A worldwide pandemic had already derailed the last two boys high school volleyball seasons in Philadelphia. The Academy at Palumbo wasn’t going to let it happen again.
When the team’s coach and athletic director EJ Goldstein came down with a case of COVID-19 in the middle of the season, the team pushed forward as best it could without him.
“There was a week that I had COVID so I had to stay away,” Goldstein recalled. “The assistant AD was there but the seniors ran the practices and they held everyone accountable. When your coach is away, it’s usually not very good. But these guys are different.”
Goldstein provided the practice plans remotely through Google Docs and watched a few matches on the school’s livestream. But there was little else he could do from his couch at home. That’s when the seniors took over.
“We put the practice plans on the board and we did it,” said senior captain Jason Reyes. “We knew we wanted to stay accountable for each other. Just because the coach isn’t there, you can’t just goof off. But it was nice. We saw a lot of people take a leadership position that you might not have seen otherwise.”
It all paid off in the end. On May 24, the Griffins defeated George Washington High School in four sets to win the Public League championship. It was the third time since 2018 that the Academy at Palumbo had won a Public League crown and the fourth time overall in the school’s brief history.
“I didn’t get to play when we won it my freshman year,” said senior Sharif Wells who contributed four kills in the PPL championship. “This one felt more personal. Especially with the guys I got to do it with. Three of them (Reyes, Michael Pacini and Johnson Lin) were on my freshman team so I got a little emotional. It felt like our championship to win.”
Junior Fionn Dougherty led the way with 16 kills in the championship and Reyes added six. The Griffins dominated the first two sets 25-16 and 25-12 before losing the third set 25-18. They rebounded to close it out with a 25-22 decision in the fourth set.
Was it a surprise? There was no season in 2020 and last year team’s played an abbreviated schedule with not all teams in the league participating. It left a cloud of mystery heading into the 2022 campaign.
“Who knows?” Goldstein said when referring to his expectations this season. “I had no idea. Because of COVID, no one played club (volleyball) around here. Everyone lost a year essentially. I knew we had potential, but you don’t know what everyone else has.”
Senior Melvin Young Jr. simply wanted to be on the court with his buddies after two years of uncertainty.
“It was very difficult just trying to fill out what my senior year could actually be,” Young said. “My first year of playing was robbed from me by COVID. My second year was modified because of COVID. It was a lot of trying to scope out who really steps up to be a leader on this team. Overall I feel like the whole team just worked together to pull everything together, especially when the head person wasn’t there.”
The Griffins’ only PPL defeat came in March in a 3-0 loss to Central. After that, they ran six straight PPL regular season wins before winning three straight playoff games to win the Public League championship. Two days later, the Griffins were back on the court in the PIAA District 12 2A championship and defeated Lansdale Catholic in straight sets. This time, Young led the way with 13 kills and Pacini contributed 11.
“It feels really amazing,” Wells said after winning the District 12 title. “But at the same time, we’re not done with our season. Two championships in one week is amazing but our whole goal is to look to the next game.”
Palumbo raised its record to 11-4 overall and was scheduled to play in the first round of the state tournament on May 31.
“I didn’t expect them to come together and really enjoy each other as much as they do,” Goldstein said. “It’s been nice watching them have so much fun. Practices are tough and they go at it but they really do love each other.”
The effort starts even before they lace up their gym shoes. The players come from all over the city including Reyes, who lives in the Northeast. Last year, school classes were being taught remotely. Volleyball was not. Oftentimes, Reyes took his last class while riding a bus or the regional rail to South Philly.
“I had to take my classes on the bus to make sure I got to practice on time,” Reyes said. “It wasn’t a really great experience. I would be showing up to practice tired because I was already walking for an hour. I think it affected a lot of people.”
This year was a lot different in that way, too. The team got closer and tightened their bonds off the court.
“On half-days we all go out to eat together,” Reyes said. “I think it’s a big part of a winning team and having a team culture. Even if it’s a day off, we find a way to go play with each other.”
Even though the senior class is talented and numerous, the Griffins expect to be back in the mix next year. They surprised people this year. They plan to surprise again.
“I’m so proud,” Young said. “A lot of people only saw us for our starting lineup. There’s a lot of sophomores and juniors that haven’t even started playing this year. And I want them to get the experience and learn what they are supposed to before I leave. This whole team has potential. I’m just waiting for them to unlock it.”