The Cranston East boys’ volleyball team went 19-0 last season and won their first-ever volleyball championship after sweeping the Classical Purple (25-19, 25-23, 25-22) in the DII title game.
East closed out the postseason without losing a single set, as they won all nine of their sets against Toll Gate, Central and Classical.
Senior setter James Tang, who won Division II First Team Honors in 2017, is the glue that holds the Thunderbolts together, but he is humble and would never admit that. When Tang talks about winning the Division II title last season, he gives most of the credit to his teammates.
“There’s no words to explain it,” Tang said. “It felt great. I put all of my hard work into this sport so it’s great to see that something paid off with my sweat and tears. My teammates basically carried me to it. I was just there to help.”
Tang started his high school volleyball career as a freshman at Westerly High School before moving to Cranston and transferring to East for his sophomore season.
At Westerly, Tang played on the junior varsity team before moving up to varsity at the end of the season. Tang made his varsity debut in Westerly’s first postseason game against the Classical Purple.
When Tang arrived at East, he was thrilled to join the ‘Bolts’ squad because of their passion for the game.
“I came here and I loved it here because they loved volleyball and I love volleyball,” Tang said.
However, Tang didn’t play right away and that’s what made him put in even more work.
“The team was great,” Tang said. “I think we were 12-2. I loved that team. I think them as a whole really pushed me as a volleyball player. I swung it towards the end of the season, but I didn’t get any playing time, but that just made me realize that I should work harder.”
And when his junior year rolled around, Tang became the team’s starting setter.
As the setter, Tang, who dons the jersey #2, makes sure that he touches the second ball on every possession, so that he can set up his teammates for an attack and dictate the pace of the game.
“The setting position is designated the second ball,” Cranston East head coach Meaghan McGonagle said. “So, its James’ job to get anywhere on the court to get that second ball or the other players will get out of his way to make sure that he gets it.”
Last season Tang had 34 assists in a match against East Greenwich and a whopping 42 verses North Smithfield.
McGonagle describes Tang as a leader, who keeps his teammates motivated.
“He is the main motivator for the other athletes on the team and his work ethic rivals any athlete I've ever coached,” McGonagle said.
“I just tell them, ‘play your heart out,’” Tang said. “’If they have height on us, that doesn’t matter. If we play with our hearts out, then heart over height,’ Then, when we’re on the court, I start screaming and it gets them pumped up and they start screaming and it just lets them know that if we stay positive, we’re going to keep pushing and pushing no matter what.”
McGonagle describes Tang as a pleasure to coach.
“He really responds, he really listens,” McGonagle said. “A lot of times you can tell a kid that they need to do something and they’ll listen to you, but maybe they don’t actually put the work or the effort into changing whatever needs to be changed, but James does. If I tell James that he needs to set higher, set faster, change his set up speed or the height of it, he’ll respond and he’ll work immediately to fix the problem.”
Tang’s two favorite players to watch on television are Micah Christenson, a member of the United States men’s national volleyball team and Micah Ma’a, who plays for UCLA.
“Both of them are great setters,” Tang said. “When I watch them play, they do things I’ve never seen any other setter do. It’s just crazy to watch. I learn a lot from them.”
When McGonagle took over as the boys’ head coach in spring 2017, she wasn’t sure how the team would respond to having a female coach as the boys had all male coaches up until that point. However, Tang and the rest of the team embraced her and it seems like McGonagle may have been the final piece to the puzzle that got the boys to the promise land.
McGonagle has coached the girls’ team for the last four and a half seasons. She led the girls to back-to-back titles the last two seasons and with the boys’ title victory, she became the second coach in Rhode Island history to have both undefeated girls and boys’ championship teams in the same school year. East Providence, coached by Hall of Famer Luis Carvalho, had both teams go undefeated in 2001-02.
“She really pushed us every day at practice,” Tang said. “She really yelled at us for certain flaws and everything. She’d look at certain games and explain to us what we did wrong. She’d explain certain things. She really helped us any way, every way, helped us with passing, hitting, looking at certain holes, serving, and she worked with us every day.”
McGonagle was pleasantly surprised with the boys’ effort throughout last season.
“Last year was great,” McGonagle said. “My first year as the boys’ volleyball coach, they really responded very well. I had success with the girls, so I thought that would help me a little bit, but they really just responded. They did everything I asked from them every day. They didn’t want to take days off, they had a goal from day one of the season and they worked all 90 days to win that state championship and they did. So, a lot of respect for them.”
Tang’s only goal for the 2018 season is to successfully defend the DII title.
“I just want to win another championship,” Tang said. “I feel more than excited to defend it. I love playing volleyball so if we play with our heart out I think we can defend it.”
Tang, who made high honors in the fall, graduates at the end of this year and will head to the University of Rhode Island next year where he will major in Computer Science. There, Tang plans to play intramural volleyball.
The ‘Bolts opened up the season against the Mt. Hope Huskies on Wednesday evening and the score was unavailable at press time. On Monday, the ‘Bolts travel to West Warwick to face off against the Wizards. Then, on Thursday at 6:30 pm, Cranston East returns home to host the East Greenwich Avengers.