As a high school freshman from Fairhaven participating in the Whaler volleyball clinic for the first time, Kailee Rodrigues was involved in a warm-up drill when her catch-and-release skills caught some attention. The instructors were surveying the floor and making teams when they saw Rodrigues and saw four years into the future.
“The first time they saw me set, they said, ‘You’re going to be a setter,'” she recalls, now a senior co-captain ready to lead the Old Rochester Regional High School girls volleyball team toward what she hopes will be a South Coast Conference championship.
As the girls basketball team had been through the winter season, the girls volleyball team has been dominant through the Fall II season. It obviously helps that athletes and leaders such as senior co-captain Meg Horan and junior outside hitter Maggie Brogioli have brought their basketball momentum with them.
“Our players that did play basketball, they’re kind of freak athletes who are amazing at everything. They came in and they were ready to get another (championship). I think it made us more eager,” said Rodrigues. “We had a pretty good team for a long time, but nobody meshed well. I saw all the talent that we had, and it was a really amazing group of girls. They’ve all brought a lot more to the table this year, especially Maggie, more than expected for sure.”
Junior Sally Butler (11 kills, eight blocks and 14 service placements in the victory against Fairhaven), Sydnee Pires, and Emma Thorell were also members of the championship basketball squad.
Head Coach Jimmy Oliveira (New Bedford class of 2007) did not discover the setter position with the same sense of destiny.
“When I played in high school, my coach (Steve DeRossi) said, ‘Jimmy, you’re going to setter today.’ I’m like, ‘What? Coach, I can’t do that.'”
Oliveira learned that he could set the ball, and he’s a big believer in Rodrigues’ ability to take the role to a high level. “There’s only one kid that gets to do that. It’s a very difficult position,” he said. “It’s really, with the young kids coming in, it’s just hard to pick up the game speed. It takes a lot of reps…. I can do this, it’s tough, but it’s part of the game. As a sophomore, she had all the skill, it was just getting use to that speed.”
Models are not easy to find, and it takes a special connection to inspire or influence another’s career. The player who caught Rodrigues’ eye was Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech setter Courtney Carreiro. “I saw her set once and I wanted to be like that,” she said. Carreiro went on to play volleyball at UMass Dartmouth.
With errors inevitable and the consequences hinging on her performance, Rodrigues tries to stay focused on perfecting her skill, connecting with her hitters, and thinking about her next move.
“You’re like the quarterback of the team, you always have to have a plan in place … you’re constantly thinking about your next move,” she said. “It’s usually on you. You’re touching the ball more than anybody on the team, so there’s a lot more mistakes to be made.”
Rodrigues had 25 assists in Monday night’s victory at Fairhaven that completed the Bulldogs’ regular season at 11-0 and clinched the top seed in the South Coast Conference tournament. The undefeated Bulldogs open the SCC quarterfinals on Friday, April 30, on home court against the winner of Tuesday night’s play-in match between Seekonk and Somerset Berkley.
Until dropping the second set of Monday night’s four-set win at Fairhaven (25-16), the Bulldogs had only lost sets in non-league matches to Durfee and Brockton. The seniors obviously want badly to end the season in victory, and they will rely on timely contributions from many corners. On Monday, for instance, sophomore Emma Van Ness was 8-of-10 in receiving serve.
“I don’t think we could have grown this far without being a supportive team. We don’t have any drama…. There’s never pointing a finger or anything like that…. Everyone’s really supportive and that makes you want to do better,” said Rodrigues. “There’s just a lot of talent on the team, too. I figured that out early last season. Everyone kind of knew that we could to far.”
The Bulldogs are fueled by camaraderie, passion for the game and one especially bad memory, having won the first two sets in their last playoff match against Dennis-Yarmouth only to fall in five sets.
“We really weren’t good at picking ourselves up. That game was heartbreaking for us,” said Rodrigues. “Especially last season, we like to make it a lot harder for ourselves and have slow beginnings. It takes us time to get warmed up and be ready.”
Oliveira has made believers not only for his volleyball acumen but, of greater importance, his ability to connect with his student-athletes.
“One of the biggest things in why I think our team is so successful is our coach, Jimmy,” said Rodrigues. “He’s not someone who just cares about as a player on a team; he’s there for you, shaping us to be better people, too. He’s a very dedicated and amazing coach.”
Last year, Rodrigues was focused on setting consistency, locating the ball for her hitters. This year, Oliveira challenged her to take it up a level with her communications and become responsible for reading what kind of pass is coming her way and to guide her hitters. “If it’s a good pass, we’re running a certain offense,” he explained. “Last year, we didn’t do the faster offense thing, but when (Rodrigues) came in she immediately had leadership skills; she was always the one picking the team up, keeping everyone positive.”
The message has stayed positive even when the engine sputters.
“Hey, listen, we’re expecting this to be difficult,” said Oliveira. “We’re not expecting perfection; it’s not just you by yourself, we’re going to work on it together. She’s done a great job accepting that role. One of the things that I always tell them is we don’t want to be 100-percent comfortable. If we are, we’re not going to get better.”
A lifelong rider of horses, Rodrigues has practiced patience. She works part time for AVIV, a company that practices equine-assisted psychotherapy by working with the horses on basic care and clinician training, incorporating them into the program. “The clients get to bond with horses,” she said.
Rodrigues, 18, grew up in Fairhaven, but when she reached her freshman year, she wanted to expand her horizons.
“I just kind of wanted to try something new; there wasn’t a real reason,” she said. “I loved ORR…. The volleyball program is really what’s kept me there and the people I met and the friendships there.”
One of her two younger sisters is a freshman on ORR’s junior varsity volleyball team.
Rodrigues remains undecided on a college but plans to study on a pre-veterinarian track. “Animals have been a huge part of my life. I’m a big rescuer,” she said.
By Mick Colageo