Greta Lalli, a Health Education Teacher at Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School, could easily be classified as one of Johnston High School’s sports pioneers.
Back in 1999, after teaching and coaching at Westport High School in Massachusetts, Lalli came to Johnston and founded the girls’ volleyball program. It was a vastly different scene, she says, after having coached soccer and track at the Bay State school.
A few weeks ago, Lalli also had the distinction of launching JHS first-ever boys’ volleyball team that to date has had three matches and as the Panthers’ head coach related: “The boys have exceeded our expectations and are eager to learn more. As a coach, that is all I can ask for.”
Lalli said 10 Panthers make up the school’s first-ever boys volleyball team, which also came into being this year with a valuable assist from Keith Cory, the school’s athletic director.
When asked just how the boys’ volleyball program came into being, Lalli – who is in her 25th year of coaching high school sports – explained that she’s been asking for a boys’ team for about 15 years.
“I thought it would compliment the girls’ program nicely,” Lalli went on. “But there were obstacles that prevented that from happening.”
However, as Lalli pointed out, our Athletic Director Keith Cory has added 13 teams in the past three years and fortunately, boys’ volleyball was one of them.”
So, add the names Greta Lalli and Claire Baggeson as the boys’ volleyball team first-ever coaches and Jonathan Frein, Joel Aubin, Charlie DiMascio, Jamie Javier, Ricky Rajsasombat, Sheheer Jamil, Jeremiah Heu, Josh Buono, Brad Testa and Alfredo Garcia to the historic list of undergrads that make up the 2018 Panthers’ roster.
When asked to make a comparison to the girls’ program she started 19 years ago, Lalli replied, “There were 25 girls on the initial sign up list. Luckily, about 25 girls showed up and I was able to go from there. The girls had never played volleyball before, and I don’t think there were clubs they could have gotten involved in like there are now.”
Nonetheless, like the interest level has been thus far for the boys’ team, Lalli said “the girls were excited to play which was great, because the games were very challenging for them to get through.”
Since those formative years, Lalli wanted it known, “we have been division champions eight times, state champions in 2004 and again in 2014 and thanks to Jan Zucchi’s nomination, the 2004 girls’ volleyball team will be inducted into the (Johnston High School) Athletic Hall of Fame this October.”
Another boys’ banner to hang on the Panthers "Wall of Fame" inside JHS Edward L. DiSimone Gymnasium?
Well, not so fast Lalli will caution, but there’s a pattern of history between the two programs.
For example, a survey went out a few years ago about starting a boys’ team, Lalli reports “there were a lot of boys that expressed interest in joining, so that started the process of creating the program.”
However, because the RIIL has since allowed athletes to play two sports in one season, Lalli says “this creates a tough scenario for me and Coach Baggeson because we are tying to start the program and athletes were missing practice to go to their other sport.”
She said that a few athletes stayed with volleyball and some went to either lacrosse or track and as Lalli emphasized: “As much as we would have loved to give the athletes the opportunity to do both, it wasn’t realistic as a brand new team. We are, however, encouraging athletes to join so we can continue to build the program.”
So, the foundation of what could develop into a championship caliber program – just as Lalli did with the girls’ volleyball team – has been built and perhaps that’s why she and Baggesen are so excited about this, the Panthers’ inaugural season.
There are no captains on this year’s squad, simply because as Lalli points out “it doesn’t seem fair to choose one of two captains since the program is so new. There a few athletes who have played Club volleyball, so they have more knowledge of the game.”
But, as the enthusiastic coach – who has noted is celebrating a quarter century in coaching high school sports and didn’t play volleyball during her younger years because Portsmouth High School didn’t have team and therefore she never played at RIC – “all of the boys put one hundred percent into games and practices.”
Just like the girls did back in 1999 when there were no club teams and as someone recently suggested what has transpired since then, “there are a lot of volleyball banners hanging on the Wall of Fame.”