The Kearny High School boys’ volleyball team was in a place it had never been before – an NJSIAA state sectional championship match, facing familiar foe St. Peter’s Prep, in front of a raucous and loud home crowd in the sweltering gym at Kearny High.
And there the Kardinals were, staring at getting the first game against the Marauders, winning 13-6.
“We were really playing well,” Kearny head coach Bill Mullins said. “In all the recent games, Union City, Harrison, then Summit, Union and (Newark) East Side, we beat some terrific teams. We were getting better as the season went on.”
So when the Kards went up by seven points and were more than half way home to the first set, Mullins issued a word of warning to his squad.
“You can’t let a team back in when you have them down,” Mullins said he told his team. “You think about it. We’re home and have a good crowd behind us. But the beauty of volleyball is that there is no clock. You can’t just run the clock out. You have to keep playing. That’s what makes it exciting.”
The Kardinals let up a little and allowed the Marauders to climb back in and steal the first game, 26-24.
Still, there was the second game available to grab momentum in what is clearly a sport of momentum.
And the Kards were in position once again to gain control, taking a 21-19 lead, when disaster struck. The Kards’ best player, Santiago Lopez, went down hard in a collision with a teammate and screamed loudly in pain. Lopez remained on the floor for 10 minutes while his teammates looked on in disbelief. Lopez, a senior hitter, had seven digs, seven kills and three service aces for the Kards, keeping them in contention.
“When he went down, I still thought we were going on to the third set,” Mullins said. “These things happen. You never know when a kid is going to get injured.”
To the Kardinals’ credit, they found the way to keep trudging forward.
“We didn’t crumble,” Mullins said.
The Kardinals managed to score the points necessary to take a 24-22 lead and were ready to serve for the set.
“Santiago would have been the server there,” Mullins said. “We had to make the right substitution for him.”
The Kardinals were allowed five seconds to get a substitute in to serve the ball, but the referee didn’t see the Kards as prepared and called the one-point penalty against the Kardinals.
“It was confusing,” Mullins said. “We should have been serving for the game, but we were called for the delay. We did nothing wrong. I saw the referee blowing the whistle for the five seconds, but our substitute was never in the game. I thought we had time to make the correct move. That time of the game to call a penalty is crucial. We were serving for the game.”
So instead of the point and the game going to the Kards, the point went to St. Peter’s and cut the lead to 24-23. The Marauders then came back to win the second game and the state sectional title by a final score of 27-25.
“We actually had the lead without one of our best players on the floor,” Mullins said. “Sometimes, things just don’t go your way. There were so many great plays and great players in the game. Every point was important. We were both trying hard to get to 25. I think we had to learn how to focus. We were never in this kind of pressure before. We had to focus and eliminate mistakes.”
So the Kards’ season ended with an 18-3 record – and two of those losses came in the Hudson County Tournament finals and the NJSIAA North Section 1 final against the same team.
“We were among the final eight in the state,” Mullins said. “We only lost to St. Peter’s and Fair Lawn and they were both in the Tournament of Champions. I felt like we could be competitive with any team in the state. I thought our kids were really terrific. We don’t have the depth as some teams. All of these teams were physically bigger than us, but we kept battling and did our best.”
Mullins liked the atmosphere inside the Kearny Gym for the sectional final last Wednesday. Three bagpipers, namely Brian Logue, Joe McGonigle and Mullins’ brother Drew, led the team onto the floor playing the pipes.
“It was exciting,” Mullins said. “It was a great atmosphere. We didn’t have the chance to have fans most of the season because of the coronavirus. But the fans were out in full force for the finals. I’m glad our kids got to experience that.”
And Mullins was proud of his team, which includes his sons William, who had six kills, and Mateus. Francisco Penaherrera also had six kills in vain.
“We only lost one game throughout the regular season,” Mullins said. “We lost in the county final and the state sectional final. We had never been to the state sectional finals before. We were right there, playing with the best in the state.”
And to be the best, you need the breaks. And the breaks were not in the Kardinals’ favor.
“What can you say?” Mullins asked.
As it turns out, not much.
Kearny boys’ volleyball head coach Bill Mullins (center) sends his team back onto the floor after a break in Wednesday’s state sectional final, which the Kards lost in straight sets, 26-24 and 27-25. Photo by Jim Hague
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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.”