The sigh of relief came early in the season.
Fielding a fledgling lineup after graduation claimed four top starters, the Clarke boys’ volleyball team – also newly depleted of height, its tallest two players now a pair of six-footers – was anything but a sure bet this fall in its new home, Conference B-3.
But after two matches coach Joe Harclerode was satisfied the Rams had neatly shape-shifted, exchanging last year’s big power game for a passing approach that has paid off in a 10-0 start – the best in Harclerode’s quarter-century tenure.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” said Harclerode, whose team holds a 2.5 game edge over second-place league rival Lawrence (8-1), a club against whom Clarke – after racing to six shutout wins – lost its first set of the season en route to a 3-1 home victory Sept. 24. “The guys really played beyond my expectations. We were able to do a good job getting the ball to our setter, so I could see early that we’d be able to play. We’d become a finesse team.”
While flaunting finesse, the Rams haven’t wholly forsaken power. Senior middle hitter Lyvan Brisoso has averaged a conference-best 14 kills per game, while fellow returning starter Umberto Piscatelli has developed a fearsome serve, as seen on Sept. 4, when the six-foot freshman outside hitter opened the season firing 11 aces – establishing a team game-high – in a road win over Plainedge.
“Lyvan isn’t very tall but he has an incredible vertical and great timing,” Harclerode said of the five-foot-nine team captain. “He’s a strong athlete who can put the ball down. Umberto’s just a natural, with an amazing serve. And he’s one of the best passers I’ve ever coached in my 25 years here.”
Perhaps the pleasantest of surprises for Clarke has been first-year setter Joe Palacio (senior), whose knack for teeing up clean kills has led to a conference-best 20 assists per game – a figure reached partly through collaboration with first-year outside hitters Dean Koutsogiannis (junior) and Justin Infante (senior).
“Joe has been steady stepping in,” Harclerode said. “Part of that is that our passers give him really good balls to set. Dean Koutsogiannis has really come into his own as arguably one of the hardest hitters in our conference. Justin’s another very gifted athlete. He’s an outstanding passer and he can get up way above the net.”
Clarke made the playoffs last season finishing third in Conference B2 at 9-7, 11-8 overall. This year, though, league-play is for all the marbles, with only title-winners advancing. With his team heading into the stretch still unbeaten, Harclerode said Clarke’s main concern is keeping its foot on the gas.
“We don’t look past anyone,” the coach said. “Facing Lawrence again, especially, will be a big test. The first time we beat them it was about seeing what we were made of. Now it’s about staying focused and hopefully we get to represent B-3 in the playoffs. It’s still a little bit down the road, but we’re very optimistic.”