A Picture of Real Talent

A Picture of Real Talent

8/26/2010
Eating your greens is standard advice around a dining room table. For Eric Lombardi, recently retired Boys’ Varsity Volleyball Head Coach, it was a mandatory mantra growing up in a household of five in Dallas, Texas. Not only did Eric eat his greens, but green also became a symbolic color for him. He drives a forest green Honda, and he graduated from a college whose nickname is “The Big Green.”

While at The Big Green, better known as Dartmouth College, Lombardi fell in love with the sport of volleyball after learning the game in high school at St. Mark’s. He played for the Dartmouth men’s club team and was an assistant coach for the women’s team, his first stint in the coaching ranks twenty-eight years ago.

Lombardi honed his passion for the sport while teaching and coaching the girls and boys teams at the Casady School of Oklahoma City. Casady soon became a contender in the SPC ranks under Lombardi’s tutelage, winning titles in 1987, 1988, and 1989 over none other than St. John’s, coached by Nick Rivera, the founder of the SJS boys’ program. “I especially liked coaching volleyball in Oklahoma,” Lombardi says. “I was able to provide an opportunity for boys who were not interested in football to play a sport that they would not normally play unless they were from California.” Lombardi spent his next five years in California teaching and coaching at Head-Royce School in Oakland soaking in the volleyball vibe that rules as mighty as football in the Lone Star state.

Lombardi finally rode the west coast wave back to Texas, coming to St. John’s in 1996 to eventually take the reins of the middle school from Pat Adams and those of the men’s volleyball program from Mark Reed. While St. John’s has not yet won a SPC Championship, Lombardi took the Mavericks to the Championship game in 2009, his last season. They fell to his alma mater–a hot St. Mark’s team–but Coach Lombardi reveals his winning mettle when he speaks about the team his Mavericks defeated to reach the finals, the legendary Greenhill Hornets.

The Hornets sport Lombardi’s green color, and there was a time when they made him green with envy. Since the mid eighties, most of the teams in the league– including St. John’s –were filter feeders compared to Dallas’ Greenhill. The Hornets won eleven SPC championships from 1985 through 2008. Any team stepping on the court with the Hornets was defeated before they began to play. This fatalistic attitude was the norm for the St. John’s Rebels and Mavericks until Lombardi’s greatest victory four years ago. For SPC volleyball teams, second place was considered a great season—but not by Eric Lombardi, raised to eat his spinach and hate losing to the Hornets.

One of the traits of real talent is persistence: if you do something long enough, you will succeed. Lombardi lost his share of matches to Greenhill in his early days at St. John’s. Nevertheless, as he had at Casady, he patiently built the program. “I worked hard to create a passion for the sport and to push athletes to meet and hopefully exceed their potential, and moreover, to end the Greenhill drought,” explains Lombardi.

Four years ago St. John’s faced the Hornets in the third place SPC game after losing a disappointing match to Casady in the semi-finals. Lombardi’s Mavs were the SPC South # 1 seed, and needed to come back to H-Town with something to show even if they wouldn’t be the champions. As fate would have it, a win over Greenhill–in one coach’s mind, at least– would suffice. Greenhill not only had the mystique of a champion, but they usually hosted the tournament, putting the visitors–especially from Houston– at a disadvantage. The Mavericks, down early, rallied to win. They rolled back to the Gulf coast without the trophy, but with a bigger swagger in their step. Most importantly to Lombardi, they had started to crack the great green wall.

The 2009 Volleyball season evidenced the powerful tide that Lombardi built in his 25 years of coaching. His wave crested at just the right time, in a nail-biting finish at the SPC Championship. The Mavericks had lost only one regular season match– to none other than Greenhill, who now faced them in the semi-finals. The scenario was very similar to the 2005 epic victory that put a chink in the Hornet’s armor. The game was at Greenhill and the host team was the defending champion. “Lombardi always had a different look on his face when we faced Greenhill,” said co-captain Richard Johnson (’10). “In the 2009 semi-final game it was a look of intensity until the last point, and then there was a smile from Coach I will never forget as the Greenhill’s coaches’ clipboard shattered into pieces after we fought off three championships points in game four and won game five.”

That wall has now crumbled. Greenhill is no longer unbeatable– in Lombardi’s mind or, more importantly, in the minds of the 2010 Mavericks. “Coach Lombardi did so much for the program, and he got us ready to take our game to the next level,” said co-captain Max Lee (’10).

“I can think of a million reasons to keep coaching. It is very difficult for me to step aside, but the program is in very good hands with Rob Amason, who not only knows volleyball but relates to the players very well,” said Lombardi. “I had been looking for the next generation to take over and lead the program to bigger and better things…Rob was perfect . .. very popular with the kids, exceedingly well-versed in the sport, and hooked by the SJS ethos in his one season coaching with me. I am thrilled for SJS boys’ volleyball to be in his hands and to move on to a Banner Year!”

Coach Amason has taken the bull by the horns, starting with a demanding pre-season regimen that included two three-hour sessions every day for the first week, culminating with mandatory ice baths after grueling track work-outs. The second week was geared towards ball control and player mentoring from the prospective varsity athletes. “I think it is important for these guys to invest back into the program that will carry on the tradition of excellence built by Coach Lombardi. It also helps when the younger guys are able to approach a more seasoned player with questions, and it allows the prospective varsity players to hone their leadership traits,” says Amason. “It’s an important part of building a program and developing successful young adults.”

Lombardi will continue to enjoy the rewards of the work he put into the St. John’s volleyball program, both as a fan and when he returns home from a satisfying day as Middle School Head. As he reaches inside his fridge for something cold and green–something his mom would have served him for dinner–he’ll see the one photo he keeps on the door: It’s a picture of him with his Mavericks, taken just after their first victory over Greenhill, a picture of real talent.

Sam Chambers- St. John’s School Athletic News

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