By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
John Spina had no idea what to expect from the Belleville High School boys’ volleyball team this season.
After all, Spina, a proud alumnus of the school (Class of 1995), was just appointed as the boys’ head coach, adding to the responsibilities he already owned as the girls’ head volleyball coach at the school.
Plus, the Buccaneers graduated seven players from last year’s 20-win team that went to the Essex County Tournament finals and the NJSIAA North 1 sectional semifinals and was ranked for most of the season among the very best teams in the state.
“We had only one starter back from last year,” Spina said. “The entire team was made up of sophomores and two juniors, many of whom never played varsity volleyball before.”
But Spina had faith that the Buccaneers could develop into something special.
“I always have a lot of faith, regardless of what other people say,” Spina said. “I knew we could be competitive. I knew we had good athletes.”
The Buccaneers didn’t exactly set the world on fire when the season began.
“We had a bit of a learning process in the beginning,” Spina said. “It was a learning process for me as well, because I never coached boys before. It was a faster paced game. But I knew once this team jelled, they could be difficult to beat, because of the young guys showing superior athleticism. I never coached a team with this team’s athleticism. It’s a phenomenal group.”
Spina believes that the current team learned a lot by watching last year’s successful team perform.
“They got to play with last year’s team and learned from them,” Spina said. “I think they benefitted from that team. When I came in this year, I felt like this team was trying to challenge last year’s team. I also sensed that they responded to me, they listened to me. They were very coachable kids. They trust me. When I look to my setter and tell him to do something, he’ll do it. It means a lot to have that kind of trust.”
Spina said that the Buccaneers’ desire to be coached has helped the transition process.
“Once they started to understand what they were going up against, in terms of opponents and in terms of the overall challenge of the sport, they were able to handle everything.”
Sure enough, it appears as if the Bucs have not missed a beat since last season. They currently own an 11-4 seasonal record and after defeating neighboring rival Bloomfield in a brutally close match, in straight games 25-22 and 26-24, the Buccaneers have advanced once again to the Essex County Tournament finals.
Belleville will face defending champion Livingston in the title match Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Livingston.
In defeating Bloomfield, the Bucs were able to avenge a defeat suffered two weeks ago. And they managed to come back from being down, 24-21, in the last game, scoring the last five points to seal the victory.
“It said a lot to me, the way they were able to come back,” said Spina, who was a varsity wrestler at Belleville during his high school days, helping the Bucs win county, district and state sectional titles his senior year.
Leading the way for the Bucs this year is sophomore outside hitter P.J. Gencarelli. The powerful Gencarelli, who had a solid soccer season for the Bucs in the fall, is among New Jersey’s leaders in kills.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Spina said of Gencarelli. “He plays in the full rotation for us. He’s extremely versatile. He does everything for us.”
Another sophomore outside hitter (and fellow soccer standout) is Marlon Rodriguez.
“He can hit as well as anyone,” Spina said. “He can swing in from outside hitter and he also excels at the service line. His serve is ridiculous.”
Junior Stafon Kellam is one of the team’s middle hitters. Kellam sat out the semifinal victory over Bloomfield with an injured foot, but should be ready for the ECT finale Saturday.
“He should be ready to go,” Spina said of Kellam, who ranks third on the team in kills and second in blocks.
Junior Edward Peralta is another middle hitter. Peralta leads the Bucs in blocks.
“He’s among the top serving leaders as well,” Spina said.
Ammar Rahim is the team’s sophomore setter.
“He’s taken the reins and controls the offense,” Spina said. “He has more than 350 assists this season, which is among the top 10 in the state. He’s improved his game a lot since the beginning of the year.”
Senior Carl Laroco is the team’s libero and the lone returning starter from a year ago.
Sophomore Edward Edghill is an opposite hitter who is solid defensively. Sophomore Kevin Vicente is the Bucs’ hustle player.
“We started Kevin in the Livingston Tournament and you could see he brings a spark to the rotation,” Spina said. “He dove for a loose ball and ended up landing on a pile of folding chairs, but still was able to make a play. He sacrifices himself for the good of the team.” Spina has tried to relate the feelings he had as a championship wrestler to this team.
“We won every title that year and it’s hard finding anything to replace that feeling,” Spina said. “We were going up against great teams and winning. We’re doing the same thing now. It’s been a great ride. I told them that they have to appreciate it while it lasts, because you never know when you’ll get it back.
Added Spina, “We’re showing people that Belleville can come back and prove we’re not done, that we have winning programs. It’s a nice feeling. They know that they can never give up and if they do that, at least they have a fighter’s chance.”
Spina has already told his team that they can’t settle for being a county finalist again.
“They can’t just be happy being in the finals,” Spina said. “We’re in the county finals once again and I’m so happy we’ve done that. But we have to find a way to win it, to prove we’re not a fluke, to prove that we can win it all. We’re going to give it our all and give our best. Anything can happen.”
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, this has been a rewarding season for Spina and the Buccaneers.
“It’s a great feeling,” Spina said. “And there’s no greater feeling than after you win.”
Maybe the young Bucs will realize that euphoria come Saturday night.