MILFORD, Mass. – Ordinarily, the bleachers behind the benches remain closed during volleyball matches, but as the beginning of the varsity match approached Milford athletic director Peter Boucher was forced to pull out an extra section to accommodate the overflow of fans, the majority of whom were decked out in pink.
It was a special occasion for a special cause and the crowd piled into the gym at Milford High on Wednesday night to celebrate the volleyball team as it took on unbeaten Hopedale and to honor Dig Pink Night, which raised money for the Side Out Foundation’s mission of finding a cure for breast cancer and supporting breast cancer patients.
With a raucous atmosphere spurring them on and inspired by teammate Carli Gonzalez and head coach Linda Zacchilli, who both beat cancer in the past year (Zacchilli for the second time), the Hawks played arguably their best match of the season to sweep Hopedale in three sets (25-14, 25-12, 25-12) and clinch a return to the state tournament.
“We made very few unforced errors today,” said Zacchilli. “We played very sharp. We forced a lot of errors on their part. We were really focused.”
The Milford front line set the tone in the opening set. The Hawks dominated at the net, led by junior Kelley Reichert who recorded four of her team-high seven kills and two of her four blocks in the first. She also added a pair of aces and five digs in the match. Her back-to-back kills set up set point before a Hopedale error wrapped up the first.
In the second set, the Hawks fell behind very early but behind strong serving from Gillian Valanzola (two aces) and Lauren Zouranjian (team-high three aces and eight assists) Milford took control and pulled away. Valanzola added five kills and was a strong presence in the middle alongside Juliana Tracy, who finished with a team-high six blocks.
“My middles have come so far from the beginning of the season,” said Zacchilli. “We’ve done a lot of things in practice to make it muscle memory, come off the net so you can get something behind your hit. Blocking-wise too they’re doing a better job reading the hitters.”
The third set was another dominating performance by Milford. The Hawks never took the foot off the gas and used a strong defensive effort to put pressure on Hopedale, forcing the visitors into a number of errors. Libero Kyra Alves spearheaded the defense with 14 digs to lead the Hawks.
Much more than just a game
Last season’s Dig Pink event was particularly emotional because the girls took a moment to honor Zacchilli, who was then the boys’ volleyball coach and was battling cancer for a second time. Also, just days before the match, Gonzalez, then a freshman volleyball player, was diagnosed with cancer as well.
“I think it’s important for any team to run an event like this for a charitable reason,” said Zacchilli, “to have a purpose and give back a little bit. It’s important for them to understand there’s a bigger world out there beyond what’s right in front of them.”
Unlike last year, Zacchilli did not want the event to be about her battle. The team did honor the coach before the game privately with flowers in the locker room.
“They want to make a big deal out of me, you know, but I said I don’t want that at all this time around,” she explained. “I’m a year out and I just want to be…out. I don’t want to think about it; I just want to leave it behind me.”
As she did last year (and recently did at Fenway Park during the NESN/WEEI Jimmy Find Telethon), Gonzalez sang the national anthem in front of a packed house. Gonzalez has a new perspective on Dig Pink Night after her battle with cancer.
“It’s so good to see everybody,” said Gonzalez after the match. “Everyone know someone with cancer, especially breast cancer, it’s so common.
“My grandmother had cancer but it was when I was little. I knew what cancer was but I didn’t know the severity of it and so after this year it means so much more to me…because I’ve seen it.”
Gonzalez and Zacchilli stayed in touch over the summer with the coach making sure that her player would be part of the event and the team, whether on the court or at the scorer’s table. Zacchilli also contacted Hopedale coach Andrew Mainini to be part of Dig Pink.
Mainini played volleyball at Milford for Zacchilli, was her assistant coach for several years and last spring took over the boys’ volleyball program with Zacchilli as his assistant. He jumped at the chance to be part of the event.
He said, “I was honored when she called and said, ‘Hey Andy, do you want to be our Dig Pink match?’ It was meaningful for me, my girls and obviously we wanted to do everything we could to contribute to the cause.
“There is always a ton of positive energy that comes out of events like these.”
On Dig Pink Night, the game is always secondary to the cause, but this display gives Zacchilli confidence that the Hawks have the potential to make some noise in the playoffs.
“I’m really proud of the way they played tonight,” she said. “If we play the way we played tonight, then we can play with anybody.”
Milford (9-3) will put that to the test on Thursday, as the Hawks have a quick turn around to host Kelley-Rex division co-leader Mansfield.
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