EAST PROVIDENCE — With a few days to reflect on going undefeated and winning the 2023 Division II championship, head coach Alex Butler and his East Providence High School girls' volleyball team …
EAST PROVIDENCE — With a few days to reflect on going undefeated and winning the 2023 Division II championship, head coach Alex Butler and his East Providence High School girls' volleyball team were still basking in the glow of the program's best season in nearly two decades.
The top-seeded Townies completed a close-to-perfect fall as possible by shutting out third-seeded Cumberland in the league finals Saturday, Nov. 11. East Providence earned its 18th league win without a loss after dispatching the Clippers by the scores of 25-22, 25-15 and 25-21.
The victory was actually the Townies' 19th overall, including a non-league victory over Scituate at the start of the year.
In total, East Providence lost just six of 66 games played in those matches. The Townies swept 15 of their wins, went four games four times and the distance just once (26-24 25-13, 21-25, 18-25, 16-14) against Barrington in the playoff semifinals.
The last time East Providence went undefeated was also the last time the program won a title, the 2005 Townies going 21-0 en route to winning the Division I crown.
Last week, EPHS head coach Alex Butler said what still resonated about the last few months was "the fun we had. I said to the team I've never been part of a group that won at this level that didn't have fun. They're a great bunch of kids to work with. It makes the grind of the season worth it, makes it a lot of fun to go through all that to get to the championship and win it."
Five Townies on this year's squad were recently recognized by the Rhode Island Volleyball Coaches Association for their exploits during the fall, including Keira Mullen who received top state and league accolades.
The sophomore setter/outside hitter was selected as a first-team All-State performer by the coaches. Mullen, a superb all-court player, was East Providence's leader in assists and kills.
As for the league, the coaches chose the southpaw as Division II Player of the Year and tabbed her among the league's first team award recipients.
"I'm not sure we'll see her ceiling here. Keira's ceiling will be found in college. She'll just continue to get better and better," Butler said of his burgeoning superstar at the Rhode Island high school level.
"People have to remember she didn't set last year, so to be the top setter and No. 1 offensive threat on a good team is very taxing. It's really hard," he continued. "We had a conversation during the year about not letting herself get discouraged or upset when things aren't going her way because of what was expected of her.
"Keira plays hard every single match and she plays with a joy. And she does things that don't show up in any stats. She made plays in the semifinals and the finals that no one else in the gym could do, and it was setting. Those are the things you can't teach, the intangibles.
"If you come into the gym and watch one of our matches and your eyes don't go immediately go to Keira, then you don't know what you're not watching."
Senior Daniella Escudero, the Townies' "libero" (back row defender) was pegged for second-team All-State and first-team All-Division. East Providence's best digger and its steadiest server got one more chance to shine in the annual Senior Showcase match between players from Divisions I and II Thursday, Nov. 16, in North Kingstown.
"Daniella was like a Christmas gift when she came here two years ago," Butler said of Escudero, who spent her first two high school years at Tolman in neighboring Pawtucket.
"The libero was a position of need for this group. The question going into last year was who was going to play the position, and with the way that Daniella passes and serves that answer came to me really quick," he continued. "To have someone who can run the back row and play the way she does is very relaxing for a coach, knowing that very important position is taken care of. And there's a reason our lineup was set up for her to serve first. I don't know how many games we started off 5-0 because Daniella ripped off a bunch of aces or set us up for easy chances to score."
Escudero was joined in the showcase by two of her classmates. Both Kate Bernhardt and Malia Mullen, stalwarts for the Townies the last several years at the net and on the service line, were each selected second-team All D-II.
"Kate is another kid who just kind of dropped in our lap from Idaho," Butler said of Bernhardt, who moved to the city in time for her sophomore year. "We have a tight group, so you're always a little leery when new kids come. But Kate and Daniella both fit in perfectly. Kate played middle before. She didn't have the responsibility to pass and play defense. But we moved her to the outside this year and she struggled at times, but she eventually found her stride and had a good year."
Of the elder Mullen, Butler added, "Malia is another pleasure to have in the program. She's probably the most unassuming person on the team. If you looked at her during a match you couldn't tell if we were up 20 or down 20. She just goes about her business. When you look at her progression from her freshman year to where she is now, it's phenomenal. This year she just played solid every match."
And last, but not least, sophomore Eliza Vest, a consistent presence for the Townies throughout the fall, was picked for the All-D-II third team.
"People forget Elly didn't play high school volleyball before this year and she's only played the game for two or three years," Butler said of Vest, who transferred to EPHS from Moses Brown, where the sport in not sponsored. "Her ceiling is nowhere to be found. This is all a new experience for her... a new team, a new school....She got way more comfortable as the season went along. Her future is bright because she works. The talent is there, you can't miss that."
A team doesn't reach the lofty heights the Townies did this year without contributions from still more players.
Butler recollected a conversation he had with senior Nora Fineran a year ago when he told the then-junior and defensive specialist of his plan to turn her into a setter and full rotation player in time for this fall as part of EP's 6-2 formation, the "2" representing the use of two setters. Fineran joined Keira Mullen as the Townies' two main playmakers, becoming a key component to the team's offense in 2023.
"If Nora wasn't as selfless to do it and tackle that challenge, we wouldn't be here," Butler said. "And look who finished serving the championship game, Nora...It's just an unbelievable situation for her to go from strictly a defensive specialist to a setter on a championship in a year. It's pretty incredible."
In Trinity Johnson-Carter, Butler said he wasn't quite sure what to expect. The junior came to East Providence late in the 2021-22 term and missed the season. Last year was her first in the program, when she played junior varsity. This fall she, too, provided the Townies with great depth at the net.
Of Johnson-Carter, Butler said, "People have to remember Trinity has only played volleyball for two seasons, and last year she played strictly JV. But I told her she was going to have to be a varsity starter and she worked on game. It's obvious she's very athletic, but she wants more. She just said to me the other day, 'Coach, how to do I get to the next level?' There was a lot of pressure on her being a first year varsity member playing in the middle on a good team. You don't want to be person who messes things up, but I thought the final third of the season, she starting blocking everything and the light kind of went on."
Butler was especially pleased with the efforts of senior Ella DeCosta, whom he said got a bit lost in the shuffle of bodies in the playing rotation the last few seasons, but who raised the level of her game upon taking the floor, especially in the postseason run to the championship.
"If you look at Ella she kind of had the misfortune of Kate moving here and Elly transferring in," Butler said of DeCosta. "She probably looked at it like she had a chance to start, to play a lot, but our team is built on competition. Nothing is given just because you've been here. It's about production...All season long when called up she was a consistent contributor. She would come in games cold and just go play...She was the perfect teammate and was ready when her number was called."
The Townies this fall, as a whole, were pretty close to being perfect. It's something they'll never forget. Time moves on and the specifics tend to fade away, but when a team reaches such heights as the 2023 EPHS girls' volleyball club the memories will remain.
"The championship will always be there, but the things I'll probably remember are the basics, the time we spent together in the gym. These kids worked extremely hard. They gave me everything they had each day," Butler added. "They're kind of a silly group. They all have their own personalities. We had a lot of fun. I always talk about the team being a family, and this was a tight-knit group. They supported each other through good things and bad things and persevered. If anything that's what I'll probably remember the most."