Coach Donoghue preaches for more toughness: Volleyball team hopes to block mental failures | Sports

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WILMINGTON — A year ago around this time, the Wilmington High School Girls’ Volleyball Team was preparing for what was supposed to be a successful year in terms of wins and losses with hopes of entering the the state tournament for the first time since 2004 Although it happened – purely due to the strength of their schedule – the team did not perform as well as they had hoped, finishing with a record 4-17 overall, which included a first-round playoff loss to Medfield in the new statewide tournament.

That being said, the team’s inconsistent play throughout the season certainly had a lot to do with the disappointing win count, but through no fault of their own, the Wildcats had an absolutely brutal schedule. It will be the same this fall starting Tuesday’s season opener against Arlington Catholic with results not known at press time.

This year’s 20-game schedule features 15 different teams and all but one (Watertown) made it to the state tournament a year ago. Non-Championship opponents Ipswich this year won the Division 4 State Championship title, while Melrose went to Final 4 in Division 2. In D1, Winchester, Arlington, Belmont and Lexington, plus two non-Championship teams this season, Lynn Classical and Medford have all made the playoffs, as have D2 foes Woburn, Burlington, Wakefield and Reading, and finally AC and Stoneham in D4.

Now take into account that this year’s Wilmington squad replaces nearly all of last year’s roster, making it an even steeper hill to climb.

“For the most part, we have between two and four returning starters and seven players with returning college experience,” head coach Lauren Donoghue said.

Donoghue was out all last year – but returned for the playoff loss – on maternity leave. Katie Cosgrove replaced on an interim basis and this year returned to Austin Prep, but now as the team’s head coach.

That leaves Donoghue in charge without a varsity assistant, and she has a team that is hungry to compete, despite so much varsity inexperience.

“We have four seniors this year, which is good,” Donoghue continued. “We are definitely in a construction phase, as far as the program is concerned. There were several girls last year who had at least some club experience and the good part about this team this year is that a lot more of them were taken to college due to the fact that they played club during the off season. That’s a huge plus, but that being said, there’s also the fact that we’re still young.

While the college roster will have plenty of new faces, the good thing is that this program has been skyrocketing since Donoghue took over. Nearly 50 girls were absent from the program, and the majority of them played at the club in the off-season, which was unheard of before he arrived here.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a real JV A team, so they’re all second-year students except for two freshmen. To me, that shows the real commitment of these young kids, who take the club seriously, take the offseason seriously, we had 18 sophomores signed up, which is huge,” Donoghue said.

A big problem in last year’s season – and those before it with previous coaches – is that Wilmington would be competitive in a set, going through a rough patch and never being able to pull it off. Donoghue knows the mental toughness aspect of the game needs to be greatly improved this season if the ‘Cats are to survive games in and out.

“Last year we struggled with lack of communication (sometimes) and then everyone was shutting down,” she said. “It has always been a struggle. You get pissed off, like someone’s serving five balls in a row and we can’t get out of our own way. I think a big part of that for captains will be to get others out of that funk, because volleyball is such a mental game. A kid like Maria (Cummings) has great energy on and off the pitch, but not all kids have that.

This year’s team will be led by the two senior captains, setter Mia Vestal and center hitter Maddie McCarron. The latter is the team’s best player overall – a powerful hitter in the middle, who sits at 6-foot-1. She really came in towards the second half of last year’s season, really putting in some dominant performances.

“Maddie is definitely our best offensive player. Things have connected for her, especially over the past year,” Donoghue said. “The big thing for her is connecting with the setter with Mia or whether it’s Gabby (Kulevich) sometimes is being able to tell the setter what she needs for a set, so she can deliver and execute a blow.”

Last year, the team’s backline defense was for the most part really spectacular throughout the season. However, the offense simply couldn’t put it all together in a cohesive manner.

“It’s going to be interesting offensively, like it was last year,” said the coach. “It’s going to come down to a certain mental toughness in certain situations and our athletic abilities. Sofia Scalfani is a very athletic child and she plays softball. I would say the same about (left-handed hitter) Gabby (Kulevich). She’s a great defensive player and she played a ton of defense for us last year. (It’s no secret) we need hitters. It was a problem last year and even the season before, because we only had two attacking players.

Besides McCarron, junior Annabelle Lozzi (6-foot-2), who comes from the JV team, will also be a middle hitter, while Shaylan Bresnahan (5-8) will be an outside hitter as she returns as a winner . Sofia Scalfani will be an outside or right side hitter. Then in the back row it will be Maria Cummings, Sabrina Gray and Kulevich. Madison Benoit, Sophia LaVita and Sloane McIntyre, as well as Arlington Catholic transfer Anna Jancsics, will also be in the mix at various locations.

“The good thing about some of these defensive players, take this girl Sabrina (Gray) for example, she said last year her goal was to make the varsity team (this season),” explained Donoghué. “That’s the mindset I want every kid in this program to have because it shows they care and want to improve. They can be coached and when you give them information and intelligence for the game, they make something out of it.

After the opener with AC, Wilmington will be at Reading on Thursday before returning home on Monday to face Winchester at 5:15.

“I think the start of the season is going to be difficult. We have to acclimate everyone,” Donoghue said. “We are going to have to eliminate what we don’t need, potential mistakes, find people’s strengths and learn how to get out of a sticky situation. We have to find that mental toughness on the pitch that will be the most important thing, to be able to get you out of the situation. I’m not talking about winning every game, but staying there and not getting smoked by teams that shouldn’t (smoke us).

“I’m looking forward to this season and I’m delighted to be back. It was good to see a bit more from last year.

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Wilmington was beaten by Arlington Catholic 3-0 (25-13, 30-28 and 25-17) in the season opener. According to Donoghue, Maddie McCarron finished within double digits of wins and played “super defensively.” Sofia Scalfani played aggressively on the outside and Shaylan Bresnahan also played well in the losing effort, the coach said.

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