By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
There was a time when North Arlington High School had a perennial power in girls’ volleyball.
Led by Hall of Fame head coach Don Cooper, the Vikings were one of the premier programs in northern New Jersey, culminated with the 2004 NJSIAA Group I state championship.
However, in recent years, the Vikings had fallen on somewhat of tough times. Head coach Bernadette Afonso had been working diligently to get the program back on the right track.
“Even with the tradition we had here, I knew it was going to take a couple of years,” said Afonso, currently in her sixth season as the head coach. “It’s tough filling the shoes of someone like Don Cooper. We did have some frustrating moments.”
But Afonso saw some light at the end of the tunnel last year, when the Vikings flirted with a .500 record and ended with a 14-15 mark.
“We started to play real well together last year,” Afonso said. “We have a good group of coachable young ladies.”
Now having a senior dominated roster, the Vikings knew that this was their last chance to make a mark.
“We feel like we put so much work into it for the past four years,” said senior outside hitter Leandra Acosta. “We knew we could have a good team this year. We had the potential to do some great things.”
“We haven’t had the best of times over the last four years,” said senior Lisbeth Infante. “This year, we’re trying to make up for it.”
The Vikings have exploded out of the gate in 2014, winning seven of their first nine matches.
“We’re like a family,” said senior middle hitter Elizabeth Danco. “We’re all on the same page.”
Afonso likes the way her team has jelled at the right time.
“We’re playing with consistency and confidence,” Afonso said. “And we’re sticking to that. We’re going to see what we can do from here on. Our seniors have really come together and we’re moving in the direction to where we want to be. Their commitment has been excellent. I’m not surprised with the way we’ve started. They’ve been with me for four years and I’ve watched them develop. It’s all coming into place at the right time.”
Afonso likes the Vikings’ attention to detail.
“They’re all students of the game now,” Afonso said. “They realize what they have to do. They play relaxed and play together and that’s the key.”
In a sport like volleyball, where each player has to rely on her teammates, togetherness is essential.
“They do have great chemistry together,” Afonso said. “Chemistry is 99 percent of this game. We had teams in the past that had equal or better skill, but they didn’t play together like this group.”
Senior setter Alexis Rosko took the time in the offseason to play club volleyball to get better.
“It’s a tough job being the setter,” Afonso said. “It’s a trying position to play. But she grew to love the position.”
Former Viking great Ashley Marrero, who played on the 2004 state championship squad, came in to help Rosko transition into becoming a solid setter.
“I learned a lot from her,” Rosko said. “I think because we weren’t expected to do anything, to be where we are, it makes it all more rewarding.”
“The more success she had at the position, the better we became,” Afonso said. “The setter runs everything. Her play is very important.”
Danco has been solid at the net, collecting 10 kills and six service aces per game.
“She’s a very versatile and smart player,” Afonso said of Danco.
Junior Melanie Goffredo is another solid player at the net.
“She’s our most improved player from last year,” Afonso said of Goffredo, who is collecting six kills per game and also has excellent passing skills.
Junior Brianna Wilson is the Vikings’ other player at the net.
“Her skills are improving,” Afonso said. “She’s the first server of the match, so she gets us going. She’s also our most consistent server.”
Acosta has developed into a fine hitter.
“Her skills are improving with every game,” Afonso said. “She’s not the tallest girl in the world, but she’s not afraid to block on the outside. She’s quick at the net and she’s not intimidated at all.”
“I see the banner and the stuff from the 2004 state championship team all the time,” Acosta said. “I say that we can do it as well. It’s definitely a great motivation, because we want to be state champs.”
Infante has also improved tremendously.
“Her confidence level is where it needs to be,” Afonso said. “I’m looking forward to watching her keep improving.”
“This is definitely a reward for our hard work,” Infante said. “Everything is going well this year.”
The Vikings have been getting contributions off the bench from junior setter Yohanna Gonzalez, junior back row player Alyssa Romano and junior setter Tizana Cristiano.
Needless to say, volleyball is a lot more pertinent and exciting this fall in North Arlington.
“It’s been a blast,” Afonso said. “I’m so happy for the girls. When you have chemistry like this, you find success. These girls were able to stick it out, work hard and now we see the results.”
The results are a winning volleyball team in North Arlington – once again.