While many of us were trying to squeeze the most out of the final moments of summer, high school athletes reported for preseason. In scorching heat or torrential downpour, they showed up for tryouts and practices in anticipation of the upcoming fall season. This week all teams were finalized. 

Going into his first season as athletic director, Ryan Madden said this is his favorite time of year. After a challenging week for many coaches who had to make cuts, Madden said he is excited for the rosters to come together, the athletes to get their uniforms, and for the hard work of preseason to pay off as games begin. 

While Needham’s winning record across many sports is a source of pride and a goal for most players, Madden said that’s not the focus for him or for the coaches as they work with students. Changing that mentality, especially in a town where winning has become the norm, will be a challenge, but an important one to take up. 

“I like winning as much as the next guy, but that’s not the end goal,” he said. “In a two-hour coaches meeting, we don’t talk about winning at all. Winning isn’t our measure of success. We care a lot more about sportsmanship and lessons learned.” 

Madden said striving to improve — to be better players tomorrow than they are today — and making sure that even the students who get cut from teams still leave having had a positive experience are two areas of focus for him. 

Echoing similar sentiments, coaches talked about the positive attitude, hard work and strong leadership of their players. 

“We’ve got great kids, great attitude, great effort,” said football head coach Doug Kopcso. Having lost 20 players from last year combined with a small sophomore class, the football team is much smaller this year. “But everyone’s bought in, everyone wants to be here, everyone wants to encourage their teammates, so it’s a different atmosphere than we’ve had really in the last few years,” he said. “I love this team.” 

Kayla Steeves, girls soccer coach, said they also are down 10 seniors from last year, but she said there is a lot of talent and a lot of great personalities. She is looking forward to the team developing its identity. 

“The energy across the board has been really awesome,” said Steeves. The team will play two new non-league teams this year, but their biggest competition remains Wellesley. The girls had a strong start, sweeping 3-0 at Monday’s jamboree at DeFazio Field. 

The golf team won its first home match Monday against Natick 109-97. Coach Adam Cole said he feels good about the upcoming season, despite seven of his 13 players being newcomers. Cole said having that many new players could be problematic, but because a number of them are upperclassmen who already know each other well, the chemistry and camaraderie among the boys is strong. Cole said the team has great depth through the top eight players, and he is confident his three senior leaders will lead the way. 

The boys varsity soccer team lost its top scorer this year, which means the team will need to “pick up the slack,” said coach Jimmy Odierna. “We have to replace a couple of really strong American-caliber players. We are playing a new formation this year, so making adjustments to our style of play.” He said the team’s work ethic is strong, which will help overcome those obstacles. 

Odierna also said he has a bench of 15 seniors who have played together for a long time. “They’re looking forward to capping off their high school season together.” Looking ahead, Ordierna said Weymouth, always one of their toughest competitors, is very strong this year. 

New in her role as swim head coach, Kate Curtin is pleased with the number of students who came out for the team. A Needham High graduate herself, and longtime coach of the Needham Sharks team at Rosemary Pool, Curtin is looking forward to creating a more cohesive team. “We’re looking to become more cohesive and make sure that we’re really building the team spirit,” she said. “In general in COVID we lost a sense of team for a little while.” Curtin said from a competitive standpoint, the team is looking really strong. “All six returning seniors made it to state last year and really are phenomenal athletes and very versatile.” 

Swim team practices at Babson

Sue McNatt, who is also new in her role as girls cross country head coach, said they have a roster of 42 runners, with more to come as students trickle in from other sports where they may have been cut. This allows her the chance to give runners rest days, especially in weeks where two meets are scheduled. “My goal is to keep everybody healthy, and if they’re healthy they can train and naturally get faster and be stronger and be cohesive as a team,” she said. “We’re coming in healthy and that’s really good.” McNatt said the team has great depth, including a number of juniors who ran track and are really strong. 

Boys cross country team warms up for practice

The boys cross country team also continues to grow as athletes come over from other teams. Coach Chris Van Cott said they are still getting to know one another, forming good habits in practice and learning drills and strength exercises. “We have great senior leadership, especially from our captains,” said Van Cott. “There’s also a lot of enthusiasm amongst the younger guys. We’re fortunate to have a really positive vibe on the team.” His goal is to maintain or improve on last year’s 6-3 record. “That said, the Bay State Conference is arguably the deepest and most competitive league in the state, so it’s never easy.”

After winning the state championship in 2019 and 2021 (with an interrupted season in 2020), varsity girls volleyball coach Courtney Chaloff is ready to take on another strong season. “We have some good talent coming back and some young talent coming in,” she said. “So there’s good balance.” She said it’s a very positive atmosphere, and she is very optimistic about the season. 

The field hockey team has 14 seniors returning from last year, giving them a strong roster of experienced players. Coach Stephanie Magni said they took a larger group of players this year knowing so many would be moving on after this season. “We want them to have time to practice and develop with these really strong kids,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of strong new sophomores, we’ve got some juniors.” But overall, she said, there are fewer new players than usual. In the second game of the season, the team will play Walpole, one of two powerhouses they will face this year. “We have a tough schedule,” she said. “We build our non-league schedule to play tough teams, so we have some good competition, but I think that’s only going to make us better.” 

The dance team and the cheerleading team have both been preparing for their performances at the upcoming football games. The cheerleaders spent full days working on skills and choreography. The dance team finished learning the routine they will perform at all the home football and soccer games during the halftime show. The dance team will soon be focused on their upcoming state championship. This year they will be competing in two categories, the pom routine and the jazz routine. “It’s a really hard-working group of kids,” said coach Jessica Arruda. “They’re hungry for the competition. We’re trying to add in new skills and tricks we haven’t done before because they really want to win.”

Sailing and Unified Basketball, also fall sports, will be starting in the upcoming weeks as well. Needham has one of the larger unified basketball programs in the league with a full slate of games. Madden said they try to provide the same experience as any other varsity program. “The coaches are vested. We partner with the athletes we have, ensuring that it’s also a positive athletic experience,” he said.

Madden is excited for the season to get underway, and said they are fortunate to have a good group of coaches to lead students. “The kids in this town should feel lucky about the coaching staff they have, the facilities they have and the support they have through the town,” he said. “There’s a place for everybody.” 

Needham High School offers 12 varsity sports and three club sports, many with freshman, JV and varsity options. Football and Cross-Country are the only two that don’t cut players. 

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