Aasiya Craft-Williams wasn’t sure if she’d ever get to finish out her senior year in style.
Same goes for Isabella Siligrini, Jael Hillard, Tori Adams and Ellie Benedict. The five girls have been playing volleyball together for nearly half their lives and always seem to find a place to enjoy their favorite sport. Give them a net and a ball just about anywhere and they’d find a way to start setting and spiking.
“It’s like I can’t escape from them,” Craft-Williams said with a laugh. “Everywhere I go, whether it’s club or school, I always see them on the volleyball court. We could be playing on sand or on grass in a gym, I just can’t escape them.”
All five girls are seniors at the Academy at Palumbo and share the spotlight as key members of the Griffins’ talented volleyball team. They met as sixth-graders at the Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School at 22nd and Chestnut streets and the “fab five” learned the game together as pre-teens. In addition, they met fellow seniors Laila Asid and Sofie Budiarachman in high school to complete a “sensational seven” senior class that has set new standards at the school.
“We had senior day last week and we made a video for all of them,” Palumbo coach EJ Goldstein said. “And I told them in the history of the school, they are the winningest group of players that I’ve ever had.”
On April 22, the girls won their third straight Philadelphia Public League championship by defeating Northeast High School in three sets. Just a few months ago, the girls didn’t know if they’d even get to play their senior season.
“It’s been so strange,” said Siligrini, the team’s setter who lives in East Passyunk. “It’s been a struggle. I was so upset at first, but when (the season) was pushed to spring, I was even happier just to play. But it’s definitely been depressing not having any fans here because it’s always so loud and crazy and now it’s just so quiet. But it’s been just nice to play with my team this year.”
There was plenty to be loud about as the Public League championship is now the fifth in seven years for Palumbo. This senior class has especially excelled, making a league championship appearance in all four of their seasons. This year, the Griffins were a perfect 8-0 en route to securing the trophy.
“It’s really special because volleyball is really hard,” Craft-Williams said. “For us to be consistently in championships and in the playoffs is something to be proud of.”
It all harkens back to five kids growing up together and learning the sport in middle school. Goldstein describes Benedict as “the engine” of the team as the Griffins’ libero, a defensive player on the back row. Siligrini assists her teammates with precision as the team’s setter while Craft-Williams and Hillard are powerful strikers as outside hitters. Adams is just as dangerous, playing the opposite position on the right side. As good as they are individually, the team thrives on playing as a team and picking each other up.
“I think the whole thing about us being together is we’re like a big family,” Siligrini said. “It really helps when you’re trying to get to the next level and push yourself. They’re all there to fall back on. If you’re having a bad day, they are there to push you in practice.”
Getting over the mental hurdles were sometimes the toughest. In a year where high school sports were anything but normal, the Griffins were overjoyed to be playing the sport they loved, even if it was an abbreviated season.
“It’s been really fun,” Hillard said. “I’m just grateful we even had a season. With corona and everything, I didn’t think it was going to be possible. Even though the season was short and not like how it used to be, I’m very grateful we got to come out of our houses and see each other and play with each other and have fun.”
The girls will head off in different directions following graduation, although Craft-Williams and Hillard are both looking at Drexel University and considering playing club volleyball. Craft-Williams is interested in computer science while Hillard plans to pursue psychology while taking pre-med classes. Siligrini is also considering staying local at Thomas Jefferson University with an interest in occupational therapy.
Summer breaks, weekends or maybe holidays, they’ll be looking for court somewhere for a chance to play together again.
“No matter what, we’ll always find somewhere to play,” Craft-Williams said. “We might play doubles on a beach or in a park but we’re not going to stop playing volleyball. We’ll keep in touch.”