Boys volleyball: Upstart Holyoke turning heads on the court (PHOTOS)

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  • Holyoke's Nelson Figueroa, left, and Jeduar Colon attempt to block a spike by Granby's Michael Swanigan (10) in the first set of the Purple Knights' win over the visiting Rams on Monday, May 16, 2022, in Holyoke. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke senior Jairam Rodriguez, left, spikes over Jake Gagnon of Granby in the first set of the Purple Knights’ win over the visiting Rams on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke players celebrate a point on Granby in the fourth set of the Purple Knights' win over the visiting Rams on Monday, May 16, 2022. From left are Jeduar Colon, Jomar Colon, Willie Lopez, Jairam Rodriguez, Gabriel Linares and Joseph Albino. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Granby's Jake Gagnon, center, is congratulated after a kill in the first set of the Rams' loss to host Holyoke on Monday, May 16, 2022. From left are Brandon Chatel, Stephen Szlosek, Gagnon, Michael Swanigan and Braeden Gallagher. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Granby's Michael Swanigan, left, gets the ball past a block attempted by Holyoke's Jeduar Colon in the fourth set of the Rams' loss to the host Purple Knights on Monday, May 16, 2022, in Holyoke. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke junior Joseph Albino, digs a serve by Granby's Brandon Chatel in the fourth set of the Purple Knights' win over the visiting Rams on Monday, May 16, 2022, in Holyoke. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke junior Willie Lopez (6) blocks a spike by Granby’s Michael Swanigan (10) in the first set of the Purple Knights’ win over the visiting Rams on Monday in Holyoke. Lopez is joined by Jeduar Colon (9). STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Granby's Jake Gagnon (7) spikes through the arms of Holyoke's Adrian Centero-Feliciano in the first set of the Rams' loss to the host Purple Knights on Monday, May 16, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Granby head coach Chad Gagnon takes a timeout with the Rams in the first set of their loss to host Holyoke on Monday, May 16, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke head coach Paula Conway takes a timeout with the Purple Knights in the third set of their win over visiting Granby on Monday, May 16, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke's Nelson Figueroa, left, and Jeduar Colon attempt to block a spike by Granby's Michael Swanigan (10) in the first set of the Purple Knights' win over the visiting Rams on Monday, May 16, 2022, in Holyoke. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer 
Published: 5/16/2022 8:28:34 PM

HOLYOKE — When Jairam Rodriguez or Willie Lopez gets a perfect set tossed their way, it’s all but over for the opponent on the other side of the net.

While the offensive powerhouses are two of the more impressive players on Holyoke’s volleyball team, the entire group has come together for a special run this season. The Purple Knights extended their eight-match winning streak on Monday, knocking off visiting Granby, 22-25, 25-13, 25-19, 25-17, at John “Jinx” O’Connor Gymnasium.

Holyoke’s lone loss came against top-tier Cambridge Rindge & Latin, but the Purple Knights haven’t taken an ‘L’ since. The club’s current 14-1 mark is a surprise for longtime head coach Paula Conway, though she’s certainly not complaining about the long-term success.

“No, I go match by match, I don’t do this long looking ahead,” Conway said. “I knew I had four players that had played before and I had players that have not played before. I have four kids that have never played volleyball before on varsity.”

The newcomers – Gabriel Linares, Adrian Centero-Feliciano, Nelson Figueroa and Joseph Albino – have all slotted in and found their role with the team quickly, contributing to the group’s dynamic. Feliciano has been dominant behind the service line, Linares has contributed to the back court, and Albino was a starter against the Rams on Monday.

It’s been a perfect dynamic with the experience of Lopez, Rodriguez, and Jeduar and Jamar Colon keeping the team grounded. 

 “A lot of them, it's hard for them to play in the back row. So we keep the base and then the other players, they contribute to the team easily,” Lopez said.

“That's a big difference from last year. All of us were playing all around last year,” Rodriguez added. “So it's good to have people who are specialized in certain areas.”

And while some are new to the sport of volleyball, nearly everybody plays another sport and is familiar with the pace of play when it comes to high-level athletics. There are soccer players, basketball players and baseball players on the team, which adds to the overall athleticism of the group. 

It also helps that the team is so close-knit this year, with good chemistry both on the court and off it. Some of the returning players compete in volleyball together during the offseason, and the group as a whole gets along well together, contributing to the (usually) good communication that this Holyoke roster has employed thus far. Sometimes their intensity can be a double-edged sword, however.

“Our chemistry is pretty good. Sometimes composure is a problem. We always talk about the C's – commitment, composure and chemistry. Their chemistry overall is pretty good, so that helps,” Conway said.

The dynamic duo of Rodriguez and Lopez have given Holyoke the extra edge over so many opponents this spring. The two switch off as setters and attackers for the Purple Knights, a system that Conway doesn’t always use but has implemented over the last two seasons. Whether they’re assisting their teammates or crushing a spike, they’re doing so with power and finesse. They’re the players the team relies on most; in their match against Granby, Rodriguez finished with 13 kills and 18 assists, and Lopez racked up nine kills and 19 assists.

“They can play all around. They usually make the smart play. They know how to hit hard, they know where to put ball when they’re hitting. When they’re setting, they know where to put the ball,” Conway said. “Jairam has had a really good jump serve this year, and Willie is placing the ball beautifully on his serve.”

For now, Conway and the Knights will continue to take their season one match at a time. They have three tilts left on their regular season schedule, and then they’ll tackle the postseason. Currently, the Purple Knights sit 16th out of 60 teams in MIAA’s Division 2 power rankings. Sitting above them at the No. 10 spot is Ludlow, the school that knocked them out of last year’s Western Mass. quarterfinal round.

“I hope we can go a little bit further. They know how to play, they know what they're supposed to do, they just need to execute. We're not going to reinvent the wheel for the tournament,” Conway said. “It’s shoulders up. They're very capable. It just depends on which team shows up that day.”


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