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North Kingstown's Rob McKay hits a shot between two Hendricken players during a playoff match last year.

The last time the North Kingstown High School boys volleyball team won the state title, the current seniors were in middle school. By the time they donned Skipper uniforms, the program was in a different spot, but over the last three years, the seniors put in the work to restore order.

The Skippers would have been one of the favorites this spring.

“We were really trying to go for that state championship,” said senior setter Mateo Garcia. “Everybody who was coming back into the varsity gym had been playing club volleyball or had been playing basketball in the winter. So everybody was in shape. Everybody was ready to grind.”

With the season canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, the Skippers never got the chance, but the disappointment of the missed opportunity serves as a testament to the journey that brought the seniors to this point. Led by Garcia, Sam Gustavson and Rob McKay, the seniors helped take the program from one win in 2017 to 14 last year.

“It was definitely cool to see the team get better over time,” Gustavson said. “I would much rather start with a bad team and finish with a good team than the other way around. It kind of followed my own progression of getting better. The team was getting better, too.”

The senior leaders had varying backgrounds in the sport, but none started particularly early. Garcia watched his dad play a lot of beach volleyball and started himself in seventh grade. Gustavson first tried the sport in high school, encouraged by his father, who had also played. McKay, a runner and a swimmer, had never played before his sophomore year. Last year, his first on varsity, he earned second-team all-state honors.

Even as they joined a young team that struggled, the trio took to the sport quickly.

“I didn’t have a spring sport that I was determined to play, so I went out and started to get to know the people on the team, kind of fell in love with it and just kept on playing,” Gustavson said.

“I played JV my sophomore season. Going into junior year, that’s when I went up to varsity. That’s where I guess the hard work mentality kind of rubbed off on me,” McKay said. “Everyone, it seemed, was ready to work hard and do well. I kind of held on to that.”

And they knew they had something.

“We saw the potential from day one of tryouts,” Garcia said. “There was a really good group of guys the year above us who helped us and pushed us along. And we just started putting in the work – in the weight room, playing club volleyball. Even the grade below us, our team puts in arguably the most work out of season than any other team in the state.”

It paid off. After a few steps forward in 2018, when the team went from 1-17 to 3-13, the Skippers took the leap last season. Their 14-4 record was good for second place in Division I. They were upset by sixth-seeded Bishop Hendricken in the semifinals.

It was a rewarding season for players who had made the commitment to get better.

“It was awesome,” Garcia said. “I actually haven’t had a lot of winning seasons, even for club. The team really came together and we put in some good work. It didn’t end exactly how we wanted, but that season was pretty great.”

“It was nice to come out of the season knowing that me and my teammates were a part of rebuilding the team,” McKay said. “This year, we were looking pretty good, so it was nice to know that we had done a lot of work in the rebuilding stage. It wasn’t all happy times; we were mad we lost in the playoffs, but we knew we made a lot of progress.”

The stage was set for more this season. Without a few key players from last year, like Hudson Greene and Jacob Roy, there was work to do, but the Skippers remained confident.

“You can never really guarantee a championship, but we were definitely hoping for a deep playoff run,” McKay said. “Last year, we went into the season just hoping to win a few games. Previously, we weren’t that good at all. Last year, we ended up doing pretty well. We went to the semifinals. So that was the mentality – keep getting better, do at least as good as we did last year and hopefully finish a little better.”

The news of the cancellation was hard to swallow, and not just because of the high hopes.

“I was pretty bummed. It’s a shame not only for the seniors, but also for the underclassmen,” Garcia said. “We have a really good group of guys. We go out for team lunches and things like that. I miss that.”

The Skipper seniors are hoping to be back on courts, possibly on the beach, this summer. Then it’ll be on to new challenges away from the court. Garcia will major in agriculture and medical biotechnology at the University of Kentucky. McKay is planning to attend High Point University. Gustavson is off to the University of Connecticut.

Though they didn’t get their final season together, there was value in what came before.

“I do cross country and swimming and those are more individualized,” McKay said. “I think making the volleyball team and playing varsity my second year – it was exciting for me to show my hard work was paying off, but it was also just nice to be part of a team. It was a team effort. That was my favorite thing. I think that was the most important thing I learned.”

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