This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For Kevin Diep, playing high school volleyball has been as much about building relationships as about winning games.
As a senior at Masterman High School in Center City, he’s had the chance to do plenty of both.
"Our school program is really good," he explained.
That’s something of an understatement given Masterman’s extended volleyball success, which includes eight Public League boys’ titles since 1995, including one in 2009, when Diep was a 10th grader.
But more importantly, he said, "we’re a good family, always looking out for each other."
Both the talents and the camaraderie of the Masterman program were on full display March 16 at the District’s annual volleyball "play day" to kick off the spring season.
District officials say the volleyball play day is unique in Public League sports. This year, it was spread across four sites and brought together roughly 300 players on all 22 varsity boys’ volleyball teams on one day to play a series of friendly scrimmages before the official start of the season.
For established teams like Masterman, the play day is a chance to shake off the rust and catch up with friends at other schools. For newer teams like Furness High School, which has revived its squad after a year off, it’s a chance for less experienced players to gauge how far they’ve come.
Masterman coach Steve Grunwald, who has taught health and physical education at the school for 26 years, said play day embodies what boys’ volleyball in the city is all about.
"It’s really a fun day, just about getting to know each other," he said. "We just want the kids to have the experience of playing."
Managing to get along
Masterman was one of eight schools to participate in this year’s play day at South Philadelphia High.
The team was accompanied by no fewer than six team managers – all girls – including Masterman seniors Cecile Urmenyhazi, Lisa Winder, and Jenny Zhang.
"Yes, that is a lot of managers," said Urmenyhazi, laughing.
"We get water, take attendance, help with drills, keep score, do line judging, and cheer on the team," said Winder.
"And we bake for them," said Zhang. "Brownies, cookies, cakes … you name it."
The girls were quick to emphasize, however, that they aren’t just managers for the guys.
In fact, all three played in the fall for Masterman’s girls’ team – which has won 10 of the past 15 Public League titles, including the last five.
"We just love volleyball," Urmenyhazi said.
"And they bake for us, too," emphasized Winder.
Diep, who has managed the girls’ team for the past three years, confirmed this.
"It was a special occasion," he explained sheepishly. "We had a huge party after the Central game."
That camaraderie and success is why senior multi-sport Masterman athlete Quran Smith said he enjoys volleyball even more than basketball.
"We all know how great the legacy is. And we spend a lot of time together. I think that’s why it’s so easy for us to mesh and play well with each other," he explained.
Smith also helped manage the girls’ team this past fall.
"It gives us a lot of memories to go off of, and it brings us closer together," he said. "It’s a great experience."
Power of teamwork
Even with all the bonding, there was actually some time for volleyball at the play day, too.
Masterman first scrimmaged against Furness, the newly revived team comprised heavily of recent immigrants new to the sport.
The contrast was sharp.
While Masterman players sported pads and uniform t-shirts with numbers on the back, the Furness team more closely resembled a hodgepodge gym class.
And while the Furness players gave a valiant effort, diving for balls and cheering each other on, the Masterman team was a well-oiled machine.
Diep is the team’s primary setter, charged with running the team’s offense and putting other players in position to attack. Smith is one of the team’s middle hitters, charged with hitting set balls at the net on offense and trying to block the other team’s attacks while on defense. The team’s steady communication led to a seemingly endless series of clean sets from Diep, powerful spikes by Smith, and points that went Masterman’s way.
The Furness players walked away impressed.
"We’re just getting used to playing as a group and working as a team," said Furness 11th grader Sachin Patel, a recent immigrant from India whose primary sport back home was cricket.
"It’s helpful to see how they play as a unit and how we can try to get better," said sophomore Kelvin Bain.
Masterman went on to scrimmage against Franklin Learning Center and South Philadelphia High, winning most of their games along the way.
But while the goal is for Masterman to reclaim the Public League title this year, said Diep, the biggest victory has already been won.
"Playing volleyball has changed who I am and made me more supportive of others," he said.
"I definitely put other people ahead of myself a lot more now, just because teamwork is such a big part of playing a sport like this."