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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
29 Apr 2023
Tom Mulherin

NextImg:Volleyball notebook: Acton-Boxboro likes taste of winning

After the entire 2020 season was cancelled and restrictions smothered the ensuing campaign, the MIAA called an audible for the final year of the state tournament’s sectional format by allowing any team to opt into the 2021 playoffs – regardless of record. Weymouth (0-13), Methuen (0-10), Arlington (0-11) and Acton-Boxboro (0-10) each chose to participate after laboring through winless regular seasons, and all four persevered to win their first game of the year in the tournament’s preliminary round.

It’s a cool, never-give-up accomplishment those schools share. But as three of those teams faltered against top-five seeds in the next round, battle-tested Acton-Boxboro wasn’t done. It won again.

“We were down, but the (Dual County League) teams we were playing were just incredibly hard,” said eighth-year Revolution head coach Darren Gwin. “That team really stayed committed to the process, and we really quantified our success differently because in a lot of those matches, going into it, we knew it would be incredibly difficult or impossible to actually win the game.”

Those major powers they faced that season – highlighted by eventual state finalist Lincoln-Sudbury and state semifinalist Westford Academy – have a different look two years later.

So does Acton-Boxboro.

Within an 8-0 start that features two wins over Wayland and sweeps of Lincoln-Sudbury, Newton South, Westford Academy and Boston Latin, the Revolution clock in at No. 5 in the first set of MIAA Div. 1 power rankings. They’ve only lost two sets.

Senior standouts Nick Heitman and Lucas Tan have improved on solid seasons from last year to resemble premier hitting options. First-year senior Hamilton Fong and junior Sai Nallajennugari used a full week of no games over April vacation to develop and impress Gwin, complementing the duo. Sophomore setter Parth Pawar is a primary X-factor in the midst of a breakout year, as is junior libero Sameer Vasudeo.

Stacking up against Div. 1 elites Needham, Natick, Newton North and Lowell is yet to be determined, but Acton-Boxboro is off to a great start. “We’ve had some pretty strong teams in the past, but in terms of our record, this is the strongest start we’ve had,” Gwin said. “We’re not really used to winning (the past two years) so this is just, ‘Oh yeah, this is a really cool feeling.’”

While Heitman, Tan, Pawar & Co. have improved their skills, assistant coach Jeff Emenaker has played a large role in helping the team build its focus on the value of every point. They even make a concerted effort to review how they’re treating that value.

Collectively, they’re just having fun.

“This year, we kind of have a really positive attitude and we’re obviously powerful,” Gwin said. “Our seniors in particular, they just have so much fun playing this game and I feel like they’re just playing with a different energy than before. … Something was kind of holding us back. Where now, the seniors – (Tan) and (Heitman) in particular – they’re just having fun out there. You can see them smiling, really enjoying themselves. I feel that happens in practice and in the games, and that type of attitude is infectious for the rest of the players.”

This surge is good for the competitiveness of the league, which was already regarded as a well-rounded group.

Since joining the coaching staff in 2011, Gwin has just one league title at Acton-Boxboro. While the Bay State Conference features three or four of the strongest teams in Div. 1, the gap between many of the squads in the DCL is significantly tighter.

Newton South and Westford Academy find themselves more in a rebuild after contending for a state title over the past several seasons. An always scrappy Boston Latin and a newer program in Waltham/Weston, the rest of the DCL features Cambridge, Lincoln-Sudbury and Wayland groups expecting to compete come state tournament time.

Fighting through this gauntlet is never easy, and it starts with the culture built in every program.

“I think the coaching standard in the DCL is outstanding,” said Wayland head coach Phil George. “That really helps the level of competitiveness and allows those teams to cycle through (league contention) and be competitive.”

After the MIAA dropped its first set of spring power rankings Friday morning, three things stood out:

  1. The Merrimack Valley Conference’s true strength is clouded by scheduling very few nonleague games. But history is on its side and the power rankings are high on it. Unbeaten Lowell stands at No. 3 and five other teams ranked top-20 in Div. 1.
  1. Western Mass. clocks in legitimate threats in Div. 2 early on, taking eight of the top 13 spots. Defending champion Westfield, Agawam and West Springfield are No. 1, 3 and 4, respectively, notably ranking ahead of forces O’Bryant (No. 5) and Milford (No. 6).
  1. For as great as it is to see new threats like Acton-Boxboro (No. 5), St. John’s (No. 6) and Cambridge (No. 8) rewarded early in Div. 1, get ready for some familiarity deep in both tournaments. Last year’s Final Four teams in Needham, Lowell, Westfield, North Quincy, Milford and Greater New Bedford all rank within the top 10 and likely aren’t going away easy.
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