NORTH PROVIDENCE – Kayla-Jo Macchio’s vision became reality last Wednesday night.
A year after putting the wheels into motion to begin a volleyball program at North Providence High, the junior finally stepped onto the court for the Cougars’ RIIL debut against one of the Division IV’s top teams, neighboring Shea High.
Playing in front of a large, vocal gathering on their home court, the Cougars showed flashes of brilliance, but not enough to topple the experienced Raiders, who swept the host team by scores of 25-13, 25-14, and 25-12.
Despite the loss, the Cougars’ debut “felt awesome because this was the first volleyball game ever at our high school,” admitted Macchio. “We had a lot of positive energy. We worked as a team, we did the best we could, and we didn’t lose by much. We worked hard to get where we are – and with only having three weeks of practice.”
Last fall, Macchio spoke with the school’s athletic director, Glenn Williams, about the prospects of fielding a girls’ volleyball team, and when Williams told her “to go work for it,” she rolled up her sleeves and collected over 500 signatures on a petition to create a program.
Among the signatures was School Committee member Gina Picard, “and she had me come speak at the school board meeting,” added Macchio, who is also a second baseman on the high school’s softball team. “I spoke at the meeting, they gave me the estimate for how much everything should be, and maybe two or three weeks later (in November), we got (the news) that we were getting girls’ and boys’ volleyball teams.”
One of the first orders of business was to find a head coach to run the program and build it from the ground up, and the Cougars found one in their building in Julia Rodrigues, who is in her second year as a science teacher at the high school. Rodrigues was an outside hitter for North Smithfield High who graduated in 2016, and she also played for the Blast Volleyball Junior Olympic program.
“It’s been very exciting,” added Fernandes, whose assistant coach is Melanie Howard. “I was definitely nervous, especially having never coached before and coming into a head coach position, but the girls are fantastic and they have such a great attitude.”
Fernandes welcomed 40 players to her team’s tryouts on Aug. 22, but was only able to keep 25 of them, with 13 making up her varsity squad and the rest playing on the junior varsity team.
The first three weeks of the preseason “was a lot of teaching,” especially with almost all the players having never played the sport before, Fernandes added. “But the girls really stepped up, and I’ve seen immense improvement from our first day of tryouts to even now, so that’s definitely good.”
While the Cougars’ spirits, energy, and enthusiasm were sky high in their season opener, their serve-receive turned out to be their biggest flaw. The Raiders concluded the night with 32 aces, 11 coming off the service of junior Kasyra Fernandes.
“That’s definitely something we need to work on,” said Rodrigues. “It’s hard when we don’t have those servers yet to try to practice against them, so we’re working on all of it.”
The Cougars’ historic night got off to a rocky start when they couldn’t return the first four serves delivered by Shea junior Alex Larios, but NP responded by scoring seven of the next nine points to take its first lead. NP junior Ava Barlow served a pair of aces during that run, including the one that gave the Cougars their lead and fired up the home fans.
Unfortunately for NP, the Raiders, who delivered a dozen aces in this set, answered back with nine of the next 10 points and never looked back.
The only other time the Cougars enjoyed a lead was in the third set, as back-to-back aces by Macchio helped NP take leads of 5-4 and 6-5, but a 10-point run by Shea soon put that game out of reach.
The Cougars ended the night with just five kills, two coming from junior Andrea Vasquez, and 10 aces, four off Macchio’s serves.
“Honestly, for our first game ever, and these girls having never really played before, I thought they did a great job,” said Fernandes, who played all 12 of her players, but went with a lineup for most of the night that consisted of senior Lyanisse Diaz, juniors Teslimah Lawal and Lia D’Orazio, freshman Ava Soave, Vasquez, Barlow, and Macchio. “It was good to get them to see what a real game looks like, with the pace and all that kind of stuff.”
In addition to the Raiders, who returned to Division IV after enduring a winless season in D-III last fall, the rest of the division includes Providence Country Day, Mount Pleasant, Hope, Davies, Blackstone Valley Prep, and Providence’s Times2 Academy/Paul Cuffee co-op team.
While PCD, which reached the D-IV finals two seasons ago, should also be one of the division’s top teams, a few of the other squads are still relatively new to the varsity scene. BVP began its program last year; Davies is in its fourth RIIL season, and Paul Cuffee and Times2 have been around since 2018.
The Cougars, who were back in action on Tuesday night with a match at home against Hope, will also be home on Friday for a 6:30 p.m. contest against PCD.
As for her team’s goals this season, “we want to win (the division’s) Best Sportsmanship (award),” Rodrigues said with a smile. “That’s our goal, but we also want to continue to improve and play closer games. If we can win a few, that would be fantastic, but we really want to work on our skills and build our team for the future.”