By Jim Hague
When the high school boys’ volleyball season began three months ago, Kearny head coach Bill Mullins didn’t know what to expect.
After all, Mullins had only one starter returning from a team that posted a 10-13 record the prior year. The Kardinals were basically putting an entirely new team on the floor.
“We knew that we had some nice players, but we didn’t know how well we would do,” said Mullins, the long-time Kearny basketball coach who entered his second season as the boys’ volleyball coach in April. “We didn’t know who was going to be out there. We had a young team with kids battling for positions.”
The lone returning starter was senior setter Kevin Ortiz. It looked like a team in total flux.
“We tried to set some goals,” Mullins said. “We tried to use making the state playoffs as a goal. But we had to take each point, each game at a time.”
Mullins was definitely encouraged, because he had a dedicated bunch of volleyball players.
“They definitely were working hard and wanted to get better,” Mullins said. “They also had a very good attitude. They worked together and listened.”
Because he didn’t know exactly what his team was made of, Mullins tried a different approach.
“I wanted them to play aggressive,” Mullins said. “I wanted them to jump and hit the ball with power every single time. It was a big emphasis. I challenged them to hit with power and become more of an aggressive power team.”
It was an approach that the Kardinals bought into.
“It was a big responsibility, because we were playing some good teams,” said senior outside hitter Albert Jimenez, who had quality playing time last year as a reserve. “We had an inexperienced team and everyone didn’t think we’d do well. But we pulled together.”
At one point of the season, prospects looked pretty grim. The Kardinals had lost six straight matches to drop to 6-11 overall.
“We lost to Bayonne, which ended up being a Final Four team in the state,” Mullins said. “But we needed to battle back to get to .500 and qualify for the states.”
A big turning point took place in early May, when the Kardinals went to the Hackensack Comet Invitational tournament, an eight-team volleyball smorgasbord with some of the toughest teams in northern New Jersey.
“I thought a little about changing the lineup of the team or moving them around a little, to change things up,” Mullins said. “Then, right before the Hackensack tournament, I decided to stick with it. I had a little bit of faith in them and they did tremendously.”
The Kardinals defeated Bergenfield, Jefferson and host Hackensack, then knocked off Garfield in the semifinals, a team that had defeated the Kardinals in the regular season.
“That was a good sign for me that we turned things around,” Mullins said.
The Kardinals did lose to neighboring rival Harrison in the championship round, but it was definitely a turning point in the season.
“To get to the finals really changed us,” Mullins said. “It gave the team some encouragement that we could win. We just had to stick to what we were doing and continue to get better.”
The Kardinals managed to win seven of their final nine matches to reach the .500 mark and qualify for the NJSIAA state tournament. They lost in the first round to perennial state power St. Peter’s Prep, but they did manage to finish with a 14-14 record and a berth in the NJSIAA state tourney for only the second time in the program’s seven-year history.
“We had that pressure the whole year to make the state tournament and we did it,” Mullins said. “I’m real proud of their efforts.”
Jimenez emerged as a standout player, eventually earning All-Hudson County league honors.
“He got a lot stronger and played with a lot more power,” Mullins said of Jimenez, who is headed to Fairfield University in the fall to study engineering. “He really came a long way.”
“We never gave up and that was important,” Jimenez said. “It was amazing the way we came back and got to .500. Hackensack was definitely the wake-up call.”
Ortiz remained solid as the setter, but midway through the season, he suffered a broken thumb, so junior Thiago de Carvalho had to step in and serve as the setter.
“It’s basically like losing your quarterback in football, but Thiago did well in the last eight games and we went 6-2 with him as our setter,” Mullins said.
Junior Jonathan Horvaht was the team’s opposite hitter.
“He also developed into a nice player,” Mullins said.
“This was a big season,” Horvaht said. “It was only the second time we made it to the states. It was good to get this far, considering no one thought we could do it. It’s a big sense of accomplishment and gives us something to build on for next year. I never made the state tournament in anything, so it was a big step in my high school career.”
Junior John Lemos was another outside hitter who developed leaps and bounds this season.
“He’s the best jumper on the team,” Mullins said.
Senior Konrad Balakier was perhaps the team’s most versatile performer.
“He played all around the floor,” Mullins said.
Junior Kyle Seridonio was another hitter. Junior Lucio Costa was the team’s libero or defensive specialist.
Senior Anthony DeSousa was a member of the back row defense and sophomore Douglas Chemin was a good shot blocker and middle hitter.
All totaled, the Kardinals found the intestinal fortitude to recover from the tough times and reach their collective goal for only the second time in school history.
“We hit some obstacles with that losing streak, but they overcame the adversity like they did all year,” Mullins said. “They kept working hard and playing. We have some nice talent coming back, so it’s up to us to keep getting better.”