Boys volleyball team seizes second chances

April 1, 2022 — by Selina Chen and Ariel Zhou
Photo by Selina Chen
Boys volleyball team warmed up for a fix-the-mistake practice on March 28 in which each player aimed to identify and eliminate one error.
Tensions run high amid zero wins and other setbacks, but the team works toward revamping their efforts through forging strong bonds

Deep echoes of balls bouncing against the wooden gym floor reverberated around the gym — it was March 28, the first time all 11 players on the boys’ volleyball team showed up for practice and almost two months into the spring sports season.

With challenges including condensed previous season, a relatively young team, a star player on academic probation and teammate conflicts, the team hopes to recover from its 0-4 record through rigorous practice under their well-liked new coach and by fostering a tighter-knit bond.

In 2021, the boys volleyball season was shortened by two to three weeks due to schedules condensing amid the pandemic. Coupled with multiple injuries to starting players, the team ended with a 2-12 record at the bottom of the league, according to junior libero Harrison Hwang.

“We didn’t get enough practice time, and we didn’t really take practices seriously because games were so close to each other,” Hwang said.

This year, the varsity team is exceptionally young, with only two seniors and three juniors along with five sophomores and one freshman. Although Hwang believes that grade level is less important to a player’s performance than the amount of experience, such as years spent playing club. However, he acknowledged that many underclassmen tend to be “less mature and not physically as big,” making it hard to compete with other teams that are composed of strong recruits.

Six games into the season, the team has yet to win, often losing by slim five-point differentials. For Hwang, the March 21 game against Los Gatos was especially frustrating — the team felt that they had a good chance since they won the first set by a large margin, but then lost the next three sets and the game.

“Our energy dropped after the second set,” he said. “We had a tight match and it was unlucky that we lost that one, but it just dropped the team’s confidence. We weren’t as focused and motivated.”

However, Hwang is optimistic because the team is developing stronger chemistry, as well as a “more confident and enthusiastic coaching staff,” he said.

Having last coached Saratoga in 2011, Lori Gragnola has returned to her position as head coach, with no assistant coach by her side — an unusual situation for the varsity team.

Hwang prefers having a single coach, however, because the instruction is more straightforward, allowing him to better understand what the coach wants without having to line up multiple perspectives.

“[Gragnola is] really energetic and relaxed but also takes coaching very seriously,” he said. “Plus, she’s a cool person outside of coaching volleyball, so it makes the team more fun.”

Outside hitter Andy Tran, a senior captain, said that at the start of the season, the team assumed that she wasn’t very competitive and instead wanted to give everyone a chance on the court. Now that the season has progressed, they learned that she’s fiercely competitive, giving them hope that they will win more games.

“[Gragnola] doesn’t bully us but ‘bullies’ us into becoming better — like tough love,” Tran said. “She nurtures some kids but makes it clear to more experienced kids that you should know stuff like clockwork.”

Gragnola acknowledged that the team has less maturity and fewer club players than other teams in the league, but is practicing “really, really hard” and has thus far been better on the court compared to last year.

“We are the underdogs in the higher league, and we know that, so we have to step it up, which we have,” Gragnola said. “We have the ability to win, and all of our matches have been super-duper close — within five points — so hopefully in the second half of the season we’ll be able to take some wins. We just need to mentally get ourselves in the right space.”

To do so, Gragnola applies her coaching philosophy that players should show up and do their best, knowing that she “absolutely despises laziness.” She tends to play the best players, taking players off the court if they’re having a bad day. She even chose to bench one of her key players after he failed to show up to practice without notifying the team in advance, which hurt the team as a whole. Now the team “knows better than pulling a no-show,” she said.

As captain, Tran aids Gragnola’s efforts by helping out the less experienced players and serving as the role model of the team. He said it’s a difficult job, however, when some of the players don’t give him as much respect because they think that they’re better despite still having space for improvement, he said.

Gragnola recently canceled two practices after one player acted out and broke the team mindset; she wanted to give them time to reset.

The situation also spurred sophomore setter and floor captain Sam Kau into action, since his role requires him to “get the team more organized and help people calm down in tough situations,” he said. 

In this case, he talked to the player individually to work things out.

As an underclassman, Kau finds it tough to command authority even though he is qualified through extensive club experience. However, he said he believes that the team has potential to get better if it fosters more chemistry.

Another thing Kau looks forward to is the return of sophomore Kali Duvvuri, a key player.

These renewed efforts from every member of the team is summed up as “taking second chances” by sophomore middle blocker Scotty Rich.

“[I hope] the team can adjust its attitude and mentality towards each other — redoing and learning from mistakes,” Rich said.

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