In sports, most teams – professional, collegiate intramural or otherwise – have their ups and downs throughout the season. But the Academy at Palumbo’s boys volleyball team didn’t have one of those seasons, at least during the course of this year’s Public League season. The team slayed its competition during the regular season, finishing a perfect 11-0 on the year before eventually winning its second Public League championship in as many years. In fact, the team won nearly all its sets. It wasn’t until the last week of the season when Palumbo beat Central High School, which ended up finishing second in the standings, by a 3-1 margin in their best-of-five match that the team lost a set. Every other Public League school Palumbo played was beaten 3-0 in the regular season.
The team continued to roll through the Public League playoffs, beating Parkway West 3-0 in the first round, Furness 3-0 in the second round and George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science by the same score in the third round, setting up a rematch of last year’s final vs. Central. Palumbo won, 3-2, and was crowned champion for the second year in a row.
“I feel like our success came down to our chemistry as a team,” said outgoing senior and team co-captain Elijah Espinosa. “Seeing that we were able to joke around so much and genuinely love each other so much, that’s what made us successful.”
Despite the dominating record, the season was hardly a cakewalk. According to the team’s coach, EJ Goldstein, three starting players he declined to name were suspended for two weeks at the beginning of the season for off-the-court reasons. To add insult to injury, another starter was injured in the team’s first game, which meant that four total starters were sidelined for the first four weeks of the season. Luckily, the team’s bench players stepped up, namely freshman Sharif Wells, who was singled out for being particularly effective by his coach.
But that wasn’t the only storyline. This year’s Palumbo team was its first season after the graduation of Bruno Vargas, the team’s former defensive specialist who now plays volleyball at Eastern University.
“Losing him was huge because we would just divide the court in half on defense and just let him take up a whole half of a court by himself,” said Goldstein, who noted that Cashmir Brewington Sharpe aka Cash was also a big part of last season’s team on the offensive side. “The idea coming in was we still had a huge core of guys who had been around for three to four years, so we were pretty confident we were going to be able to figure things out, it was just instead of having two key guys handling things, it was just that defensive things were split up among three different guys instead of just two and offensively we were able to spread the ball around to a lot of different people.”
One of those people was 6-4 sophomore Rodney Quarles, who spent the previous fall sports season helping manage Palumbo’s girls volleyball team.
“I was managing the girls team,” he said. “As I kept managing, I got better with the girls so when I got to the boys, it was easier for me.”
When Goldstein, Espinosa and his identical twin Jacob were asked about the most improved player on the team, all said it was Quarles.
“Our star hitter Rodney went from being a rookie to a big hitter, and the best player on our team,” Jacob said.
“He really loves the game,” Elijah said of Quarles. “The difference between him and the other players on the team is that he really loves it. We’ve all been baseball and basketball players but Rodney’s really a volleyball player first.”
Goldstein believes that Quarles’ involvement with the girls team had a lot to do with his success.
“He would come to practices and he would help run the drills and all that stuff,” said Goldstein. “Being around the game and getting touches that way helped him to develop just the mental aspect of the game. He actually picked up a lot of the offense left by Cash.”
Following the Public League title, Palumbo dropped a 3-1 decision to Lansdale Catholic in the District 12 Class 2A final, but still qualified for the PIAA state playoffs.
Perhaps even more impressive than going undefeated and winning the Public League championship was the team’s first-round 3-1 win over Abington Heights in the PIAA playoffs, something no other Public League team has accomplished since the state championship playoff was changed from a pool format to a traditional bracket just under a decade ago.
“That will be a big thing I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” said Jacob Espinosa.
The second-round loss was to Manheim Central, a team that’s no slouch and comes from the powerhouse District Three in high school volleyball. Still, Palumbo put up a fight even if it lost three sets to none. The scores were 25-19, 25-8 and 25-16.
“That district traditionally has your state champions,” Goldstein said. “The fact that we scored 19 points and 16 points, you know, I walked out of there thinking we represented the district really well.”