When Santiago Lopez arrived in North Arlington, then quickly Kearny from his native Las Palma de Gran Canaria in Spain four years ago, he didn’t know what to expect.
“I didn’t know the difference between varsity and JV (junior varsity),” Lopez said. “I didn’t understand it.”
Lopez wasn’t making friends in a hurry either.
“The first day of practice, I hit the ball really hard,” Lopez said. “And I hit the ball into a kid’s face.”
But after that practice, veteran Kearny High School volleyball coach Bill Mullins approached Lopez.
“He said, ‘Are you ready to play varsity?’” Lopez said. “I really didn’t understand it. I said, ‘Yes.’ And that’s how the whole thing got started.”
At the same time, Marcelo Garcia and Nathan Aguilar were getting introduced to varsity volleyball, Kearny style.
“We came in and didn’t know who was trying out,” Aguilar said.
“A lot of us have been together since our freshman year,” Garcia said. “We formed a really close bond. I think that’s been the key to our success.”
That closeness has carried the Kardinals a long way in 2021. A year after missing the entire season due to the coronavirus, the Kards have come back with a vengeance this season, winning 13 of 15 matches, advancing all the way to the Hudson County Tournament finals last week.
Unfortunately, the Kardinals came up a little short against rival St. Peter’s Prep in the finale, but it doesn’t diminish the incredible season that the team has enjoyed.
The Kardinals will be the top seeded team in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV tournament that will begin next week. That’s an achievement in itself.
“I hope we can get one of those banners to hang to recognize us,” said Lopez, who recently set the school record for kills in a career when he collected his 322nd kill two weeks ago. Lopez is now approaching 400 kills for his career. He could actually finish somewhere in the 500 range when he’s done.
“He’s like our power guy,” Mullins said. “He hits the ball very hard. He’s also a good server and plays good defense. He’s a strong kid who is good all around.”
One look at outside hitter Lopez and you wouldn’t think he was such a terror. He appears mild mannered with his rimmed glasses, sort of a Clark Kent type. But Lopez is headed to Kean to play college volleyball, but wants to leave Kearny with a legacy of greatness.
“As a captain, one of my goals is to see my teammates improve,” Lopez said. “I thought I was going to help them, but it’s crazy to see how well they’ve all improved. I’m really happy with what we’ve done this year. We never had the chance to win like this before. Now, people are talking about us and that makes me feel very proud. It’s motivation to play hard for my teammates.”
Lopez didn’t know how well the Kards would play this season, especially after missing out on all of 2020.
“Not having a season left us with people who had no experience this year,” Lopez said. “But after I saw the team, I knew that this team would play the best volleyball we’ve ever seen.”
Garcia is headed to New Jersey Institute of Technology to study civil engineering. He will graduate from Kearny with an astounding 4.40 grade point average, having scored well in three different advanced placement courses. He plans on trying out for the NJIT team when he arrives.
“It means a lot to us that we’re doing so well,” said Garcia, who was raised in Peru and came to Kearny in seventh grade. “I really believed in this team. I thought we could go far.”
Part of the reason why Garcia thought the Kardinals would do so well is the commitment they showed to play practice games at the volleyball courts in West Hudson Park.
“Sure, there are people, men who have more experience than us there,” Garcia said. “But it has helped me so much to go there. I think it’s helped us all a lot.”
“He can play all around,” Mullins said. “He plays defense and makes good passes.”
Nathan Aguilar is the third senior in the mix. He’s also going to Kean in the fall to study physical therapy.
“It’s crazy to think we’d be this good,” Aguilar said. “We have a lot of players who have put in the hard work, but it’s unexpected.”
“He can hit the ball very hard,” Mullins said of Aguilar. “He’s a solid blocker and a big threat.”
What makes this team special is that Mullins’ two sons are on the team. Sophomore William Mullins is playing volleyball for the very first time.
“He’s been around the gym with me, but never really came out,” Coach Mullins said. “He’s done a really good job as a strong blocker. I try to treat them like everyone else.”
Freshman Matheus Mullins is making his way into the rotation as an outside hitter.
Senior Kevin Chaloco is the team’s libero.
“He’s a strong kid who makes good passes,” Mullins said. “He’s a powerful server.”
Senior Francisco Penaherrera and junior Cristian Poncio are the team’s two setters.
Junior Ethan Lugo is a fixture at outside hitter. Sophomore Sebastian Glazewski is a middle hitter and senior Andres Villoa is a libero. Senior Rafael Sampaio is a defensive specialist, while Sebastian Diaz is a senior all-around player.
Despite the loss to St. Peter’s last week, this is a very confident team heading into the NJSIAA state playoffs.
“We have something left to accomplish,” said Lopez, who will major in information systems at Kean. “We want to get a ring. That’s what we’re working for now, getting a ring.”
“You wish you had more years to play high school volleyball,” Garcia said. “Especially this year, because we have such a close team. We have good chemistry and keep everyone up. It’s really exciting to be this good.”
The Kardinals will have an interesting match Wednesday against Harrison in Kearny at 4:30 p.m. as the two rivals wear different hats this year. The Blue Tide are the ones chasing the Kardinals. Lopez doesn’t mind that.
“I’m glad to win with this team,” Lopez said. “This team deserves it.”
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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.”