, 25-17, 20-25, 25-23) victory and the first-ever win for South Hadley boys volleyball.

Co-head coach Brooke Conner addressed her team postgame. 

“I told them after, ‘Hey, you know you just made history? That’s our first varsity win.’ And they were super pumped up to be part of that,” she said.

Over the past several years, several students at South Hadley had been vouching for a boys volleyball program. It seemed there was enough mutual interest between both the aspiring players and athletic director Eric Castonguay to give it a go, so last season the Tigers took the necessary steps of becoming a program and officially put together a team.

But they were required to start the junior varsity level because they were brand new. Prior to this season, South Hadley was given the option to stay down at the JV level once again or move up to varsity – it only had enough players for one team.

It was a no-brainer for both those on the team as well as Conner and other co-head coach Sam Yesu.

“It was frustrating for them not having a team for so long, and I know they wanted to compete on varsity,” Yesu said. “Even if we aren’t the best right away, we’re having fun and the kids enjoy it. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

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Both Conner and Yesu have plenty of volleyball experience in their backgrounds, although neither had ever been a head coach. Conner played high school volleyball at South Hadley and graduated in 2019, while Yesu was a standout player at Westfield High School and graduated just last spring.

Due to her full-time job as a teacher, Conner couldn’t fully commit to flying solo as the head coach – she wouldn’t make all the practices. So she and Yesu, who has a more flexible schedule, decided to work together.

And they’ve more than made it work as South Hadley currently sits at 5-4 this season, good enough at the moment for a spot in the MIAA Division 2 state tournament (.500 or better record is an automatic qualifier).

“We’re doing it together because we both come in with volleyball experience,” Conner said. “He has more of the volleyball game play experience and I have more of the work and teaching experience. We meshed the two together so the boys could have a season, and it’s worked out great.”

The players have adapted to the coaching quicker than expected. Now with two coaches with plenty of knowledge about the sport, it’s ramped up the intensity during practice.

“This year we have two coaches that used to play volleyball, and now we’re transitioning well on the floor and we know where to go,” senior captain Beau Briere said. “It’s smooth rolling, and a lot of the credit goes to them (the coaches).”

South Hadley has won three straight matches, but it admittedly took some hard practices and long days to get where they’re at right now. The Tigers’ celebration after their first win could only occur because of the work they put in leading up to it.

The rookie coaches started from scratch on day one back in mid-March, drilling the fundamentals into their players heads over and over until it became second nature. They were responsive, and never complained.

Each practice was a new chance to improve. They trudged forward every day and became better players because of it.

“It’s nice to see how much they’ve grown in such a short amount of time,” Conner said. “I can see their improvements, both small and big, every day. The score doesn’t always show that, but they are each doing great things individually. Our focus now is working together better as a team.”

With only 10 players on the team, a handful of them play nearly the entirety of every game. Conner said it’s been a challenge trying to keep the energy up through the grind of a long season, but upperclassmen and standout players Beau Briere, Junoon Giridhar and Sam Morozov have taken the reigns as leaders – ensuring their team stays positive.

The three of them have built a connection and are the backbones of South Hadley’s six on the floor. Morozov starts the offense with a dig (or bump), followed by a perfect Giridhar set right into a thunderous kill from Briere.

It’s become clockwork for the Tigers’ seniors.

“Beau is our standout hitter, Junoon is our setter and our libero Sam are three who play 90 percent of the game – Junoon plays all of it as our setter but the other two play 90 percent,” Conner said. “They set the tone on the court, and they are our big communicators. Their chemistry is nice to see and they keep the tone uplifted when other players are rotating in as well.”

Seniors Connor Racine-Rocheleau, Jonathan Grim and Christian Aponte have also contributed at a high clip for South Hadley this season. The team is led heavily by the Class of 2024. Eight of the Tigers’ 10 players are seniors playing in their first – and last – season on varsity.

“I hope this sets the tone for the future years of this program,” Conner said. “I don’t think many boys at the high school even know that volleyball is an option, so it’s nice to put our team out there for other people to see and hopefully want to be a part of next year.”

And while the Tigers are certainly laser focused on what’s in front of them this year, they also are impacting future generations beneath them eager to get their hands on the wheel when it’s their time.

“Being the first team, we’re like symbols, I guess,” Briere said.

South Hadley (5-4) travels to Athol on Thursday evening at 5:15 p.m. in search of a fourth consecutive victory.