PAWTUCKET – When St. Raphael Academy athletic director Fred Saunders approached Linley Pullem one afternoon in May and asked her if she'd be interested in taking over the reins of an inaugural girls' volleyball program, she responded – without hesitation – “Absolutely!”
Saunders had heard that Pullem, who at the time was completing her initial year as a history teacher, had some experience playing the game on a rather high level, as she had excelled at John Jay High-Cross River in Westchester County, N.Y.'s Katona-Lewisboro School District.
When she strode into the first official practice session at the Wellness & Alumni Center on Aug. 20, however, she watched girls who wanted to be a part of the first-ever varsity squad batting the ball around like they were in a gym class.
“I think I was optimistic in the beginning,” she offered, moments after the Saints had suffered another Division III defeat to Hope High last Wednesday night, and consequently fell to 0-12 on the season. “I figured the girls who were going to try out would be athletic, and that they'd do well.
“It was kind of a shock when I saw them,” she added with a chuckle. “I knew they had played volleyball in P.E., and I think they thought this was the same thing: 'Let's get the ball over the net; it doesn't matter how.' They didn't know there's a system, a plan, to it. Setting the ball up to send it over the net. They didn't know there's a precision to it.”
Still, Pullem felt encouraged when she had some enthusiastic kids turn out. She quickly decided to disallow freshman, the reason being this would be a “varsity” team, and they would compete in the state's lowest division as such.
One of her players happened to be senior Elizabeth Wall, currently a captain/outside hitter with sophomore Julyssa Tavares. Wall had competed for the Our Lady of Fatima School team before it closed last June, and was saddened by the fact she wouldn't have the opportunity to be with her teammates one last season.
She chose to transfer to SRA to close her secondary education.
“I was so excited when I found out they had volleyball,” noted Wall, forced to sit out the last two matches due to a “freak accident” at the Armistice Boulevard deli at which she works. (She sliced her right pinkie finger while cleaning a machine on Saturday, Oct. 13).
“I had played three previous years with my Tigers, and I wanted to play again,” she continued. “I found some girls on Facebook who went here and wanted to be a part of starting something new, so I scheduled some 'Captains' practices.' We had our first one in mid-August, and it wasn't pretty. We were all over the place. We had no idea what we were doing.”
Another attendee was junior Marissa Botelho, a co-captain who decided to go out for the boys' golf team last spring.
“If I'm not mistaken, we had a girls' volleyball team a long time ago, but I don't know anything about it,” she noted. “This is brand new to me, but I figured I had fun playing, and I love trying new sports. It also was something really different.
“When I walked in, I thought I had the game down pat, and that I understood it all,” she added. “But Coach walked in and said, 'I don't think so.' Honestly, I was horrendous. If you asked some of the other girls, they'd probably say the same.
“When we first started, we were doing 'P.E. tactics,' and we didn't have any technique at all. Miss Pullem told us we had to break out of those bad habits. We weren't very good, that's for sure.”
Yet another present at that session: Sophomore Sarah Duffin.
“I played soccer last year as a freshman, and I didn't really feel a connection with that team, so I decided to try volleyball,” she said with a shy smile. “It's been a sport that I've loved since the sixth grade, so I thought, 'Why not?'
“Actually, when I walked into practice that first day, I was surprised at how many girls showed up – there were about 20; I felt really intimidated,” she continued. “I knew I was going to have to work real hard if I wanted to make the team, but I was determined. I wanted to play with these girls.”
Following the most recent defeat, Pullem sat on the bleachers with a gaggle of players and stated, if she had to grade them after the initial week of workouts, she's give them a “C.” One girl giggled, “That high? We were terrible!”
Pullem asked them to settle down, then resumed.
“They weren't friends with each other; they hadn't got to know each other yet,” she explained, her athletes nodding. “Now, I can't separate them. They're so tight. You should hear them sing on the bus (for road trips)!”
Immediately, Botelho, another outside hitter. piped up, “We've grown to love each other. As girls – and you're a guy – you know there's a lot of drama with (high school girls), and we noticed the drama was affecting the way we played. I know, with me, if I was upset with someone, I wasn't going to try as hard, and I knew (a certain situation) would be in the back of my mind. I knew it would bother me.”
After their first match, an Injury Fund contest on Aug. 30, the Saints set out to do something more special than their male counterparts, who – the spring before under head coach April Oberhelman – had lost all but one of their 16 contests. (Their lone triumph came in a 3-1 decision over Lincoln on May 22. They closed at 1-15).
After the girls opened varsity play at Mount Pleasant on Sept. 7, the new Saints lost, 3-1, but showed some promise three days later by winning a single game at Masters Regional Academy in Smithfield before losing, 3-1.
They lost the next three, but then captured one game in a 3-1 defeat at Central. They were shut out four more times in nearly a two-week span before snaring a set during a 3-1 defeat at “The Cage” at Shea on Oct. 15.
“We had loss after loss, and sometimes we felt like giving up,” claimed sophomore setter/outside hitter Samantha Aspinwall. “We'd get upset, but we'd have some girls who'd speak up and say, 'Don't get that way!' They'd pick up our spirits up. They'd say, 'We've got this!' and then we'd get suped.”
Stated junior co-captain Kristin Pinault: “We bonded during practices and we'd try to make the best out of our situation. We talked to each other and said, 'We can't expect to win all the time.' That helped us prepare more. We'd come up with certain phrases to keep our energy high, and we'd start to laugh.”
Tavares indicated that, at first, she felt nervous and intimidated by those veteran squads.
“They'd spike the ball really hard at us, and we'd freak out!” she exclaimed. “As the matches kept going, we started to know enough to go after those spikes and try to dig it.”
On Wednesday night, while preparing to battle visiting Hope again, the Saints seemed upbeat and energized during warm-ups. It more than showed in the first game, as the Blue Wave committed a pair of unforced errors and Pullem and Co. grabbed a 2-1 lead.
SRA extended that lead to 5-1 on sophomore Maureen Doyle's serve (and a stellar Botelho kill), then notched two more points to gain a 9-3 advantage.
After Duffin served up five more points, one courtesy of an ace, to make it 16-7, a Tavares ace and a wicked Botelho spike gave the home squad a 21-11 cushion. Minutes later, with the sparse crowd cheering, the Saints celebrated a 25-16 victory following a Hope serve into the net.
Pullem's bunch carried that momentum over into the second game, racing to leads of 5-1 and 12-8, but the Blue Wave turned the tide. It outscored SRA, 11-3, to grab a 19-15 advantage, then snared the set, 25-18.
The Saints rolled to a 6-1 cushion in the third, and extended it to 16-11, on Duffin's service, but Hope took advantage of three straight unforced errors to tie it at 17-17, then cruised to the 25-18 win that made it 2-1 in games.
SRA kept the fourth and final set close as Hope built a 15-10 lead, but more unforced miscues resulted in the visitors claiming another 25-18 triumph.
“We've still improved tremendously since the first match,” Pullem offered. “Now they're actually communicating with each other. The thing is, even after the lose a match, they're generally happy. They understand that they're only a first-year program, and that they're going to struggle against teams who have been around for 10-20 years.
“They're just facing those challenges, which is all I can ask of them,” she continued. “We've had a lot of meetings and sessions to keep up the momentum they've built. By no means are they happy with losing, but they are happy when I tell them how and why they're improving. Our serving is a lot better, but we still have work to do on communicating. They need to realize who should go for a ball and why. I'm trying to get them to be more aggressive.”
Wall then interrupted, stating, “I don't think we know each other's strengths as well as we could, but we have gotten better. I keep telling the girls that I wished I had taped the first week of practice ... There are times when we get upset with ourselves because we don't make a certain pass or play. We really want to win, and it hurts me to see someone's upset, but I tell them, 'That's just the way it is with a new program.'
“I also say that we're responsible for building from the ground up the foundation for future teams. I think that makes all of us feel pretty good.”