Coronavirus forces NJSIAA to move volleyball season

While the plan remains to have the fall high school athletic season to move forward as much as possible, the NJSIAA made a move last week that will affect those student/athletes who participate in indoor sports in the fall.

The NJSIAA decided to create a separate season for girls’ volleyball and gymnastics that takes the sport out of being a fall sport when school usually begins to a new campaign that will begin practices on February 16 and begin competition on March 3, running to the end of April.

While moving the gymnastics season doesn’t have an impact on the local student/athletes, shifting the girls’ volleyball season from September to February certainly impacts the locals who participate in volleyball.

All of the schools in The Observer’s circulation area offer girls’ volleyball, so the NJSIAA’s move last week certainly hits home.

The local coaches have mixed emotions about volleyball becoming a sport with its own season.

“To be honest, I thought that they were going to cancel it (the season),” said North Arlington girls’ volleyball head coach Joe Cioffi, who is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Vikings. “Just postponing it is a good thing, especially for the girls and especially for the seniors. Pushing it to the spring is fine. I’m not expecting any conflicts. I don’t think the seasons will run into each other. We have a young and very talented team, so we were looking forward to the season.”

Nutley girls’ volleyball head coach Jenna Rubino has a personal reason why she has mixed emotions. You see, Rubino is pregnant with her first child, a daughter that is expected at the end of November.

“I was tentative about the season because of the baby,” said Rubino, who was a standout athlete during her days at Nutley High (known before marriage as Jenna Dwyer) and a member of the Maroon Raider Class of 2009. “I was a little hesitant. But now, I’m happy that the season is starting later. It also gives the girls an opportunity to play a little with each other.”

Rubino was looking forward to the season, because the Maroon Raiders won their Colonial divisional championship in the Super Essex Conference last season and with a veteran team, they looked to challenge in the tougher Liberty Division this year.

Lyndhurst girls’ volleyball head coach Steve Valhalla, entering his sixth season, knew that it was going to be difficult to play this season, considering all the considerations necessary to take precautions for the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously, it was going to be tough to figure it all out for volleyball,” Valhalla said. “You have two teams in the gym with coaches, trainers, scorekeepers, officials all there together in one gym. Honestly, we were trying to figure it all out.

Added Valhalla, “Sure, we’re disappointed about not playing, but it’s all about safety first.”

Valhalla said that the Golden Bears followed the proper protocol established by both the NJSIAA and the Lyndhurst Board of Education about a safe return to play.

“We just completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the plan,” Valhalla said. “I can see why they (the NJSIAA) pushed it back. We’re disappointed to not have a full season, but we’re glad that they’re not cancelling it altogether. I’m happy they didn’t cancel it.”

Valhalla is happy, especially since the Golden Bears won 15 matches last season, including a first-round win over Cedar Grove in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state tournament. The Golden Bears even hosted the match against Cedar Grove, only the second time ever that Lyndhurst hosted a state tournament match.

“We were going to be pretty good,” Valhalla said. “We had 40 girls sign up to play. We have some good returning players. We have an awesome senior class (seven in all).”

Belleville head coach John Spina is in a tough situation, because he coaches both the girls’ team in the fall and the boys’ team in the spring. In between, Spina is a youth wrestling coach for the Cedar Grove Recreation Department, where his sons participate.

“That’s the only thing that will be difficult, coaching both wrestling and volleyball at the same time,” Spina said. “I will go from one practice to the other. It might be a little strange, but I don’t anticipate it being a problem. It might have been a problem going straight from girls’ volleyball straight to boys’, because it’s a different speed and the intensity of the game is different.”

Spina said that he has “quite a few” volleyball players who also participate in a spring sport, predominately softball.

“As coaches, we have to be flexible with the kids that play those sports,” Spina said. “If someone tells me that softball or track is their key sport, I can’t be a tyrant and demand that they don’t play. There has to be a little bending. As coaches, we have to work together, but I don’t see it being a big problem.”

Rubino said that she also faces a little bit of a dilemma with the multi-sport athletes.

“Two of my starters play sports in the spring,” Rubino said. “I’m hoping that they don’t have to make a decision which sport to play. I told one girl that she has to make the decision on her own.”

Rubino said that she has a Google meet scheduled for this week to discuss what the multi-sport athletes do.

Cioffi feels the same way.

“My biggest concern in moving it to the spring is making the girls choose,” said Cioffi, who has a tough dilemma of his own, as the head outdoor track coach. “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to work together to make sure the girls don’t have to choose one sport. I’ve heard some that want to play four sports. I don’t see that even as an issue.”
Cioffi said that the North Arlington volleyball program bought an outdoor net so the volleyball teams could do something safely outdoors.

“We need them to stay as active as possible,” Cioffi said. “When February rolls around, we’ll be ready to go.”

Spina realized that the multi-sport athletes may suffer.

“That was the first thing that came to my mind,” Spina said. “We don’t want to have the girls choose one sport over another. We have a lot of softball players who play volleyball. It might be tough for them, but we have to make accommodations. I’m open to whatever it takes for the kids to enjoy the high school experience.”

Regardless of the heartaches, Spina knows one thing.

“I still think it’s the right move,” Spina said. “I still don’t think we know enough about the virus. That’s my biggest concern.”




North Arlington head coach Joe Cioffi knows that the new spring volleyball season might run into the regular spring seasons of softball and track, a sport that Cioffi coaches. Photo by Jim Hague


Belleville head coach John Spina might have a dilemma because he coaches both the Belleville boys’ volleyball team and the girls’ team. Photo by Jim Hague



Learn more about the writer ...

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.”