By BILL CAIN
NISKAYUNA — The Niskayuna boys’ volleyball team had a tall order this season — taking the court across the net from sometimes taller, certainly more experienced competition.
The Silver Warriors have three returning seniors and one first-year senior, then five sophomores. That’s it. Then there is a mix of sophomores and freshmen on the junior varsity.
With such a young program, the leadership of the four seniors has been crucial to the development of both squads, and they hope it will pay dividends for the program in the coming years.
“It’s a lot or responsibility, but it’s a responsibility we love having,” said senior co-captain Noah Levine. “Volleyball’s such a team sport, and it’s great being able to mentor younger players. We have a buddy system, so we each have a player that we pick up if they’re down, if they miss a play; we’ll go do something weird, and it makes them happy. It’s a great responsibility to have, and that we enjoy having.”
He wouldn’t expound on “something weird,” except to say some things are best left between teammates.
Tim Molino is the other co-captain, and coach Dave Spangler said Molino and Levine set the standard for work ethic on the team. It’s a standard that is seen not only by the sophomores on the varsity, but also all the junior varsity players, as the teams practice together.
Senior Tom Burke is a third-year varsity player who Spangler said is the emotional barometer of the team. When he’s up, the team’s up. If he gets down, the team may follow, but more times than not, Burke puts on a brave face and will buoy the team through tough times. Burke’s adaptability also has been an asset, Spangler said, as the coach shifted him out for huge weak-side blocks.
First-year player Liam Martin was a quick study, and he had to be. When a sophomore starter left the team, Martin was thrust into the lineup and became a stalwart net presence.
Leading by example
All four have played a role in developing the sophomore players, either through active encouragement and pointers or simply by letting their actions speak volumes.
Molino, though, credits his coaches for the youngsters’ development as much as the coaches credit him and Levine.
Spangler is in his third season with the program, and the Silver Warriors just added JV coach Jen Chartrand, a first-year coach fresh off a collegiate playing career at Norwich.
“Luckily, we have awesome, great coaches to help get their skills up early,” Molino said. “When we came, we had coach Spangler and a different JV coach. We’re hoping this new JV coach helps kick-start everyone.”
The captains and Spangler see a lot of promise in the young group. Molino pointed first to libero Liam Meachem as a defensive whiz who is reliable at the service line. Eoghan Stoffer and Damien Whittemore are strong in the middle. Evan Pritchard already looks like the leader of the future as an encouraging vocal presence on the court, and Jim Caesare’s setting ability allows the Silver Warriors to use a pair of starting setters and work an aggressive attack.
The entire team hustles on every point, and that effort goes a long way to overcoming any deficiency of experience.
“It’s great seeing everyone dive on the floor; it’s what really makes us a team,” Levine said. “Other teams have taller people; I don’t know what the Bethlehem coach feeds their kids, but we should get some of that. We do incredibly well with what we have because we all play for each other, we dive for each other, we pick each other up.”
As the Silver Warriors lay a new foundation with these sophomores, wins are still more enjoyable than losses, but the true measure of their success is their growth as players.
“With a lot of the teams in the section, we can play together, and I feel we’re pretty confident against most of them,” Spangler said. “But when you have some kids who look like they will be playing as a freshman for a D-III team, that’s tough to play against.
“As long as they’re playing at their max, like they did against Shenendehowa [a 3-1 loss] — that was a great effort. That’s 75 [percent] or 80 percent of the way there.”