Seniors leading Notre Dame of Hingham

If there’s one thing Josh Shepherd wants his volleyball squad to remember, it’s that “good players will always stick out, but the great players make everyone better.”

That philosophy has helped transform a Notre Dame of Hingham senior class that is taking a bite out of the state’s top contenders.

It started with Medfield.

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For the past two years, the programs have played to five sets on the Cougars’ court, some of the most exciting volleyball Shepherd has seen. Despite a 3-2 loss this season (25-19, 13-25, 26-24, 19-25, 12-15), the Cougars showed they can compete.

Next was Barnstable, the most decorated program in Massachusetts. Shepherd knew the game would be an internal battle seeing he tries to mirror his program after coach Tom Turco’s Red Raiders.

“We’re looking to compete at the highest level with the highest teams so that when you walk off the floor, if you have no regrets, you’ll be in the position to go into the postseason and face whoever,” said Shepherd.

The Cougars became the only team to steal a set from Barnstable this season.

Those are Notre Dame’s only losses this season. The Cougars defeated perennial power Westboro for the first time since 2007, winning in straight sets (25-21, 25-22, 25-18).

“We were the toughest team they’ve played to date. My team had been battle-tested in big matches and [had upperclassman presence],” said Shepherd.

“In order to get into the conversation with the top programs, you have to get a bite of the ones already there. You can’t come up with a rivalry if one team always wins.”

Captain Randi Whitham demonstrated her setting skills against Westboro, totaling 30 assists and 10 digs. Whitman also recorded her 1,000th career assist this season.

Outside hitter Julia Flynn, who is known for her game-changing plays and heavy hits, totaled 10 kills, 10 digs, and 3 aces. She has a team-leading 86 kills.

Outside hitter Julia Marshall, the only sophomore on the team, had eight kills.

Notre Dame has extensive depth, getting production from the entire team rather than a few key contributors.

“We’re able to keep the ball off the floor and the longer the play goes, the better chances we have to win the point,” said Shepherd.

The fact that the Cougars have a lefty in Kate O’Leary to switch things up doesn’t hurt, either.

“Not too many high school-level teams can feature an attack from all areas of the court. Most good teams have two of these areas with significant production, so we’re fortunate,” he said.

Working alongside O’Leary are libero Natalia MacCarrone and Amanda Hajjar, the team’s top defensive players. Middle blocker Meg Ayers is working her way up after tearing her labrum last offseason.

However, raw talent isn’t the only way to success. Shepherd said mental conditioning is just important as physical, which is why he shows his team sports psychology films.

“All my seniors have bought into this year and we want to see how good we can be and we have to hold ourselves accountable to a high level,” said Shepherd.

“This allows us to have this home base when things go awry,” he said.

Watching his girls realize their talent has been Shepherd’s favorite part of the season, especially seeing his players’ worst fear during tryouts was finding who was going to step up.

The Cougars ended last season with a 3-1 loss to North Attleboro in the Division 1 South quarterfinals.

“In order to qualify as a top contender you have had to have been [in the postseason] before. The farthest we’ve been is the sectional semis,” said Shepherd, who plays on the Big Dig team in Yankee Volleyball, a branch of USA Volleyball.

“In a perfect world, we’d like to go farther than that but I’d rather see them climb that ladder,” said Shepherd.

Games of the week

Central Catholic at No. 2 Melrose, Mon., 6:30 p.m. — The Division 1 and Division 2 state finalists last season convene with the Raiders having edged Melrose twice in the past three seasons, with the exception of last season’s 3-1 loss. Senior middle hitter Sarah McGowan leads undefeated Melrose in kills with126, averaging five per set.

No. 17 Medfield at No. 1 Barnstable, Wed., 5:30 p.m. — The Red Raiders have lost one set this season. The last time Medfield snatched a victory over the Red Raiders was in 2010. Medfield senior outside hitter Alex McDevitt is one of their best all-around players, leading the team with 103 kills and 21 service aces. She should giving the Red Raiders defense a good run.

No. 1 Barnstable at Case, Fri., 6 p.m. — The Division 1 Red Raiders get a chance at the 2011 Division 3 state finalists. The Cardinals can look to outside hitters Danielle Robillard, who leads the team with 102 kills and 144 digs, and Jenna Santerre, who has 91 kills and a solid 82.3 serving percentage, to run the court.

No. 15 North Quincy at No. 14 Quincy, Fri., 3:30 p.m. — An ongoing Patriot League rivalry follows this matchup. Both teams lost in last season’s Central/East Division 1 semifinals. The Presidents have prevailed over North Quincy in six of the last nine meetings, including a 3-1 victory this season.

No. 20 Acton-Boxboro at No. 13 Lincoln-Sudbury, Fri., 4 p.m. — The Warriors swept Acton-Boxboro in all three games last season and return just as strong this season with a six-game undefeated streak. Senior outside hitter Mandy Sifferlen is one of the strongest forces on the team with 43 kills, 50 digs, and 18 service aces.