PAWTUCKET – Three months before the start of the RIIL’s post-COVID girls’ volleyball season, which took place in March and April of 2021, longtime volleyball coach Neil Nachbar quietly put the wheels into motion to form a non-profit volleyball club, Starlings Inspire. The fledgling club, Nachbar hoped, would offer players “who can’t afford club volleyball an opportunity to play, especially those in the underrepresented area of Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Providence.”
Nachbar, who created the Tolman High boys’ volleyball program in 1997, finally saw his club take the court last year. And while only eight players made up that inaugural squad, the Pawtucket native was ecstatic over the turnout that awaited him for his club’s first workouts last November.
Thirty-six players joined the club, “with 36 percent being Black and 44 percent Hispanic,” noted Nachbar, who divided that strong turnout into three teams of 12 – two in the ages 16-under division and the other in the 15-under group.
Those three teams, which have practiced twice a week since the week before Thanksgiving, entered a five-tournament series that scheduled events on Sunday afternoons and was run by the New England Region Volleyball Association (NERVA), the New England Region for USA Volleyball, and the newcomers to the club scene were certainly impressive.
One 16-under squad boasts a first-place finish at a tournament on March 12 at the Starland Sportsplex in Hanover, Mass., as well as a runner-up placement in its club debut on Feb. 12 at Rockland High in Rockland, Mass. The other 16-under team also holds a second-place finish to its credit, and the 15-under team is coming off its best performance of the season, a third-place showing on April 2 at Forekicks in Norfolk, Mass.
“The players performed beyond expectations, considering none of them ever played club volleyball before and were competing against well-established clubs,” reported Nachbar. “More importantly, they gained self-esteem, made new friends from neighboring high schools, and learned the value of hard work and commitment.”
The club’s final tournaments are Sunday: the 15-under team will be at the Wolves Den in Pembroke, Mass., while the 16-under teams will be at American International College and Worcester State University. After that, the players and coaches will meet one more time on Saturday, May 6, to celebrate their successful season at a pizza party at the Pawtucket YMCA.
One of the newest affiliates of Starlings Volleyball USA, which offers clubs in over 70 cities and Native American reservations throughout the nation, Nachbar named his club “Inspire” because his chief goal was “to establish a club that inspires student-athletes to do their best on the court, in the classroom, and in the community.”
“I formed this club for the same reason I started coaching volleyball at Tolman in 1995 – to give back to the community in which I grew up and to share my passion for the sport that has been a source of so much joy,” he added. “When I watch our club players at tournaments, competing against kids from all over New England, I see that same pride and love for the game in how they play and in their expressions.
“My hope is that someday, somehow, they’ll pay it forward and spread their enthusiasm for volleyball with those who follow them.”
Because last year’s club only attracted eight players, who were not only different ages but also unable to consistently attend practices, the club opted not to play in any tournaments but lay the groundwork for its program by practicing twice a week at the YMCA and culminating their first year together by playing a scrimmage at the YMCA against a team of adults.
Now the club boasts three dozen players, “and I believe 33 have at least played junior varsity volleyball in high school,” said Nachbar, whose club has players from Shea, Tolman, Central Falls, St. Raphael Academy, Davies, Blackstone Valley Prep, and Hope, and one from Pawtucket who attends Providence Country Day.
“The two players who never played before attending the Rhode Island Nurses Institute (Middle College Charter High School in Providence),” said Nachbar, “and one player is in the eighth grade, but her older sister plays varsity volleyball, so she’s been exposed to the sport. She’s the only one currently in the club who isn’t a freshman or sophomore in high school.”
Why did Nachbar see his numbers more than quadruple this season? He listed three reasons:
“We widened our net,” he noted. “Instead of only allowing public school students from Pawtucket and Central Falls to participate, we allowed any student who lived in Pawtucket or Central Falls, and we also invited players from nearby Hope.”
Second, “we informed the local high school coaches, letting them know about an affordable opportunity for their players to continue to improve their skills during the offseason.”
And third, “we did a better job of explaining to players and parents in the community what club volleyball entails,” he reported. “We were clear about how much it would cost, how much practice time the players would get from November through April, how many tournaments they would play, and who the coaches would be.”
As for the coaching staff, it has two coaches who are in their second seasons with the club: Christian Chavez, who played at Central and is currently in his first season as an assistant boys’ volleyball coach at Central Falls, and Raven Sannon, who played at Cranston East in the late-2000s.
“Mae D’Ambra, who was an All-State player at West Warwick and now attends Brown and plays for the Brown club team, joined the coaching staff this year,” noted Nachbar. “Midway through our season, two varsity players from the Brown volleyball team also joined the coaching staff, Jilienne Widener and Kaitlyn Wong. I put a feeler out to the Brown head coach in the fall because we needed more coverage at practice, and after their winter break, Jilienne and Kaitlyn offered, and they have worked out great.”
As for the cost to play, the club “is charging families a small fraction of what volleyball clubs usually charge,” added Nachbar, who prior to the 2022 season, spent more than a year raising money for his club “so that I could keep the cost as low as possible. Thanks to the Pawtucket Family YMCA and the adult players in the Ocean State Pride Volleyball League, I was able to run a series of volleyball leagues and tournaments at the YMCA, with a portion of the profits going toward the volleyball club.”
As for the future of the club, “We hope to keep growing it so that we can offer more kids in an underserved community an opportunity to play beyond their high school season,” Nachbar said. “We have the potential to add more teams and make a difference in the lives of more students.”
“However, a volleyball club is expensive to run, especially when you’re only charging a very small fraction of the $2,000-$2,500 that other clubs charge,” he added. “If we can continue to raise the money needed to cover our expenses, and we can secure enough gym time for practices, we hope to build upon the success we had this year on and off the court.”
For more information on the club, visit www.starlings.org/inspire or the “Starlings Inspire” Facebook page.