The truth be told, the Harrison High School boys’ volleyball season was not supposed to carry into June.
There was no way, no how.
Oh, sure, the Blue Tide had an incredible run the last three seasons, winning 30 matches in each of the last three years, taking home two NJSIAA state sectional championships and one very memorable berth in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title match.
But that was then. This is now.
Piotr Namiotko, the best volleyball player in Harrison history, had graduated and moved on to play for the New Jersey Institute of Technology in nearby Newark. Jimmy Vega, a 1,000-point setter, graduated and is playing at New Jersey City University.
In all, the Blue Tide lost four players from the team that went 37-5 a year ago. In volleyball, that’s a lot.
In the early portion of the season, it showed. The Blue Tide struggled. They lost more matches in the first weekend of the campaign than they did all of last season.
“We had young kids,” Harrison head coach Nick Landy said. “We had inexperienced players. We didn’t have a big start. We had only a couple of kids who played a lot last year. We weren’t as terrible as our record showed. But the young kids were inexperienced and you can’t teach experience. They had a little nervousness to them and that was different.”
Landy made some changes in the lineup and where the Blue Tide would position themselves.
“The kids were pretty skilled already,” Landy said. “We just had to build them all a little together. I knew it was already going to be adifferent season. But if we wanted to maintain our tradition, then we had to gain some respect.”
The Blue Tide then moved forward with five players who never played varsity volleyball prior to this season.
“As we continued to play, they overcame that inexperience,” Landy said.
The Blue Tide were under .500 for most of the regular season, but then needed a major push at the season’s end just to qualify for the state playoffs.
Finally, the Blue Tide won three NJSIAA state playoff matches against McNair Academic, neighboring rival Kearny (for the third time this season) and finally state-ranked St. Peter’s Prep, the Hudson County Tournament champions who had defeated the Blue Tide, 27-25 and 25-12 in the tourney finale just 11 days prior.
The Blue Tide was able to reverse the prior decision, winning this time by scores of 30-28 and 25-23.
“We were a different team this time,” Landy said. “We were a little more excited. We were familiar with Prep.”
Landy said that he prepared his team for facing the Marauders with some piped in crowd noise and music.
“We practiced with the same noise that we would hear at Prep,” Landy said. “It got us ready. We needed a little something.”
The Blue Tide received an emotional lift when Chris Crespo, all 5-foot-6 of a setter, got off the ground to record a block against Prep’s 6-foot-7 standout Parker Omslaer.
“That was a big play,” Landy said.
The Blue Tide also got a kick start from Michal Niczewski, who had a team-high six blocks.
“It was one good play after another,” Landy said.
So here were the upstart Blue Tide, the team that wasn’t supposed to be there, now getting a chance to play for the state sectional title against Ridge.
“We were in the match,” Landy said. “After we won the first set (25-22), I told the team that we could beat these guys. But I think they got a little nervous and went downhill a little.”
The Blue Tide dropped the last two sets, 28-26 and 25-16, to Ridge, the No. 4-ranked team in the entire state.
Suddenly, the Blue Tide’s Cinderella run toward an improbable state sectional championship, a third straight state sectional crown, just wasn’t meant to be.
“I thought that if we made fewer mistakes, we had a shot,” Landy said. “I needed them to believe it, too. It was a mental game. They made fewer mistakes. We had a little trouble blocking. We were going back and forth in a see-saw battle and just lost at the end. They rose to the occasion.”
At that point, Landy thought of his three seniors _ Wilton Negron, Maciej (Mack) Gaus and Michal Niczewski.
“They were part of three state sectional championship games,” Landy said. “That’s some experience. We had five losses in April and came all the way back. We came a long way. We have a young team with 15 freshmen with us. We’re already building on next season. We have to maintain our tradition.”
Think back five years, even three. Did anyone ever guess that there would be a local boys’ volleyball team _ no, scratch that _ a Harrison boys’ volleyball team actually talking like a dynasty? It’s downright mindboggling, but also so very true.