Before the current high school boys’ volleyball season began, Belleville High School head coach John Spina had an idea that it was going to be a year to remember for his Buccaneers.
“The expectations were real high,” said Spina, a Belleville grad who took over the program three years ago. “A lot of our guys competed in the off-season. They went to camps over the summer, including one at St. Joseph’s of Metuchen. Four of our key contributors continued to play volleyball all year, playing club volleyball. That makes a world of difference when you play against that competition.”
The constant competition helped the returning Buccaneers tremendously.
“They started to hit the ball with such power,” Spina said. “They picked up that mental edge. They realized they didn’t have to destroy every ball to get a kill. Their passing technique was better. They also came out of the summer with a better attitude. I knew that was going to be hard to knock us off.”
So Spina set the goals high – enabling the Buccaneers to think of higher achievements than the program ever reached before.
“Our No. 1 goal was to make our presence known every match,” Spina said. “Then we wanted to win the Essex County Tournament championship.”
Belleville had never captured the ECT crown before. The Buccaneers lost in the finals in each of the last four years. Spina wanted to make sure that this was the year that they went over the top.
“We wanted it bad,” Spina said. “We had a more mature team. I think last year, we were focused on what the other team was doing. This year, we needed to focus on ourselves. We had players who led by example by going hard after the ball. We were not focused on everyone else. We were focused on ourselves. We saw tremendous results.”
The Buccaneers had a phenomenal season before last week, losing only once to Fair Lawn. However, Spina could sense something different with his team.
“I could see that they were becoming a little complacent,” Spina said. “We beat Montclair, a tough team, in the opening round of the tournament (the ECT), then had a tough time with North 13th Street Tech (of Newark), but I knew that was going to be a war.”
Spina then had regular season matches against county rival Livingston and state-ranked power St. Peter’s Prep of Jersey City.
“We went into Livingston and played our worst game of the season,” Spina said. “The second set, we got demolished, 25-13, and lost the third set, 25- 17. I started to question myself, like, ‘Did I overwork them?’ I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was almost like they flicked a switch. They got angry. It was the get angry switch.”
So when the Buccaneers went to face Livingston once again, this time in the ECT championship game, a match that they had lost for the four previous years, they were more than ready.
“We let Livingston see something they never saw before,” Spina said. “We had flawless execution of our game plan. Even though we lost to them during the week, we were not going to lose this time.”
The Buccaneers took command early in the match and won the championship in straight sets, winning 25-18 and 25-20, to win the tournament title for the first time in school history.
According to local sportswriter Mike Lamberti, the victory was Belleville’s first Essex County championship since the bowling team won in 2006. Before that, it was the wrestling team that won the county title in 1995, a wrestling team that ironically featured Spina as a team member.
When the Bucs finally won the ECT title Saturday, there was a sense of relief.
“We finally did it,” Spina said. “It was phenomenal. I wore a smile from ear to ear. It’s a great group of kids. I guess it’s really indescribable.”
Belleville became only the third school to ever win an Essex County Tournament title, with Livingston and Bloomfield being the others.
Leading the way for the Bucs is senior outside hitter P.J. Gencarelli, who Spina believes is one of the top players in the state.
“He’s our captain and leader,” Spina said. “He plays every element of the game flawlessly. He kills the ball from everywhere on the floor. He hits the ball hard and he hits the ball smart.”
Gencarelli is going to Stevens Tech to play volleyball in the fall.
Like Gencarelli, senior Marlon Rodriguez is a standout soccer player as well. Rodriguez is a key contributor to the Bucs’ county champion.
“He’s healthy now,” Spina said. “Last year, he was battling injuries, but this year, he’s healthy and he’s matured so much. He’s developed into a player. He’s a great server and that means a lot.”
But Rodriguez is headed to Drew to play soccer.
Senior setter Ammar Rahim is another major player. He’s headed to Rutgers-Newark to play volleyball.
“He understands what we need to run,” Spina said. “He’s like the quarterback to our team. I think having that responsibility has helped his confidence.”
Senior Kevin Vicente is the team’s libero.
“When he has his ‘A’ game, there is not a better libero around,” Spina said. “He plays great and his serving is phenomenal.”
Senior Edward Edghill is a four-year varsity player for the Buccaneers.
“He’s very versatile,” Spina said of the middle hitter. “He can hit the ball from all over. He’s definitely our ‘X’ factor by the way he just blisters the ball.”
Senior Joseph Almasri just joined the program this year.
“I saw his height in the hallway and knew we needed to have him,” Spina said of the 6-foot-6 middle hitter. “He never played the sport before, but I could tell he could do something.”
Senior Douglas Fonseca is the team’s right side hitter.
“He picked up his game a lot this year,” Spina said. “He was a part-time player in the past and elevated into a starting role.”
Sophomore Fidel Barazza is the team’s “lightning bolt,” according to Spina.
“He’s fearless and fast,” Spina said. “He’s been starting for us since Day One. I’m going to build around him for the future.”
Seniors Lukas Luna, Jeffer Rubio and Chris Matos are all quality hitters and sophomore Alcides Dos Reis, a standout basketball player, makes his presence felt when he’s called upon.
The Buccaneers are not settling for simply being a county champion with a 21-2 record.
“We definitely hope to win the league (the Super Essex Conference-American Division), then head into the (NJSIAA) state tournament,” Spina said.
The Buccaneers have also been aided by the diligence of assistant coach Ryan Sheridan.
“He does all the hard work with the kids,” Spina said. “I don’t know where I’d be without him.”
For now, Spina will enjoy the county title.
“I don’t know if I’ll get another group like this group,” Spina said. “They really are special.”
Not only are they special, but they are also county champions.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”