By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After seeing most of the 2012 version of Belleville High School boys’ volleyball team move on to graduation, first year head coach John Spina had no idea what to expect of the team in 2013.
“My main goal was to have them become competitive,” Spina said. “I coached these kids when they were younger, so I knew they could learn quickly. But they responded better than I could have imagined.”
In fact, the Buccaneers were a major surprise, posting a 17-8 record, advancing to the finals of the Essex County Tournament and through two rounds of the NJSIAA state tourney.
“Words can’t really explain the sense of pride I have for these kids,” Spina said. “They were great. They exceeded all expectations. They took us on a ride that was so totally unexpected.”
Spina said that he has learned quickly to appreciate the good that a team can give.
“You have to cherish these moments, because you never know how many other times you’ll get like it,” Spina said. “They were such a coachable group of kids.”
Spina said that only Carl Laroco, the team’s libero, was a returning starter from 2012. Sophomore Marlon Rodriguez did see some action at the end of his freshman year, but that was it. The remainder of the Buccaneers’ roster was filled with newcomers.
“We were in such a tough division that I would have been happy if we got close to .500,” Spina said. “But we went like 7-3 to start the season before facing (eventual league and county champion) Livington. We came together that day, because we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. We played well against Livingston. It wasn’t a complete shellacking. The second set, we were up, 21-20 and lost 25-21. That proved we belonged. Right after that match, I knew we could compete.”
Spina said that the Buccaneers went to the finals of the Union City tournament, before losing to Kearny.
“We were down to Kearny, but kept storming back,” Spina said. “That showed me a lot about the team’s character. We then starting beating teams, like Montclair, West Essex and Bloomfield, that were good teams. We beat Montclair pretty easily.”
The Buccaneers advanced all the way to the Essex County Tournament finals before falling to Livingston.
In the state tournament, the Buccaneers defeated Pope John of Sparta in the first round.
“They were a scrappy, tough team,” Spina said. “We were behind by seven points in the first game, then relaxed and came back and won. We overcame the young team jitters and nerves.”
In the second round, the Buccaneers faced Passaic County Tournament champion Wayne Valley and emerged victorious once again.
“We got down to the third set and won 26-24,” Spina said. “It was a great match.”
In the third round, the Buccaneers had to travel all the way to face Vernon in Sussex County.
“We were on the bus for a long time,” Spina said. “We just didn’t do well and got beat pretty good. They played much better than we did.
They didn’t make mistakes like we did.” Of the team’s eight losses, three were to Livingston, two to Bloomfield, two to Vernon and one to Harrison.
“Looking back, our eight losses were all against good teams,” Spina said.
The good news for the Buccaneers is that almost their entire starting lineup returns next year. Laroco was the lone starting senior.
“Of course, they were able to make a name for themselves this year,” Spina said. “What more could they possibly do? But next year, they’re now on everyone’s radar. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that everyone will be scared of us, but the bad thing is that everyone will be gunning for us.”
So Spina sent his team off into the offseason with a mission.
“I think they have to come back next year and take it to the next level,” Spina said. “It’s one thing to go to the finals, but there was a common theme. We lost. We couldn’t seal the deal. Next year has to be the year we win. We have a good group coming back. We can’t miss a beat. Everyone will be gunning for us. We have to do a little better.”
Spina said that 10 of his players are going to volleyball camp together and many will play club volleyball over the summer.
“If we do all the stuff we’re supposed to do in the offseason, then next year will be our year,” Spina said. “We’re going to make a step up next year if they work hard.”
The plans are already in place