In a little more than one season, working at what he calls his dream position, Eric Neely has changed the women’s volleyball program at Babson College for the better.
Not quite like the quick change routine he used to perform while working as an assistant district attorney for Norfolk Country, as well as coach the girls’ volleyball team at Ursuline Academy in Dedham.
“I swapped my three-piece suit at Quincy District Court for a gym suit at games and practices,’’ recalled the Easton native.
His impact at Babson has been dramatic.
The Beavers have not not beaten crosstown rival Wellesley College in 19 seasons. But Neely’s club took the nationally ranked hosts to five sets Tuesday night, and came within two points in the third set of closing the match — before losing just their fourth contest of the season.
“It was quite a battle,” said Neely. “Every single set was hard fought and could have gone either way.
“We also lost a five-set heartbreaker to regionally ranked Tufts earlier this season, so we’ve shown we have players who work their tails off every day and that we can play with the best teams in New England.’’
Wellesley is ranked first in New England, Tufts 8th, and Babson 15th.
The Beavers (14-4 overall, 3-2 NEWMAC) are receiving contributions from five players with ties to communities south of Boston, including Kathleen Lynch, a senior second-year captain and setter.
Lynch, a three-sport captain at North Quincy High, said Neely’s approach from day one was reassuring and motivating and that an influx of freshman talent has made for a more competitive and skilled team.
“Coach wiped the slate clean, and I think that made us work even harder,’’ said Lynch, who recorded her 3,000th career assist earlier this season, believed to be a school record.
“Being captain means a lot to me and having so many assists means my teammates up front are also doing their job. When they stopped the game to announce the assist milestone it was a special moment, but it was also a team moment.’’
Lynch did all she could against undefeated NEWMAC leader Wellesley, with 40 set assists, six block assists, and three aces.
Lynch and freshman teammates Elizabeth Sullivan, Mary Donahue, and Paige Sawyer played in the highly successful Mass Patriots club program under former North Quincy High volleyball coach Jim Rendle, whose teams won six Division 1 state high school titles. Dedham’s Krissy Robertson, also a freshman, rounds out Babson’s local contingent.
Lynch played for three seasons at perennial Patriot League power North Quincy for Kerry Ginty, one of several former players coached by Rendle to enter the high school coaching ranks.
Lynch’s twin sister, Julie, a former volleyball teammate in high school when both were league all-stars, attends Bentley University.
“People who see her in the stands who don’t know we’re sisters kind of do a double-take,’’ said Lynch.
Rendle said he made the Lynch sisters wear different color headbands.
“I couldn’t tell them apart,’’ recalled Rendle, whose 1992 state championship at North Quincy team produced six college volleyball captains.
“I’m a believer in the team work ethic,’’ added Rendle, “and it’s gratifying when our former players take that same approach to the college level.’’
Sullivan (North Quincy High) is a defensive specialist whom Neely counts on to receive serves and initiate plays. Donahue (Braintree High), an outside hitter, was leading the conference in kills and matched her season high with 20 more at Wellesley.
Canton’s Sawyer (Ursuline Academy) is coming back from an injury and emerging at middle hitter and Dedham’s Robertson, a middle hitter and setter, was Sawyer’s teammate at Ursuline.
“Elizabeth is an incredibly hard worker and Mary has made an immediate impact,’’ said Neely. “Paige is physical with great height (6-2) and Krissy, whom I’ve coached since she was a 7th grader, is tremendously talented.
“We’re just scratching the surface to what we can become,’’ added Neely, who last fall guided the Beavers to their best win total (17-13) since 2002.
Neely, named the Globe’s Division 3 Coach of the Year in 2008 after Ursuline won the South Sectionals and reached the state semifinals, arrived at Babson with a goal to establish a culture of competition and an intensity in practice.
“I also let the players know that anyone could earn a starting role,’’ said the Boston College High and University of Rochester graduate, who earned his law degree in 2003 from the University of Georgia.
Neely, who also directs club sports at Babson, learned to play volleyball on the beach at Newport and while camping in Maine with his family at local tournaments.
He was assistant girls’ coach at Archbishop Williams, then went 94-40 and won four sectional and two Catholic Conference titles from 2005-2010 at Ursuline. He also helped his alma mater as head boys coach at BC High in 2009.
Neely was an assistant DA for three years.
“I loved being a lawyer, but coaching became a passion,’’ added Neely, who also coaches the Smash Volleyball Junior Olympic team in Newton, formerly coached the women’s club team at Northeastern University and was assistant boys basketball coach at Foxborough High until two years ago for his younger brother, C.J. Neely.
“One of my former players at Ursuline told me about the opening at Babson,’’ he said. “I had coached eight years in high school and was ready for a new challenge, and this is a dream come true.’’
Marvin Pave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.