Brian Lombardo’s focus is on the present and future of East Aurora boys volleyball.
He’s not caught up in the past thinking about how his time as track and field coach at Sweet Home ended abruptly in spring 2018. The second-year coach of the Blue Devils wants to continue turning the team into a contender while creating a culture determined toward making the playing experience enjoyable.
So far he’s served up aces while reminding folks that he does know his way around the volleyball court.
“I missed the quickness of the sport, the athleticism,” said Lombardo, who was at the helm of Canisius for the start of its current run of 19 straight Monsignor Martin championships. “I missed that development a lot. … I wanted to get back into volleyball (even when I was coaching track at Sweet Home).”
There just wasn’t a clear path to a job, until the end of his time at Sweet Home which came as a surprise to many.
A quick refresher: Lombardo resigned from his post as coach and teacher at Sweet Home following the 2017-18 school year. He coached several talents who moved on to Division I schools, including Nate Davis who signed with Indiana after the 2018 season. Many community members, former and current athletes and their family members protested the move and wanted the school district to reconsider the resignation. No specific reasons were given for Lombardo’s departure.
“You have to move forward. It was a disagreement and that’s where it ended,” Lombardo said Tuesday before EA's match at Iroquois.
When pressed, Lombardo opted to borrow a line from a coaching legend.
“John Wooden, who I am big on reading and talking about, one of the best things I ever heard him say is ‘things turn out the best for people who make the best of the way things turn out,’” Lombardo said. “If you follow that … this was a great opportunity. I am doing this. I am arguably happier than I was before. I’m in a good spot as far as what we want to build and where we want to go.”
“The group at East Aurora has been great. A lot of good kids. I am very happy where I am. It’s an enjoyable group.”
It’s been an ever-expanding group, too.
When Lombardo first took over, he discovered there wasn’t a JV program and that the varsity team was coming off a season in which it had just eight players.
The numbers grew quickly to 20, so large that the school district added a junior varsity team this season. There are 34 kids in the high school program (16 on varsity), not including participants at the modified level who do so as a combined team with nearby Holland.
“Last year, everyone was kind of grabbing a friend,” Lombardo said. “We had a lot of young freshmen on the team. Those freshmen are now down on JV. … That’s kind of the idea. You get kids, we’re doing the best we can to treat them the right way. And really for us, with me being competitive, we have a standard here. I think if you have the standard and you’re fair. Couple times when kids and I have hard conversations the one thing I’ll ask is it fair. If it’s fair I think they can understand even if there’s not an agreement they understand where you’re coming from. Treat them like that and you get kids out.”
Also, coaches from other sports encouraged their athletes to give volleyball a try.
“Between the commitment of putting some energy in the program and starting the kids early (at modified), it’s all starting to come together,” said Matt Librock, EA’s athletic director. “A lot of credit does go to coach Lombardo. He spent a lot of time working with the kids in the offseason.
“He’s found a niche of bringing high energy with high expectations and infused discipline in the program. He’s able to put a lot on the kids and demand a lot but also build up their confidence. The kids understand he cares about their development.”
Lombardo still had to prove to one member of the team that things would be different under his watch. Henry McLaughlin was set to quit prior to his junior year because he didn’t have much fun playing for the team that lacked chemistry and unity. Lombardo reached out to McLaughlin and explained how things would be different, convincing him to be part of the group that brought change to the program.
“I feel like his competitive spirit has rubbed off on the rest of us and we want to be that good team, a team that turns heads that people are afraid of seeing on the court,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like this year with the seniors this year we’re focused on making sure everyone feels like they’re part of a team and combining that with trying to do well.”
The Devils posted a 7-11 mark last year after going 0-12 in ECIC III the previous year. Thus far they’re off to a 0-2 start following a five-set loss at Iroquois, but have stepped up their game. For the first time in a while, EA participated in the prestigious Eden Can-Am Tournament against some of the top programs inside and outside of Western New York. The Blue Devils scrimmaged Canisius and will participate in another tourney later this year.
The goal is to finish third in the division and earn the right to compete in a Section VI Tournament match contested on a neutral court. That means at least reaching the semifinals at Lackawanna High School.
“The progress has been really incredible,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve been running practice throughout the summer which is something we’ve never done. … We’re really trying to step up our presence on the court and as a team.”
Lombardo also took care of another curiosity last year, when he served as an assistant coach at University at Buffalo for track and field. He was hired after volleyball season, so since he wasn’t coaching a high school sport when UB came with its offer last season it met NCAA Division I compliance.
Lombardo enjoyed the college-coaching experience and said he was offered the opportunity to stay. However, that would have forced him to give up his high school coaching job.
He’s not ready to do that. That’s because he wants to finish what he started at East Aurora.