PAWTUCKET — With the St. Raphael Academy boys' volleyball team trailing 17-10 in the third, and what proved to be the final, game Tuesday night, head coach April Oberhelman called a timeout to discuss strategy.
After she finished her soliloquy, junior Steve Carvalho and senior Connor Harrington began stomping to their own version of Queen's “We Will Rock You.”
Stomp, stomp, clap! Stomp, stomp, clap!
Team statistician Pauline Tougas, whose son, senior John Tougas, co-captains the squad with junior Brandon Dasilveira, turned around, laughing.
“I told you, these guys are like 'The Bad News Bears' of volleyball,” she quipped.
Without question, there's some truth to that.
Seconds after Classical High had claimed a rather difficult 3-0 victory over the Saints at the Wellness & Alumni Center, they exhibited little dismay. Instead, the players – eight in all – gave each other “high-fives” and slaps on the back for what they considered a job well done.
And why not? For a first-year program, the Saints aren't basing success on victories as much as improvement, and laying the groundwork for future clubs.
“I'd say that's accurate, we are kind of like 'The Bad News Bears,'” quipped Harrington after the Purple's 25-15, 25-19, 25-16 triumph. (Harrington, by the way, closed with five digs, two kills and an ace as SRA fell to 0-7 in Division II-North. Classical moved to 4-3).
“If we lose, we really don't take it all that badly,” he added. “We're trying to build off those losses to better ourselves.”
Stated sophomore Benjamin Kinch: “It's our first year out there, and it's true, we are a little rough around the edges, but that's because we haven't been playing together for years like some other schools. For the short time we've been together, I think we've built a great bond. We have really good team chemistry.
“We're getting better with every practice and every match, and that's just what we're trying to do.”
Junior Colby Kingsbury, who led the squad with five kills, four blocks and a pair of aces, indicated he takes every match seriously, “but with a friendlier tone. Like Ben said, we haven't been together for a long time like other teams, but the bond still has to be there for the program to grow. We're trying to pass on to the younger guys the feeling of 'team,' playing as one.
“We can't get mad at each other; we know we can't, as that would break the bonds we've already developed,” he continued. “I wouldn't say we're disappointed by this loss; we're still learning as we go along. I honestly believe that losses make you stronger. I view us as both a team and a family.”
Tougas immediately stated, “Those are synonyms, as far as I'm concerned.”
According to Tougas, a setter who registered 14 assists, eight digs, three kills, one block and an ace, the idea of creating a program was born in the spring of 2011.
“Last year, we had revitalized our intramural volleyball program, and I put together a list of about 20 kids who wanted to play on a more competitive level,” he noted. “From there, I went to our former (athletic director), Bruce Gammell, with the list and we talked to him. He just said, 'I'll take it from here.'
“He went to the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, and the rest is history.”
Tougas maintained he hadn't found a spring sport that truly interested him, or – he confessed – he could play at a varsity level.
“I also knew from my talking to guys there was some interest in school about starting up a volleyball program,” he said. “My final goal was to push it through. I knew it's always good for a school to add a varsity team, especially at a private school. It helps create more interest in that school because it has a variety of sports to choose from, and it will draw more students statewide to it.”
Harrington admitted he was pondering playing tennis this spring, as he had as a junior.
“John is one of my better friends; we've known each other practically our whole lives, and we also play (varsity) hockey together,” he explained. “He kept riding me, so I signed on. I knew he wouldn't let me live it down if I rejected him.”
Tougas got his guys together back in early March for informal workouts and discussions about what they wanted the squad to be. The initial practice with Oberhelman was held on Monday, March 19.
“It wasn't very good,” giggled Oberhelmer, 25, a 2004 Woonsocket High graduate and former volleyball standout who later played two years at the Community College of Rhode Island and one at Rhode Island College, where she's still enrolled. (She opted to walk away from the sport after suffering an ACL injury).
“We did a lot of conditioning – sprinting, push-ups, sit-ups, suicide drills and carioca – and I think they hated me,” she added. “I gave them tests on all of those skills, but they all passed, and I was surprised. Some of them really didn't look all that athletic. That worried me.”
SRA hosted Shea in its first match of the season in early April, and the Raiders left the center with wins of 25-8, 25-6 and 25-7.
“They didn't know what to do; they were like deer in headlights,” she chuckled. “I'm a really loud coach, and I like shouting instructions to them, but they couldn't hear me on the floor. I think they were worried about making too many mistakes, but I realized that's a good thing because it shows they care.
“I've actually coached guys before who'd make an unforced error, and they'd be, like, 'So' or 'Whatever,'” she added. “It drove me crazy. These guys aren't like that. They're so much better now than in the beginning. They know the rotations, they know the transitioning and defensive schemes.
“Now they can even run 'one-balls,' which is a fast tempo set. If you don't have a good pass to work off of, then you can't do it.”
Last week, when the Saints dropped a 3-0 decision to archrival Tolman, Oberhelman claimed she felt concerned when some players began “in-fighting.”
“I told them they were acting like a bunch of individuals, both on and off the court; they were blaming each other for different things,” she offered. “I told them I wanted my team back. We have a Facebook group where, after every match, we air out the good and bad things that happened. I think that was a learning moment not just for me, but the guys as well.
“They began coming together to work for a common goal,” she continued. “I love coaching this group. They're so animated, they have so much energy, and they're having fun while they're learning. When we played Lincoln, but we lost, 3-2. Still, when the match was over, they were celebrating like they had won the state championship. That's what happens when you're a new program and you win your first game ever.”
Dasilveira claimed he knew SRA would have a tough start, as it had to learn all the fundamentals, then intricacies, rather quickly.
“We had that intramural program last year, and I really enjoyed it,” he said. “That was one reason I signed on. Another was I have two cousins (Jeff Ramos and Eric Silveira) playing at Tolman, and I wanted to take it to them. After all, I'm a Saint.”
Against Classical, SRA made nine first-game unforced errors, and officials whistled them for numerous “into-the-net” violations. In Game 2, those numbers decreased slightly, and they found themselves competing with a team that had been around much longer.
In the third, the Saints showed flashes of brilliance, such as Kinch's perfect dink to the floor to slice the deficit to 8-5. He immediately jumped for joy into Tougas' arms. On his very next serve, Carvalho swatted it long, but Harrington hugged him anyway.
“It was pretty good (Tuesday night),” Oberhelman stated. “I like the fact they're improving every game. It seems like our first game is always a dud, but then they put it together and play better in the second and third. It's like night and day.
“Now we just have to get to the fourth and fifth games!” she added with another giggle.