Both the banners on display in the gym and the ones that line the locker room hallway give the Braves plenty of motivation
Like most high school gymnasiums, Williamstown High School’s is decorated with banners. The achievements of each of the school’s athletic programs are on display for everyone to see.
It doesn’t take long to realize the girls volleyball team is the most successful program, at least in terms of sheer titles, both conference and state.
Williamstown’s girls won 15 straight conference crowns from 2001 to 2015. They won state championships in 2006, 2010 and 2012.
But not on display for everyone to see are the plastic banners that are about the same size that line the hallway from the gym to the locker room. Long-time Braves head coach Chris Sheppard had them made because they don’t just list the team’s accomplishments, but also the players who were integral members of those teams: captains, All-Conference, All-South Jersey and so on.
Just as the banners in the bleachers are a reminder of the program they’re a part of, the ones in the hallway are a constant, gentle nudge that they too can physically make a mark and leave their name behind when they graduate.
“Just because you play in the program doesn’t mean you automatically get onto these,” Sheppard said as he gave a recent tour. “But we have these so, in 10 or 20 years, they can some back and look at this and show it to someone knowing they made a contribution.
“I want someone to look at this in 2028 and say, ‘Katie DiGiacomo. I don’t know anything about her, but I knew she was a champion, I know she won something.”
Motivational tools like this have helped keep the Braves girls volleyball program among the most consistent programs across all sports in South Jersey since the turn of the century.
Like every other school, Williamstown loses players to graduation every year. But unlike some schools, Williamstown doesn’t necessarily look at certain years as rebuilding years.
Like, say, the 2018 season, when they’ll begin the season with seven seniors (including five of six hitting positions) from last year gone and a herd of underclassmen trying to fill their respective shoes.
“We don’t (rebuild),” Sheppard said. “We don’t lower the expectations. Here’s the bar, and we have to get to it. And if we play as well as we can play and somebody beats us, than that’s their job. But we’re going to come with the mindset, even in 2016 when we didn’t win the conference for the first time in 16 years, we still played a pretty good brand of volleyball, but we weren’t as good and some other teams were better. We came with the same expectations the whole year.”
A winning mentality is just as important, if not more so, as the sheer talent and drive it takes to win. Or, as Yogi Berra once said of another sport: “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”
“Confidence is definitely key, definitely,” said senior Gypsy Miller, who will miss time in September with a stress fracture on her foot. “You can have all of the talent, but if you’re not confident and you show the wrong body language, than it can also bring your other teammates down. But if you come in and you’re confident and you know you’re going to do well and the team is going to do well, then it definitely shows a lot of leadership and it shows you have a lot to offer.”
Williamstown may have lost a lot of seniors, but they have a solid trio of new ones in Miller, DiGiacomo and Rachel Rolle. They understand there are new players learning new roles and that are adjusting to the varsity level, but they also are aware of the expectations that come with the program.
“They’re working hard, bringing a good effort,” Rolle said of watching the underclassmen this preseason. “I try to come in early and help my other teammates, help with their skill level, help in that aspect.”
“I’ve been seeing a lot of improvement,” Miller said. “They’re doing really good and also being loud, too, and showing leadership.”
The reloading-if-not-rebuilding Braves will be tested early and often in the season’s first month, including conference games at Washington Township, at Cherokee, and at Cherry Hill East. The seniors will have to continue to lead and the younger contributors will have to learn fast if the Braves hope to continue the legacy left behind.
If it all comes together, Williamstown can add another number to the banner in the rafters and several names on the ones in the hallway, too.
“You kind of have to carry on the tradition — it’s up to us,” DiGiacomo said. “We’re winning conference, that’s for sure. We have to start a new streak. It’s our 16th this year, sweet 16, it’ll be our 16th conference win. That’s our goal. And then after that we’re going to go to states.”