Talk of adding boys volleyball to Nutley High School has been going on for months, if not years. On Friday night, all of those hopes became a reality.
In front of a large crowd in the Nutley gymnasium, the Maroon Raiders had a memorable and successful debut, defeating Montclair Immaculate, 25-14, 25-22, in the program’s first ever match.
“Our home crowd at the opener was absolutely electric,” Nutley head coach Kevin Reilly said. “The place was packed and it was families, it was fans, it was students and the kids had a blast playing in front of them.
“You couldn’t script a better way to start the program.”
This push for boys volleyball became more serious this school year and after being formally approved, Reilly was hired to be the head coach.
“There was a strong push from some very dedicated students who are now our student-athletes, along with some great support from our athletic department. “When the students showed they were serious about starting this program, (Athletic Director) Joe Piro and the school got behind it.”
Reilly, who has been assistant coach for the girls team the past two seasons, didn’t know what to expect as he began his first preseason with the boys.
The most pleasant surprise was when he had 45 kids show up for initial tryouts. And while the majority are playing organized volleyball for the first time, quite a few of them had experience from playing club.
Among those veterans are Nutley’s two outside hitters, freshman Gavin Warburton and sophomore Ilhan Ilhan, both a part of the Central Jersey Volleyball Academy.
For Ilhan, one of the team’s two captains, that experience put him in a leadership role that few sophomores have to undertake.
“He is so vocal from an Xs and Os standpoint. He’s the equivalent of having a point guard on the basketball court. He’s an extension of the coaching staff out there,” said Reilly. “He makes sure everyone stays in rotation and is just a calming voice for them all.”
The other captain is a first-year player in middle blocker Brandon Gonsiewski, the team’s lone senior starter.
“Brandon has just taken on an incredible role from a leadership standpoint of getting the guys ready for practice, organizing everything we need and being a voice that the kids really listen to and look up to,” Reilly said.
Junior Carl Villarin is the setter and junior opposite Joe Duca are first-year players. Duca is a high flyer that plays bigger than his height. Sophomore Shane Castellanos is the defensive specialist and, according to Reilly, has a “monster serve.”
Reilly has also been happy with the depth Nutley has as seniors Rehman Arshad, Eduardo Lazo, Julian Poole and Brandon Hoo, are all playing key roles early on.
“It was a complete unknown in terms of what to expect from the student talent pool,” Reilly said. “We’re fortunate enough to have a few kids who played on club teams. The vast majority of our players only played in gym class or with their family and friends.
“As a team, we’re worlds ahead of where we were three weeks ago when we started tryouts. I’m excited to see what a full season does for us.”
Because of the timing of when the team started, Nutley is playing an independent schedule primarily composed of teams from Essex and Hudson counties. The Raiders do intend to enter this year’s Essex County Tournament this spring and join the Super Essex Conference for next season.
While it remains to be seen how they handle this inaugural season, Reilly is confident that the program will continue to grow in the years to come.
“(For years) people were like ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had this,’” Reilly said. “This time, I don’t know if it was the right group of people that pushed it forward, but I’m happy it took place because I think everyone is really excited about this year.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)