Paul Pitts-Dilley hadn’t heard of the rule. Frankly, how would he?
Before he became the O’Bryant boys volleyball head coach 15 years ago, Pitts-Dilley attended a game as a new teacher at the school. Warmups passed, the opposing team was ready to go and game time arrived, but there was a delay.
“(O’Bryant) had to wait for a sixth player to show up,” Pitts-Dilley said. “Then I learned a rule that I didn’t think existed, that for every 10 minutes you don’t have six players, you lose a set. … When I took over, the numbers were really low.”
It’s difficult to picture given the Tigers we see today. As soon as you walk through the double-doors into the gym for a home game, the courts are packed with players slugging balls around for warmups. Two sub-varsity teams bolster the program, with 30-plus student-athletes coming out to play over the last seven seasons.
The varsity team is a serious Div. 2 state title threat. All-Scholastic senior outside hitter Jonathan Narsjo and senior setter Son Nguyen are two of the best players in the state, and just about everyone within a large cast of solid contributors returned from last year’s team that made it to the state quarterfinal. Twelve of them participated on clubs in the offseason.
Athleticism, chemistry, contention, and commitment to growth on and off the court – the Tigers check all the boxes of a successful program. But make no mistake, this is all new.
“The goal at first was always, ‘Can we try to beat BLA, can we try to get closer to winning a state tournament match,’” Pitts-Dilley said. “Looking back now, we are winning games not just against City League teams. We can compete against quality suburban schools or private schools. For the last six or seven years, we have about 30-to-45 boys every year playing at three levels. I’m not sure those are things that my first four or five years I would have expected here.”
The difference in the program even from when Nguyen and Narsjo were eighth-graders to now is astounding.
Over the past few seasons, O’Bryant has won its first Boston City League championship, won its first state tournament game in nearly 20 years, and saw program records shattered by Nguyen (single-season assists) and Narsjo (single-season and career kills).
At 7-11, O’Bryant just barely squeaked into the 2019 state tournament. Now, they’re a Final Four favorite.
“We’ve established this culture and mentality on the team that we don’t just think, we know what we’re capable of,” Nguyen said. “The confidence has definitely gone up since eighth grade. Before, it was just more like a club team. We’d show up and just play, we weren’t really thinking about any championship titles. Now, it’s always on the back of our mind, but we play every game one set at a time.”
All that O’Bryant has accomplished is a refreshing sight not only for the Tigers, but for the city as well.
Pitts-Dilley will never forget his journey to Burke for a coaches’ meeting about a decade ago. When he asked a student for directions to the meeting, the student responded, “Boys play volleyball?” It was a telling reaction as to where the sport stood in terms of the city’s awareness. And while the rest of the state rapidly expands, the Boston City League has reduced from five teams to three.
Part of that comes from a perception that volleyball is an un-athletic sport, which Nguyen admits he partially believed until actually seeing what it was. Another part comes from the mentality that city teams can’t compete with the suburban powers.
The Tigers are determined alongside Latin Academy, Madison Park and the DCL’s Boston Latin to shatter both assumptions. Winning a state title would do wonders, and with a 7-1 record through a loaded schedule so far, O’Bryant is off to a good start.
Even if they don’t go all the way, though, O’Bryant has certainly left a mark.
“Our goal is to win it,” Pitts-Dilley said. “It doesn’t mean that if we don’t win it, it won’t be a great season, a great run with the boys. It seems especially with this class, every year they accomplish something new for the program.”
Added Nguyen: “O’Bryant volleyball and the other schools are doing a great job of spreading awareness of volleyball, the sport itself.”
Somerville and Malden are enjoying the sport’s recent expansion more than most, as they’ve seen their Greater Boston League fully form over the last three years with Revere, Medford, Everett, Chelsea, Lynn Classical and Lynn English all coming aboard. All but one team already boasts multiple wins in competitive action.
“It’s great,” said Malden coach Dan Jurkowski. “Everyone is competing. … That’s what we want, we want competitive games every single week so the teams that do end up qualifying for (the tournament), they’re ready to play.”
St. John’s of Shrewsbury has gone above and beyond with their commitment to multiple charitable causes. The team supported senior Tripp Menhall after his mother, Kristen, passed away in September from a brain tumor by raising over $2,500 for brain cancer research in a game against BC High on April 13. Just a week later, they took part in the Winchester-hosted ALS One April Break Invitational – dedicated toward raising awareness for ALS – in honor of the late fathers of coach Dan Seaver and Winchester coach John Fleming.
“It’s something awesome that these guys have – they’re awesome kids, they’re a family, and then we’re a team,” Seaver said. “When I asked them if they wanted to do something for charity, something this year, it was awesome. They came right away with it without hesitation, they wanted to do something for Tripp. … They’re just happy to be involved.”