Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Melrose 3 Watertown 0

Melrose traveled to Watertown and defeated their hosts 25-7, 25-5, and 25-10.

Coach Scott Celli utilized the opportunity to give his reserves experience as they played the final two games.

In game one Melrose gradually extended the lead and scored the final five points. Alyssa DiRaffaele and  Rachel Johnson each had three kills and Melrose has one service error.

Game two saw four kills from Jen Cain, and one apiece for Rachael Wolley, Sydney Doherty, and Rachel.

Game three saw a closer beginning with Melrose leading 9-8 before a nine point run removed any doubt. Rachel Johnson had another four kills, and Sarah McGowan chipped in with a pair.

Melrose hosts once-beaten AC Saturday following the JV game that goes off at 2 the Varsity game will probably start somewhere between 3:15 and 3:30.

Lake Wobegon Days

"The race is not always to the swiftest, or the battle to the strongest, but it pays to bet that way."
A third of the way through the volleyball season and what do we know?

  • Volleyball coverage through the major local sports media is limited. It's a niche sport in a big sport market. 
  • There have been two uber-powers in Massachusetts volleyball within the past five years, Medfield and Barnstable, although New Bedford caught up last season and may again this. Even among the other stronger programs (like Central Catholic, Marlborough, Melrose, North Reading, Case) they're playing catch up. 
  • Volleyball is not so different than most sports...there is a sharp distinction between the haves and the have-nots. This is not a change or recent observation, this is a decade of history. All the teams' players and coaches are working hard to be the best they can be, but we have the Lake Wobegon effect at work. "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average"
  • Sustained success depends on coaching, players, infrastructure, and community involvement. 
  • We will always view our teams through attribution bias and endowment bias, because that is how we are wired. 
Most of the communities in the Middlesex League have areas of 'specialization', although some, like Reading have shown more general excellence than others on both the boys and girls side. For example (but not limited to)

Belmont: soccer
Burlington: hockey, football, cheerleading
Lexington: boys basketball, softball 
Melrose: volleyball, girls basketball
Reading: track, football, almost everything
Stoneham: soccer (boys and girls), softball, baseball
Wakefield: football, girls hockey
Watertown: field hockey, boys basketball
Winchester: soccer, hockey
Woburn: football, basketball, hockey (boys and girls)

It is the exception to the rule that teams from schools with small enrollments can dominate. Watertown achieves this with tremendous infrastructure (youth programs) and tradition that attracts attention. For example, their basketball program led by Steve Harrington is a model of excellence, a consistent winner with two state championships. Reading track won over 250 consecutive meets. That's not luck; that's hard work. You need some luck to avoid injury, stay healthy, and sometimes win close contests, but you can't rely on luck for sustained results. 

This doesn't mean that a team without a historically strong program won't excel, with cyclical effects or a couple of star players, but the strong teams usually continue to dominate and the weaker teams usually keep struggling. Watertown has a trophy case full of field hockey state championships and Winchester has produced some of the best soccer teams in New England. Once upon a time, Lexington (Ron Lee) and Winchester (Bob Bigelow) birthed NBA first round draft choices. That's probably about a once in a lifetime experience. I played on a team that lost to Lexington by 45 points because they (three time State Champions) were that much better than we were that day. No excuses, no complaints; that's sports...their job is to beat you and sometimes what goes around comes around. 

For most, volleyball isn't a year round sport, and we're nowhere near the excellence of many states. I know a player from California who couldn't make her high school team and received a Division I volleyball scholarship in the East. That's not perception; that's reality. 

In watching Middlesex League volleyball for a decade, I can recall one volleyball match during that time that we lost that perhaps we should have won (2006). A strong argument can be made that North Reading had Melrose on the ropes last year, outplaying Melrose for much of the game before falling short. When Melrose has lost, it has almost always been because the team was outplayed. That happens less often now because the team has simply improved and played better non-league competition trying to get better. The ML is getting better (Stoneham and Winchester in particular) and the impact of expansion (Arlington, Wilmington) remains to be seen. 

Occasionally, behind the scenes conversations and history color the discussion. That's in house and maybe that's not fair to outside readers. You want an example? A ML team posted a poster of several Melrose players with a bull's eye on it, with the caption "Get 'em".  The team knows who it is...and in retrospect it's pretty funny.

The ML has some quality coaches, and I love coach Viselli's enthusiasm, as he can give as good as he can take. Melrose has two potential starters injured but that's not an excuse. The team doesn't have anyone with mono or visa problems, or anything else, and the current enrollment can't be expected to change for the better or worse.

Beliefs are not facts, yet far more stubborn. 

This blog is not affiliated with Melrose High School in any way. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Around the Net

Melrose Patch with a game report and photos.

Tomorrow at Watertown...'nuf said.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Crowd Pleaser, Melrose 3-0

The Lady Raiders hosted Lexington, a Middlesex League team with just one league loss and came away with a lopsided 3-0 victory at the Middle School Gym.

Melrose gets enthusiastic crowds who enjoy watching good volleyball, with exciting defense, crisp passing, and power hitting. Today, that wasn't seen in abundance, amidst officiating conferences, rotation questions, and near maximal time out deployment.  Still, Melrose played more efficient and proficient volleyball in earning their seventh victory against no losses.

This week is particularly important for preparation for quality opponents Arlington Catholic (Saturday) and Central Catholic (Monday).

Game one saw some early tug of war with a 3-3 tie, which Melrose extended to a 9-4 lead highlighted by a pair of kills by Alyssa DiRaffaele. After Melrose led 15-7, Lexington could never pull closer than six points as Melrose won 25-11.  Melrose utilized 9 kills including three each for Alyssa, Jill Slabacheski, and Rachel Johnson. The only downer came from three service errors.

Game two was close early, with the visitors leading 8-6, before Melrose turned it on. Melrose then went on a 12-3 run to put the Lexington volleyballers at bay, closing them out 25-13. Athena Ziavras and Jill each chipped in with three kills, while Rachel and Brooke added a pair apiece.

Game three was pretty much more of the same, as Melrose struggled to get into a rhythm at times, because Lexington had such inefficient offense.  Melrose led 6-2, 12-7, and 18-8 en route to a 25-12 thrashing.  Athena had four kills along with Alyssa, and Rachel added a couple as well.

Jill made perhaps the defensive play of the year, diving out of bounds and swatting a 'chicken wing' return over the net into an opening in the surprised Lexington defense for a kill.

Game analysis: Melrose played a more coordinated, crisp game than they did on Friday, with the biggest problem a lack of flow, as Lexington's offensive attacks repeatedly sailed out of bounds or into the net. In particular, the defense from Alyssa and setter Brooke Bell excelled. Although Melrose dominated play, the match still took about seventy minutes as officiating questions and timeouts prolonged the play. Overall the process improved and the results corresponded.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ratings: S.O.S. (Strength of Schedule) Drop

Melrose drops four places in the ratings because of strength of schedule effects. A loss to a powerhouse can do as much or more for you than a win against a weaker opponent. Note that Bishop Feehan (3-3) is ahead of Melrose. Of course, the rankings may not necessarily be accurate...

No Blowout But Patch Helps

The Melrose Patch gives some love to Lady Raider volleyball.


Whether you have a training aid set-up, you can watch this to understand the footwork and arm swing.

A Promise to Adam

Take a minute to read. It could save your life.

"Billy" Club

Photos courtesy of Don Norris. 

I got a feeling that Monday a different Melrose team shows up at the Middle School Gym.

This week continues an important stretch (second quarter of the season) for Melrose volleyball. Friday's action produce a win, and valuable knowledge on 'control'.  The salient points to digest include:
  • 25 percent of life is what happens and 75 percent is how you respond to it.
  • What we can control on and off the court is limited.
  • But what we control counts most: 1) effort and 2) concentration. The latter includes positioning and communication
Melrose has shown the ability to play its best volleyball against better competition and Lexington generally provides 'first division' play in the Middlesex League.

Middlesex League standings from Reading played at Lexington Friday in the latter's annual Ovarian Cancer Awareness game.  Results are not available.

Sophomore Sarah McGowan is having a solid season.  Brittany Adelman continues to rehab.
Even the officials have a good time at the Middle School Gymnasium.
Brooke Bell had a remarkable string of serves without an error broken Friday. A new string starts Monday.
Athena blasts a spike into the teeth of a double block.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Melrose-Stoneham Photoessay

Photos courtesy of Don Norris. Always click to enlarge and see the full photo.

Being a volleyball parent can be more stressful than being a player.
Super sophs Rachel and Brooke go up for a block.
Athena, Jen, and Alyssa stand aligned prior to a Melrose serve.
Athena, the floor captain, discusses positioning with the lead official.
Here are some of the "first ladies" of Melrose volleyball. They know who they are.
Somehow Freshman Cassidy Barbaro ends up going for the spike in the front row among the tall trees.
Jen and Rachel go up to block. Youth has served Melrose well.
Alyssa skies for a tip.
A game of centimeters?  A Tachikara perches on the net.
Two time All-Scholastic Karen Sen drops by to say hello. Once a Lady Raider, always a Lady Raider.

More on Hitting

Now that you've had your Japanese refresher course, we'll look back in time to a couple of effective Melrose hitters from the past.  You have to click on the photos to get the full view.

First: Jen Cohane

2004 D2 North Championship. Amanda Hallett prepares the set. Note Jen is just behind the attack line.
The ball is near its apex, and Jen has taken one step forward in her approach.
She has taken the second step and started her jump.
Here her arm swing is about at contact. Good balance and going to have down contact with ball.
Here's another sequence, with Karen Sen in the middle, the free ball has just come over the net and she is preparing to get into hitting position.
She has both feet set (alternatively could be walking into the shot), awaiting the set.
Amanda has the ball and Karen is in an athletic position ready to approach.
With her first power step, she has the arms back preparing to launch into the jump. This is the more classic approach.
She has completed the second step and into the arm swing strike.
She is contacting the ball high enough over the net to reduce the chance of an effective double block from the middle.
The ball has escaped the block and is en route to the floor.

The point isn't that everyone has to be a 'cookie cutter' image, but effective hitters will:
  • have a consistent approach
  • generate enough height such that the ball crosses the net at enough height to decrease the chance of a successful block. The back arm swing can help launch the attack. 
  • hit down enough to both keep the ball in the court and ideally in front of the back row
For parents who have the DVDs of the games, I recommend playback with frame by frame analysis so that players can actually see what they are doing. Sometimes what you are doing and what you think you are doing are not congruous. Media Player Classic Home Cinema is one free program that allows this, although I'm sure others do as well. 

An FYI. On this week's "Let's Talk Sports", Ralph and Ron will discuss some important issues concerning high school athletes. 

    Melrose 3 Stoneham 1 : Lessons Learned

    Photos courtesy of Don Norris. 

    'Tis better to win ugly, than lose pretty, no matter what a coach might say in the heat of battle.  You win as a team, lose as a team, and struggle as a team. And yesterday, in the sweltering heat in the Middle School Gym, Melrose won the war but lost a battle, defeating the Stoneham Spartans 3-1. The win moves Melrose to 6-0, 5-0 in the Middlesex League, as the team prepares for some big upcoming matches.
    Rachel Johnson hits against Winchester. 

    Game analysis: Life is about making adjustments, as changes occur during work ("school is children's work"), relationships, and how we cope with those changes. Those in the Viktor Frankl camp ("Man's Search for Meaning") might call that suffering.

    History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes. Sports reflects a microcosm of life, and the challenges of evolution. One knowledgeable long-time observer called yesterday's game "the worst I've seen Melrose play in years." For the city of Melrose, it has been a tumultuous week, and how we deal with the aftershocks determines who we are. 

    During yesterday's contest, Stoneham, well-coached by Andrew Viselli (who has a previous state title pelt on his horse), made the better adjustments early defensively, but Melrose adapted and overcame with a few tricks of their own.  Stoneham's height bothered Melrose as they blocked numerous Lady Raider slams and they rotated their defense forward to take away dinks and dunks. Coach Viselli also favors use of the outside attack with the short ball (a.k.a. short set, one-ball) from the middle, which although wasn't consistent, bothered Melrose at times. Reading used Viselli's methods in 2004 to take a match from the 2004 Division 2 North champion team.

    Elite volleyball teams sometimes use the short ball to compensate for a lack of height.

    About thirty seconds into this video, there's a great example of a short spike.

    Set 1. Melrose dominated game one, leading 7-0 and 15-3 en route to a 25-9 rout. Uncharacteristically, the team had three service errors, but double digit kills and spread the offense around with three kills for Athena and a pair apiece for Alyssa, Rachel, and Jill. So far so good.

    Set 2. Melrose again gets off to a fast start, leading 10-1, but gradually the momentum begins to ebb. Stoneham closes to 10-6 before a five point Melrose run temporarily restores order. But the team is playing tentatively, and from 15-6, only outscores Stoneham 10-8 to take the second stanza. The offense is stale, unofficially recording only five kills, three by Athena.

    Set 3. Melrose again takes the early lead, 4-1, but has only one kill. Stoneham fights back, tieing the game at 7, 9, 11, 12, and 13, before going on their own spree to lead 17-13. Clearly, the coaching staff is frustrated, but making adjustments to try to reinvigorate the offense. Melrose closes to 16-18 and 19-20, before knotting the game at 21. From an 18-14 deficit, the Lady Raiders get eight kills in nine points including three more from Athena and a pair from Jill, cutting the 24-21 deficit to 24-23. Nevertheless, they can't seal the deal as an outside spike goes into the net and Stoneham hands Melrose their first set loss of the season.

    Set 4. Reminiscent of Blackstone Valley in the state semifinals in 2005, a disappointing third set loss triggers a revival in game 4. The team simply restores order and the new sheriff in town, Athena Ziavras locks up the contest with a brilliant display of varied kills (6), ably abetted by sophomore Rachel Johnson who delivers five. Melrose has a remarkable 16 kills in the game , riding an 11-2 run (most of which occur with Brooke Bell serving) to a 25-11 victory. Stoneham never gets closer than seven points after that.  Identifying the holes in the anything but porous Stoneham defense and exploiting them made the difference down the stretch.

    Fans and coaches might ask themselves, which is the 'real' Melrose volleyball version 2010. I would simply say that young teams experience growing pains which manifest in different ways. Yesterday's action demonstrated the pitfalls of 1) momentary passivity and 2) inadequate communication, both eminently correctable. Coaches want their teams to reflect their personality, and Coach Scott Celli teams ordinarily show toughness, teamwork, and energy.

    The momentum shift that Stoneham achieved reflects credit on their players and coaching staff. Melrose was able to right the ship and seal the deal in the end.  We trade in results, not excuses.

    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    Initial Maxpreps Rankings Out uses a computerized ranking system based on record and strength of schedule. Melrose checks in at number 11 in their initial rankings. Medfield and Barnstable lead the pack, with future opponent Central Catholic at four. Melrose scrimmaged Chelmsford preseason and captured that scrimmage.

    Melrose's lower strength of schedule in the Middlesex League tends to hold them down in the rankings.

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010


    Athena prepares a serve.
    Maggie in action.
    "Sneaky" number 11 with a set - kill into space
    Alyssa lines one up. Her defense has been outstanding recently.
    Jill thrills with a kill.
    Brooke Bell is in the top 6 assists per game in Massachusetts.
    Alyssa hits from the middle with a 'cup' of Melrose players having 'pushed forward'.
    Jill serves as she has a breakout season to become one of the top players in the Middlesex League.
    Sarah prepares to dig out a smash to the corner...
    And Jen makes an instinctive deflection at the net to keep the ball in play (over the net) and save a point. These are the types of plays that good teams make instinctively AND consistently.

    Video courtesy of Jeff Mate'


    Finished watching more of the game and wanted to note outstanding defense in both the front and back row by Alyssa DiRaffaele. Bravo zulu!

    And you know what that means: Winner, winner chicken dinner.

    Decision Making: The Evolution of Melrose Volleyball

    Melrose traveled to Winchester and came away with a straight set victory over a stubborn host, 25-13, 25-14, and 25-13.

    Melrose got off to a sluggish start in game one, trailing 6-2 behind some sloppy offensive play as the hitters looked to get into gear (Jeff Mate' provided the video). Melrose then ran off a 17-2 run behind a terrific service run by Sarah McGowan including a pair of aces. This spurt featured three kills from Senior Captain Athena Ziavras.

    Late in the game, Jill Slabacheski went on a killing spree with four kills among the final eight points. Athena and Jill each had four kills for the game among thirteen for Melrose.

    The game encapsulated some of the features that have characterized Melrose volleyball:
    • Historically, the team has often come out slowly, in the "feeling out" adjustment process. 
    • The overall passing game has improved dramatically through the years. The setters no longer have to run down passes like frisbee-catching dogs, and that tends to improve the second pass leading to the attack. 
    • The maturation process of the "big hitters" accelerates with better passing. 
    • More volleyball experience at younger ages produces more offensive and attacking players who can recognize problems and make quick decisions to correct them. In the past, only the 'elite' players, destined to be All-Scholastics made these adjustments. In the first game, young players Rachel Johnson and Jen Cain both effected deflections that many players in the past would not have created.
    • Fans should recognize the development of setter Brooke Bell, who seldom makes overpasses, is a solid defender, finds the proper passing angles, and identifies 'dink' opportunities without forcing them.  Although only a sophomore, she makes the team run. I am willing to predict that she will be an all-state player sooner rather than later. 
    • At your service. Overall, the team has a number of offensive servers who create headaches for the defense. In addition to Athena, Jill, and Alyssa, Sarah has developed a vicious variety of serves. 
    Game two saw more control from Melrose, with a quick 5-2 lead and gradual extension. Winchester narrowed the gap to 16-12, but a 9-2 run closed out the Sachems. Melrose unofficially had 11 kills for the game, 2 service errors and several blocks. Alyssa added four kills, Jill three, and Athena two.

    Melrose revved up the offense late in game three, with the game tied at 1,2,3, 4, 5, and 6 and Winchester leading 12-7.  A huge service run (fifteen points) from Brook catapulted the Lady Raiders to a 22-12 advantage and Sarah closed it out with an ace. Melrose added another 11 kills, including five for Athena and three for Brooke.

    Game analysis: Winchester has continued to bring their skill level up admirably despite their relative inexperience (two years) in volleyball. They don't have the big hitters or elite defenders needed to score and defend against the best teams, but they're making very good progress. Melrose continues to find its identity, while preparing for the iron in the upcoming schedule. There's still a lot of work to be done, especially developing power offense from the mid court, but the progress is palpable.

    Fight Like a Girl

    The girls travel to Winchester for a Middlesex League match today at 4 P.M. for varsity with the JV to follow. These girls don't get pushed around.

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    Higher and Higher

    Always click the photos to get the big picture. 

    Tomorrow the Lady Raiders travel to Winchester for a 4 P.M. match against the second year program that made the playoffs in their inaugural campaign in 2009.  Melrose will set its goals high, continuous improvement of the roster top to bottom and improving the global process that is quality volleyball. Simply put, last week is over.

    Jill Slabacheski had the best game of her career against Reading.
    A pensive coach, Scott Celli always looks for ways to get the most from his troops.
    Strength up the middle? Melrose has no secrets, with a blend of youth and experience. Here Rachel Johnson, Jen Cain, and Athena Ziavras are ready for action. Rachel has excelled in the middle, Athena leads the team in kills, and Jen has become an 'auxiliary setter' giving Melrose more offensive options.
    Alyssa battles at the net, and the team takes Coach Celli's push forward message to heart.
    Sarah McGowan and Jill have delivered on the athleticism that this year's team promised.
    Jill crushes a spike into the Rocket defense.
    Coach Steve Wall is the other integral part of Melrose's dynamic coaching duo.

    As usual, the photos are courtesy of the camerawork and Photoshop expertise of Don Norris!

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    Reading, Righting, Executing

    Always click the photos to get the full picture. 

    Don Norris sends his photojournalism from the exciting road win at Reading.  Reading showed strong defensive skills and excellent hitting presenting a big challenge for Melrose.

    Athena tips over the double block.
    Melrose had plenty of enthusiasm in reserve.
    Rachel Johnson looks on while preparing for her next rotation. As usual, she blocked effectively and her hitting is improving every game.
     Jill was immense in the win.
    The 'eye in the sky' recorded history with Jeff Mate', Ralph Labella, and Dick Collis doing a great job for MMTV.  Their excellent broadcast is on MMTV channel 15. Ralph's daughter Amanda was one of the top setters in Melrose history.
    As usual, Melrose brought a big crowd to support the Lady Raiders.
    Rachel and Brooke at the net. Brooke is among the leaders in assists per game in Massachusetts.
    You know what this means. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.