Young Baldwin boys volleyball lineup gaining experience

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Sunday, April 18, 2021 | 11:01 AM


The 2019 boys volleyball season proved to be a true learning experience for then-rookie coach Milan Yekich at Baldwin.

“Taking over for Eric Falcione was not only daunting, but filling huge shoes and years of experience that set the standards high at Baldwin,” Yekich said. “I am still trying to get comfortable, but it is progressively getting better. I can now get into a rhythm and can see what works and what doesn’t to use in the future. Eric is still a presence, but the pandemic has made it challenging to have him fully participate with us.

“Going from a player and a referee, you know the game pretty well, but once you step into coaching it elevates you to another level within the game. You have so much more planning and strategic game plans to create a successful lineup and team. I’m sure with most fields, the first year is definitely overwhelming and a huge learning experience, but the reward of seeing a team come together and be successful makes it all worth it.”

The Highlanders are striving to have a successful 2021 season, but missing last year due to covid-19 concerns has had its drawbacks.

“Not having a 2020 season and still being under covid-19 precautions has taken a major toll on development,” Yekich said. “Not getting a year of playing under our belts has left us with no returning varsity players, no experience for the freshman, now sophomore class, as well as the upperclassmen. It has definitely created a setback.

“We can already see the once-dominant teams within not only our section but in our district be humbled, and teams that were developing making a name for themselves. So everyone is in the same boat trying to catch up to a lost season, but I know once it gets going we’ll be somewhat back to regular-season form.”

Baldwin’s starting rotation includes two seniors, four sophomores, one junior and one freshman.

It consists of sophomore outside hitters Niraj Thapa and Marshal Rai, senior middle hitter Dylan Stokes, sophomore middle hitter Gavin Poe, junior right-side hitter Luke Campana, senior right-side hitter George Makhoul, sophomore setter Aidan Price and freshman defensive specialist Bibek Bhujel.

“I’ve played volleyball since my freshman year, but due to the season being canceled last year I’ve played a total of only two years,” Thapa said. “I was never interested in the sport until two upperclassmen (Sujan Dangal and Nabin Pokhrel) encouraged me to play; that’s what got me into the sport.

“One of our (team) strengths is we have height. The team did not really have height the past years I have played. There were few tall players but we have more this year, and I believe that’s something we need to utilize going into the second half of the season. I think there’s still time for this team to do something this year.”

The Highlanders (1-3, 1-3 in Section 1-AAA) have four players 6-toot-1 or taller, starting with the 6-1 Price and going upward to the 6-3 Poe, 6-4 Campana and 6-6 Stokes.

Yekich, who is assisted by Mark Felbinger and Denise Wells, believes his squad is solid in its camaraderie and togetherness.

“This has been one of the few years that all the guys have a positive, outgoing, and ‘whole team’ attitude,” Yekich said. “There normally is that freshman versus senior attitude, but we are collectively one team.

“It makes a huge difference when you have the entire team supporting each other during practices and games. We need to find our stride and we should be able to slowly keep the momentum going.

“Having missed the 2020 season, there were a lot of unknowns, especially with the freshman/sophomore class. We knew a lot of work needed to be done to condition the team to be ready to play, and to introduce the sport to new players. The approach we wanted to go into this season with was it was anyone’s game. Everyone took a season off, no returning starters were there, and a lot of rust needed to be knocked off.”

One area of concern for the Baldwin coaching staff is the team’s mental toughness.

“We tend to do well in games but once we make a few mistakes it’s challenging to move past them,” Yekich said. “We have the athletic skills and knowledge of the sport; it’s accepting a mistake or error and setting the goal to correct it the next time they get a chance.

“We finally have a team with some height and we hope to take advantage of that. In the past, we have not had a lot of club players, and we have two this year and hope to build off that experience.”

The 5-11 Thapa is one of the many two-sport athletes at Baldwin. He has played soccer for three years and was a left winger for the Highlanders last season.

He said he has been impressed this spring by his team’s hitting ability.

“I think we have players that have the skill to hit the ball with power and accuracy,” Thapa said, “but I don’t want to just talk about the strengths. We have weaknesses, as well. Communication and connection is something we lack because we lack those club and year-round players.

“We don’t have many players who play club (volleyball) and, like myself, we have players who play another sport, so we don’t have players that play all year-round.”

Poe and Price are club volleyball players at Baldwin.

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