In Barnstable, there are 100 reasons why girls' volleyball is all the rage
BARNSTABLE - The girls on Barnstable High School's legendary volleyball team decide over a sub-shop lunch to warm up to Kanye West's "Stronger" at the season home opener that could bring their winning streak to 100 matches. Then they dash through a downpour to Kristi Everson's Ford Escort and Kara Cullen's Jeep for the short ride to afternoon practice.
After slogging through axle-deep puddles, Cullen's brakes fail at a red light, and she hits Everson's car. Nobody is hurt, but Everson erupts into tears when she pulls into the school parking lot and inspects the crumpled back of her 8-year-old compact. Cullen moans, "I just rear-ended my best friend's car." Casey Eagan breaks the tension.
"This is a 'thunderbolt,' " she announces. "We'll get through it."
Once again, the team reaches for the counsel of professional basketball coach Pat Riley, dispensed in his book "The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players," which their coach, Tom Turco, has them read every year.
Armed with Riley's advice about handling the crises he calls "thunderbolts" and volleyball experience dating to grammar school, the varsity team will face Dennis-Yarmouth as it heads into this Monday's home opener propelled by 99 uninterrupted wins. The squad hasn't lost a match since 2002, and last year they won every best-of-five-game contest by the score of 3-0. The state record of 104 matches, set by Swansea's Case High School in 1991, is within sight.
Along the way, Barnstable has won 10 state championships in 14 years, including every year since today's seniors were in eighth grade, making them "certainly the top program in Massachusetts and arguably New England," according to Massachusetts Girls Volleyball Coaches Association president Robert Slavin. With 423 career victories, Turco is the winningest high school girls' volleyball coach in state history.
"We have to show we're as good as the teams in the past," says Stephanie Tuepker, a junior playing her first varsity season. "We're not anything now. We don't have any wins."
Bourne's squad tastes Barnstable's power in a three-hour scrimmage. One wall of Barnstable's gym, reserved for banners won by girls' teams, is dominated by volleyball's championships. The crowded wall displays further excellence among Barnstable's female athletes, who, in a remarkable 2006, brought home the school's first state championship in girls' ice hockey and its fifth in girls' gymnastics, along with its 10th in volleyball. "Girl power," says senior Amanda Parker.
Volleyball was born in Massachusetts. In 1895 businessmen playing the new game of basketball on their lunch break asked the Holyoke YMCA's athletic director for something that wouldn't send them back to work so sweaty. Today, volleyball, with 386,000 high school girls participating, is the country's third most popular girls' sport, behind basketball and outdoor track. In Massachusetts, with 6,600 girls in 255 schools, it's seventh.
Junior Alison Klotz serves low and hard across the net. Senior Kortney Kelley sends a two-fisted dig to Parker, who places it high in front of 6-foot-1-inch Cullen, a senior, who slams it over the net. Volleyball rid Cullen of the awkwardness she once felt about her height. By noon Parker has lost two silver fingernail tips.
Football players watch the girls after their own practice. "They're good, man," says Chuck Furey. "They're basically everything the football team wants to be," says Ben White.
Turco, 53, wearing a white Barnstable Volleyball polo shirt, sits courtside, notebook in hand, marking the reason - setter error, server error - behind every point. Once the season starts he'll videotape every game. He is clear, firm, sometimes funny, rarely yells.
Turco has begun his 20th year as head coach. He's an adaptive physical education teacher specializing in special needs students. When he wanted, in 1986, to try working with more typical youngsters as well, girls' volleyball needed a head coach. Never mind that Turco's experience consisted of one season of club volleyball at Bridgewater State College. He landed the junior varsity job, not varsity. "Thank God," he says. In 1988 alone, his first year as head coach, he attended a dozen coaching clinics. The team's 5-11 record that season comprises one-quarter of Turco's 43 career losses.
"As frustrated as I was, I sought the advice of some very, very good people," Turco recalls. "I was either going to not coach or be a successful coach."
First on Turco's list was athletic director Steve Goveia. What's your philosophy?, Goveia asked. Respond to positive behavior and ignore negativity. How's that working? Terribly.
"The philosophy changed," Turco says, "from, 'If you think positive, positive things will happen,' to 'If you think negative, you won't be here.' "
Turco visited a championship coach in Chelmsford who ran a recreational summer volleyball camp. North Quincy's championship coach told him he couldn't compete at the state level without a club team system.
In 1990, Turco and the Barnstable Recreation Department started a summer camp with 13 youngsters, two of them Turco's children. Last summer, 223 children in grades 3-8 enrolled. Turco's varsity players help coach. The town also runs a fall program. Volleyball is the town's most popular girls' sport, says Recreation Department program coordinator John Gleason.
"Kids live and breathe volleyball around here," Gleason says.
Turco established Cape Cod Juniors, a club program, and added an elite traveling squad. He runs his own summer camp for high schoolers. He's nursing a boys' high school team he launched two years ago.
The result is both a feeder system and fan base for a program that captured its first state championship in 1993. The varsity girls march in Barnstable's July Fourth parade. Their parents are raising $15,000 to send them to play two California teams.
Many varsity girls have played together since third grade. Not only are they best friends, but some of their parents are, too. They remember high school players who coached them when they were still losing baby teeth.
"They were my idols," says Parker. "Now, to be one of them, is an honor."
A winning attitude
Afternoon practice begins in a classroom. Turco quips that the car crash was thunderbolt enough for one day. Everson leads a discussion of Chapter One of Riley's book. "In order to grow," she says, "you need to trust each other."
Turco has used "The Winner Within" since 1995. He assigns seniors an "optional" book report that every senior opts to write. He turns to the book for its program of team building and framework for tackling tough subjects.
"The second chapter is 'The Disease of Me.' That's about how players are selfish. It's something you'll find very difficult to bring up in the team meeting. But if it's part of the course of study," he says, "you can weave it in in a non-threatening way."
Practice moves into the gym, and when the players warm up in pairs, two 11-year-old girls who scored the scrimmage mimic them.
In school, the team's accomplishments are well-known, as is the fact that Barnstable produced three state championship girls' teams last year. "As a female in the school, it makes you proud," says senior Caroline Abbott.
Ally Murphy, a field hockey player, started attending Barnstable High volleyball games with her father when she was 6, and Breanna Cole's sister dreams of being on the team when she gets to high school. Jesse Cardone plans to paint "100 straight" on his chest for Monday's game.
"When you go to other sporting events," says three-sport athlete Mike Donoghue, "everyone asks about the volleyball team."
Tomorrow the girls will gather for a spaghetti dinner and to record warm-up music for the home opener. Monday, they'll tie red ribbons in their ponytails and their mothers will wear volleyball-shaped pins with their numbers on them. Coach will send all five seniors to the captains' coin toss that determines who serves first.
"If you're a senior, it's your turn to lead," Turco says.
Last month the girls set team goals. Number one is win the state championship. Number two? "High communication." Three? "Undefeated season." Four? "Play at your own level. Don't play down." Twelve? "Be enthusiastic."
Irene Sege can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.