Blue Tide hope to remain with state’s elite volleyball teams

Over the last three years, the Harrison High School boys’ volleyball team has enjoyed incredible success.

The Blue Tide has captured the last two Hudson County Tournament championships. They have won two straight NJSIAA state sectional titles to advance to the state’s Final Four.

Last year, the Blue Tide won an unconscionable 37 matches while losing only five. The fifth loss came in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions finale to Southern Regional, who also defeated the Blue Tide in the regular season after Harrison had won the first of three matches between the two state powers.

Needless to say, volleyball had become a major sport in Harrison over the last few years.

Veteran coach Nick Landy wants to see if the Blue Tide can maintain those winning ways.

“It’s going to be tough, because we lost so much to graduation,” said Landy, who lost do-everything All-State performer Piotr Namiotko and standout setter Jimmy Vega. “We knew last year was a dream season for us. But we wanted to maintain our winning tradition. I just don’t know if we’ll see that anytime soon.”

It’s going to be hard without Namiotko, who is now playing at NJIT. Namiotko ended his Harrison career with more than 1,000 kills, one of just 20 players in New Jersey volleyball history to reach the historic plateau.

Vega, now at New Jersey City University, was the inspirational leader of the Blue Tide. It’s extremely difficult to replace players of that caliber. The Blue Tide graduated four key seniors in all.

“It’s always our goal to be as competitive as we can be,” said Landy. “But now, we have the targets on our backs. Everyone wants to come and get us. We have to be ready to climb back into the driver’s seat. We want to have the same kind of success we had.”

Already, the Blue Tide has had to handle adversity.

Last Saturday, the Blue Tide was eliminated in the semifinals of the Passaic Valley tournament. A week prior, there were more obstacles, as Harrison lost three times in one day to St. Joseph (Metuchen), Hillsborough and Old Bridge.

“It was the darkest day we’ve had in a very long time,” Landy said.

Landy tried to put a finger on the reason why his team has sputtered out to a 3-3 record thus far. Five years ago, a 3-3 mark would have been reason to rejoice, but now, the Blue Tide has become victims of their own success.

“I think a lot of it is inexperience,” Landy said. “We only have three guys back from last year. The rest of the team is all new. So we have to find our way. I still think that when we get together and gel together as a team, we’re going to be fine. We just got really comfortable the last couple of years.”

The job of the coach is to instill that winning feeling in his young team.

“We have to convince the kids that they can still play that way,” Landy said. “Coming from the JV (junior varsity) level to varsity is so different. The speed of the game is so different for them. Everything is so much faster.”

And there’s another glaring weakness.

“We don’t have Piotr anymore,” Landy said. “We’ll never have another like him.”

Landy has hope for his team.

“I think they’re skilled,” Landy said. “I think they just need to get the confidence in themselves. If they can get that and eliminate the mistakes they keep making, then we will be fine. I don’t want anyone to think it’s a rebuilding year. We just haven’t been playing up to par so far.”

Leading the way is senior captain Wilton Negrin, who is the team’s outside hitter.

“He’s improved a lot,” Landy said. “He’s our fire starter. He gets people riled up and gets the team going. He has a lot of energy. He’s really improved in his hitting and defense.”

Senior Maciej Gaus is another outside hitter and returning starter. Gaus was the standout goalkeeper for the Blue Tide’s famed soccer program.

“He has the experience playing some big-time volleyball,” Landy said. “He’s been playing varsity since he was a sophomore. He’s one of our best players when he wants to play.”
Senior Michal Niczewski is the team’s middle hitter.

“He’s a powerful hitter, almost in line with Piotr,” Landy said. “He’s a key player for us. If he gets a good set, he crushes the ball. He’s an aggressive player.”
Senior Chris Crespo is the team’s setter.

“He’s not a bad setter,” Landy said. “It’s just that we had Jimmy (Vega) for so long. Chris just needs to get experience. He’s coming along pretty well. He’s also not a bad server. He also helps with the blocks at the net. You wouldn’t think he could, because he’s only about 5-foot-4, but he has a good vertical (leap).”

Senior Daniel Cortes is an opposite hitter.

“He’s the new kid on the block,” Landy said. “He never played before. He’s still learning.”

Sophomore Kevin Molina is a middle hitter with good size at 6-foot-1.

“He can get up on the ball,” Landy said. “He’s a good server who also just needs experience.”

The libero is sophomore Tristan Crespo, who is not related to teammate Chris.

“He’s been getting better and better,” Landy said. “We put him in a tough position and he’s handled it. No way did we think he would be a varsity player already. But he’s improved so much and been such a big help.”

Senior Jorge Penaherrera is the team’s resident defensive specialist.

“He’s been a good player for us,” Landy said. “He’s very unselfish. He’s also a good server.”

The Blue Tide will continue to be a force locally. They will shoot for a “three-peat” in the Hudson County tourney, although St. Peter’s Prep, state-ranked in the early going of the season, could become the favorite as the season moves on.

The Blue Tide might get an early crack at the Marauders next week when they both travel to the Rhody Invitational in Rhode Island.

“Right now, we’re not worried about our record,” Landy said. “We just want to play at the same skill level that we had in the past. If we can get used to that skill level and get ready for the county and state tournament, we’ll be fine.”

Landy likes going to the Rhode Island tourney.

“It helps our kids bond a little,” Landy said. “It did last year.”

Maybe the bonding is what the doctor ordered for the Blue Tide this time around as well.


The Harrison High School boys’ volleyball team, shown here in a team picture, will travel to Rhode Island this week to participate in the Rhody Invitational with some of the other best volleyball programs on the East Coast. Photo courtesy of Anthony Sabia

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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.”