written by KEN HAMWEY, Bulletin Sports Editor
Bellingham High’s volleyball team, which ended a 17-year absence from tourney play last year, is aiming for a return to the playoffs, but that objective is No. 2 on coach Steve Mantegani’s to-do list. The veteran coach is primarily interested in building the Blackhawks’ program and seeing it improve daily.
“Getting to the tournament last year was a big step forward for the program,” said Mantegani, who’s in his third year as head coach. “The kids were excited that they had broken a long streak of failing to get to the playoffs. They needed to know they could do it. Now, we just want to keep getting better, increase our win total and, hopefully, qualify for the tourney again.”
Last year, the Blackhawks won six matches, and at Bulletin deadline BHS was off to a solid start, posting a 3-1 record. “We’re very happy with the start of the season but we have room to improve,” Mantegani said.
Mantegani’s 2018 squad is banking on a style that focuses on consistency, passing effectively and minimizing errors; and they have enough assets to give the squad its second straight appearance in the post-season. “We lost four starters to graduation but experience still is a strong point,” Mantegani noted. “Our depth is okay and we’ve got players who are athletic, skilled and technically sound. One concern I have is our lack of height.”
One area, however, that doesn’t worry the coach is his leadership team. Mantegani’s captains are seniors—daughter Maddie is a setter, and junior Jenna Venuti is an outside hitter. Maddie is a two-time Tri Valley League all-star and is in her fourth year on the varsity.
“For three years Maddie was an outside hitter,” Mantegani said. “But we’ve moved her to setter and she’s transitioned into that role nicely. She’s a good passer who sets up well and has excellent court vision. She’s competitive and athletic and has a high volleyball IQ. Jenna is in her third year. She can pass, she’s athletic and she has lots of ability. She committed to lots of off-season work.”
Three junior hitters who are key cogs in Mantegani’s nucleus are Gianna Sannicando, Rose Nelson and Chloe Fisher.
“Gianna is a three-year veteran who is probably the most athletic player we have,” Mantegani noted. “She jumps high, plays well above the net and is quick. Rose also is a three-year player who’s consistent, passes well and attacks on the right side effectively. She’s athletic, has a strong volleyball IQ and goes to the floor to play defense. Chloe is a middle hitter who’s still developing. She’s tall (5-9), knows the game and is working on her quickness. A club player, she’s enthusiastic and has lots of potential.”
Sophomore Tatum Lee and senior Maddie Vadenais are hitters. Lee plays the middle and Vadenais patrols the right side. “Tatum is tall at 5-10,” Mantegani said. “She’s in her first year but she’s quick and skilled. A club player, she’s very athletic. Maddie ran cross-country but she’s now in her second season with us. She learns quickly, works hard, is athletic, is intelligent and is quickly developing her skills.”
Senior Ally Hall and junior Olivia McDermott are still vying for playing time at libero. “Ally is a first-year player on the varsity,” Mantegani said. “We like the quickness she brings to the position and we’re looking for her to pick up our defensive scheme quickly. Olivia is in her second year after being a swing player last year. She got exposure to the varsity level last year and the speed of the game. She’s a good server and continues to improve her passing. We’re hoping she becomes more aggressive defensively as a libero.”
The Blackhawks compete in the TVL Small Division, and Mantegani firmly believes his forces can finish second in the circuit behind Medway. Dedham, Millis and Norton make up the rest of the division. “Medway has tradition, lots of numbers and height,” he said. “We want to be competitive among these teams and finish as high as possible.”
Mantegani is no stranger to the nuances involved in playing or coaching volleyball. He played the sport at Milford High and competed at the club level at the University of Southern California and the University of Delaware; he earned degrees at both schools. He also coached for eight years at the club and Junior Olympic levels. For two seasons he was an assistant at Bucknell University, and he also assisted for a year at Holy Cross. Currently, he works as a vice president of operations for a variety of physical therapy clinics.
Mantegani and his assistant, former Holy Cross coach Chris Ridolfi, rely on an athletic philosophy that stresses reaching one’s potential and enjoying the experience of competing. “If our players work hard, improve and have fun, then winning will follow,” Mantegani said. “Volleyball, and other sports, also help players to be good teammates and to develop a strong work ethic. Those are things that help in their careers later on.”
Mantegani, whose roster includes 16 players, is optimistic that BHS will exceed last year’s victory total and again be a playoff participant. So far, the atmosphere surrounding the Blackhawks’ volleyball program is all positive.