By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When John Spina took over coaching the girls’ volleyball team at his high school alma mater Belleville three years ago, the program was in disarray.
“They were 0-17 the year before I took over,” Spina said. “I just tried to implement competition.”
The first year with Spina as a head coach, the Buccaneers showed a slight improvement.
“We won three games,” Spina said. “It wasn’t really frustrating, because I knew what I wanted to do.”
A year ago, the Buccaneers were headed down the wrong road, losing nine of their first 11 matches.
“But then the momentum turned in our favor,” Spina said. “We were improving. We started to beat the teams that were beating us.”
The Bucs ended the season with a 14-12 record. It meant that volleyball could be a viable sport in Belleville.
“We got girls who wanted to play volleyball all the time,” Spina said. “We had six girls playing club volleyball and another three who played during the winter. We created an atmosphere where the expectations were higher.”
So when the 2013 season began, Spina truly believed that his program was poised to take the next step.
“We didn’t want to shy away from competition,” Spina said. “We wanted to create some pressure to perform. They hated it at first, but once we started to breed competition in practice, it gave us the edge that we needed. We were going to be less likely to crumble and fold. We had a lot of good players who could play a lot of positions, a lot of depth.”
Spina said that the Buccaneers prepared for the coming season with a lot of diligence in the offseason.
“It’s a credit to the girls, who put in the hard work during the summer,” Spina said. “If they didn’t, they would have been just an average volleyball team. The hard work is paying off.”
The Buccaneers are currently enjoying a sensational season, one of the best in the school’s history. They have a 19-2 record, suffering losses only to Nutley in the early portion of the season and Livingston in the third round of the Essex County Tournament, and they currently are on the threshold of capturing the Super Essex Conference- Colonial Division crown.
Spina believes that the loss to Nutley early on was a turning point.
“It was the second game of the season,” said Spina, who also coaches the Belleville boys’ volleyball team in the spring. “We lost to Nutley last year, 25-1. I never lost a game like that before. We were competitive this time. I emphasized to them that they just had to chalk that one game up, because they totally wiped us off the floor last year and now we showed so much improvement. We bounced back and won 10 straight.”
The Buccaneers defeated Weequahic and Newark Academy in the Essex County Tournament before falling to perennial power Livingston in the quarterfinals.
There’s one trait about the Buccaneers that stands out. Spina does not just use seven players like most teams. There are at least 12 players who get regular time in the Belleville rotation.
“This is a team built to work this way,” Spina said. “Instead of just having seven, we have the ability to take players out and keep their legs fresh. They’re used to the fact that they’re all sharing their positions. It’s just another weapon we have. It’s the most depth we’ve ever had.”
Leading the way is senior middle hitter Shatia Silas. The 6-foot-2 Silas is an imposing presence at the net and has collected 28 blocks, 121 kills and 31 service aces.
“Anything that the other team does close to the net, she can put it back,” Spina said. “If they make a mistake, she’s going to block it. Having that much of a presence changes things. We’re able to build our game around her.”
Junior Abigail Ocaya is the other Buccaneer middle hitter. Ocaya has 57 kills and 14 blocks, including eight kills and three blocks in a recent win over Hackensack.
“This is only her second year of volleyball, but she’s already a good presence at the net,” Spina said. “She’s getting much better as the season progresses. We’re getting what we need from her.”
Sophomore Breana Nieves is a first-year member of the varsity at outside hitter.
“She’s very versatile in every aspect of the game,” Spina said of Nieves. “She can serve, pass and hit. She can also play defense.”
Nieves fills out a stat sheet. She has 58 kills, 40 digs, 83 service points and 20 service aces.
Senior Kayla Sica is the Buccaneers’ jack-of-all-trades.
“We use her in a lot of crazy roles,” Spina said. “Last year, she started at middle hitter, but we moved her to opposite hitter, where she can hit better. She also didn’t complain about being moved around. She’ll go anywhere she’s needed.”
Sica has 49 kills, 11 blocks, 34 digs, 59 service points and 11 service aces.
One setter is senior Jenna Lombardi, who transferred to Belleville last year, but she failed to join the volleyball team.
“I was concerned how she would fit in,” Spina said of Lombardi, who was the pitcher on the Buccaneers’ softball team last spring. “But she leads the team in service points.”
Lombardi has 149 service points, 56 of which have gone for aces, to go along with her 152 assists.
Another setter is sophomore Andrea Nguyen, another newcomer to the Buccaneers’ varsity. Nguyen has 87 assists.
“She’s progressing well,” Spina said of Nguyen. “I like the way the ball comes off her hands. She brings a lot of athleticism to the team.”
The team’s libero is junior Barbara Jacangelo, who has been “awesome,” according to Spina. Jacangelo has 183 digs, 119 service points and 45 aces.
In part of the Bucs’ rotation is senior Chloe Mecka, who spends most of her time at opposite hitter.
“She’s second on the team in blocks and makes a lot of noise at the net,” Spina said. “She does everything for us. She has great hands and she’s very versatile. She’s one of the best athletes on the team.”
Junior Gabriella Tabago is the team’s defensive specialist. She has contributed 72 digs, 28 kills and 38 service points. Sophomore Kristan Lombardi, Jenna’s younger sister, has contributed 101 digs from the back row.
Notice the statistical contributions of the reserves. That is uncommon for most volleyball teams.
Senior Fiorelys Perez is one of the team’s captains and she is the team’s service specialist, collecting 48 service points, 21 for aces. Senior Dashel Arizmendi is another key server and opposite hitter. Kirsten De La Cruz is another defensive specialist.
Needless to say, it’s been a fun season for the Buccaneers.
“I used to talk to my old wrestling coach Joe Nisivoccia (who recently retired as the Belleville wrestling coach) and he would tell me when you have a great season, you should enjoy it while you have it,” Spina said. “I’m happy for the kids, because they can walk around the halls of the school with pride. They have a feeling that they’re special and they are. They should be proud. They’re champions.”