ELENA SOUKOS remains the leading scorer for the 7-0 Melrose volleyball team. (Dan Pawlowski photo)
At 7-0, Melrose leaves no answers for ML foes
By JENNIFER GENTILE
MELROSE—Seven games into their fall 2021 season, the Melrose High girls’ volleyball team enters October unbeaten at 7-0 after facing a large chunk of the Middlesex League schedule. It’s been that kind of September for the team.
Longtime head coach Scott Celli has earlier said this season that it’s not perfection this team is looking for, but longevity.
“We never go out seeking an undefeated season,” says coach Celli last month. “They don’t give out trophies for that. We just want to be the best team playing at the end of the season.”
It’s been a great start, nonetheless. Of course, it’s worth noting that things can change fast, particularly as Melrose is poised to face Newton North (4-1) tonight on the road in a non-league clash.
But last week, Melrose faced steady challenges when they battled competitive league foes Wakefield and Burlington and walked away in six flawless sets to remain 7-0 on the season. Melrose toppled Wakefield in sets of 25-11, 25-10, 25-22 and then Burlington on the road in sets of 25-9, 25-20, 25-19.
Melrose leads all Middlesex League teams with their 7-0 record and their closest competitors appear to be Winchester (6-2, 5-2), Woburn (8-2, 5-2) and Burlington (6-2, 5-2). Melrose is slated to play Winchester on Oct. 7 and has already beaten the Tanners and Red Devils, 3-0 each. “The Melrose 12” have yet to lose a set this season and enjoy one of the best records in all divisions, which currently makes them as a favorite statewide.
Additionally, foes who knocked Melrose out of playoffs from 2018- 2020, Lynnfield, Danvers and Winchester, appear to be experiencing down years, which would put Melrose in the prime spot to capture a Div. 2 North crown— that is, if the MIAA were hosting one. New playoff regulations mean the elimination of sectional crowns and a new and larger pool of first round Div. 2 playoff seeding. Could Melrose travel towards Springfield for a first round playoff game? Conceivably, yes. But at this rate, they’ll be doing most of the hosting in what is likely to be a long playoff run.
Seven games into a 20 game schedule is always a good chance to take the temperature of the team, as October unfolds on the calendar. According to Hall of Fame Melrose coach Scott Celli, the progression since September has been wonderful.
“This is how I expected them to compete, yes, but I think they gelled and advanced even faster than I anticipated,” he says. “We certainly don’t want to peak too early but we’ve been able to develop a fast, high tempo offense that has been advantageous. But, we also want to be a better team next month as we are this month. The work never ends.”
While Melrose has excelled in all facets of the game, including back row defense spearheaded by senior captain libero Autum Whelan, offense has been their calling card. Celli offers wise words. “A longtime commenter [Dr. Ron Sen] once said you need three great hitters to be a championship-ready team. We have at least six. We’re spoiled to some extent.”
He continued. “We have big-game players like Elena Soukos, Chloe Gentile, Autumn Whelan and Abby Hudson, four captains who are used to playing in high stakes games on the club circuit. They know what to do if we are down. We’re really fortunate to have that kind of leadership out there. It shows.”
Soukous, recently a Boston Globe spotlight feature, leads the team in kills this season with 66. And she’s had plenty of help with hitters Gentile (42), Gia Vlajkovic (39), Abby Hudson (20), Ava Burnes (13) and Sadie Jaggers (24). But Celli is quick to remind that it takes a great back row to feed the ball to Melrose’s setter Emma Desmond, in order to facilitate his heavy hitters. “It’s a total team effort.”
Recent efforts show that. It was a study body-packed (and masked) gym that greeted Melrose when they hosted Wakefield on Thursday, Sept. 23. Melrose was simply dominant against an upstart Warrior team, who fell to quick deficits of 10-4, 17-6 and 20-8 behind the strong hitting of Elena Soukos and serving of Chloe Gentile. Hitters Abby Hudson and Sadie Jaggers also made life hard for the Warriors, who also struggled in set 2. Gentile and Soukos pulled Melrose ahead in scores of 4-1 and 7-2. Senior captain Autumn Whelan had a fantastic service run that included an ace to help Melrose take a giant lead of 21-8. An Ava Burns ace closed the door on the set, 25-10. Wakefield fought back proudly in set three and took an early lead of 7-3 but Melrose would show their trademark tenacity and crawled back point-by-point behind a great service run from Gia Vlajkovic and another quality service run by Abby Hudson. Kills from Soukos and Gentile reversed an 18-16 lead into a 20-18 lead. Gia Vlajkovic made it a 24-10 game Melrose would quickly take the set, 25-21 and match, 3-0.
After the game, Celli lauded his team for their fired-up performance. “It was great to have that kind of energy in the gym. The fans on both sides of the bleachers were terrific. We haven’t had that in a long time.”
Bouyed by the win, Melrose traveled to Red Devil territory on Tuesday, Sept. 27 to face a strong Burlington team and walked away with a 3-0 win. Melrose silenced the Red Devils in set one, 25-9. Burlington showed more life in set two and three but still fell by scores of 25-20 and 25-19. Melrose’s Elena Soukos had another monster game with 14 kills. Junior setter Emma Desmond enjoyed 19 assists in the night and 25 in the Wakefield effort.
Celli was proud of a win against a quality opponent. “Burlington is a great team. They played well in their last two sets, we just had a little more firepower.”
With a chunk of quality opponents behind them, Melrose can easily take lessons as it enters its second half of the season. “There were teams like Woburn, who we had to fight back from,” notes Celli. “We beat them 3-0 but they were probably the most complete team we’ve played, and our girls stayed composed and used their confidence to earn the sweep. Wakefield, I think, also showed tenacity. They made us work in that last set. We’re learning from this.”
Currently, preliminary MIAA schedules are soon-to-be released and they’ll have a bearing on eventual playoff standings. Max Prep has Melrose currently ranked #2 in the state. Celli points out that it’s nice but essentially meaningless. “It’s flattering to see that, but that particular [one] doesn’t hold much weight,” he says. “We have a tough opponent in Newton North and Winchester on the horizon, so things can change. We may lose a set, or a match. The important part will be our taking every set one point at a time and staying focused. Doing that, we’re going to be a tough out for anyone.”
Check out Melrose at home against Reading on Tuesday at the MVMMS gym at 5:30 p.m.