Despite graduating nearly the entire lineup from last year’s stellar 15-10 team, North Arlington girls’ volleyball coach Joseph Cioffi was optimistic that this year’s group had the potential to compete with some of the best in the NJIC.
While the Vikings’ three early losses were a reminder of the growing pains that come with such inexperience, their one win was the definitive proof Cioffi and his young roster needed of what it’s capable of.
On Tuesday, Sept. 13, North Arlington posted an eyebrow-raising 26-24, 27-25 victory over Rutherford, one of gold standards for small-school volleyball, winning 20 or more games each of the last six full seasons.
“The girls have the desire to compete at a high level no matter what their experience is,” Cioffi said. “To go out and win the way we did and fight as hard as we did shows that the girls have what it takes to compete against these top teams in the NJIC.
“I never had any doubt in my mind that the girls could compete at a high level. These girls are talented and they always bring positive energy when they’re out on the court. My only concern was that when they see these teams on the schedule and then overthink things. (That) Tuesday night, they didn’t think, they just went out there and played.”
Leading the way has been outside hitter Grace Alho, the lone returning starter. The 5-foot-3 senior had six kills, six digs and four aces and has been the on and off-court leader they needed.
“She has done a phenomenal job since the season started and I’m going back to June when we had a team meeting,” the coach said. “She has been pushing these girls to show up to summer league games, to make sure they’re at practice every day. She’s been very vocal in a very positive way. She’s taken the leadership role tremendously and I can’t thank her enough for what she’s done.”
North Arlington’s offense has been bolstered by the return of junior Rhi’Anna Gomez, who missed all of last season due to injury.
“It’s honestly been like she’s never been off the court,” Cioffi said. “She’s picked up, she’s made adjustments. She adjusted her style of play.”
In the middle is sophomore Sara Silva, who at 5-foot-8, is the tallest girl on the roster.
“She can play in the middle, she can play outside. She’s really improved her back row play,” Cioffi said. “She had a couple of nice aces that allowed us to stay in the game when we were down four or five points in the second set and allowed us to make a comeback.”
Another sophomore, Olivia Sanchez, is the other starting middle.
Junior Jaylene Joza, one of the area’s better softball talents, is a first-year starter as an opposite/defensive specialist, as is senior Iysha Mejia.
Senior co-captain Jenna Kane is the setter and had 15 assists in the win over Rutherford.
Gianna Auriema, Mia Pedreira, Jenna Santos, Kayla Fitzsimmons and Breanna Pereira will also see valuable time over the course of the season.
North Arlington was unable to turn the momentum from the Rutherford game into a winning streak as it dropped a 25-23, 25-15 decision to current NJIC National Division leader St. Mary’s of Rutherford.
The Vikings look to get back in the win column on Tuesday, Sept. 20, at division rival Secaucus before home matches against Paterson Arts and Science on Wednesday, Sept. 21, and Harrison on Thursday, Sept. 22.
“The biggest thing as a coach is that I need to continue to have them playing at a high level and we don’t fall back,” Cioffi said. “This victory shows that no matter what your varsity experience is, if you play together as a team, you hustle and you communicate and you’re aggressive, you’ll find a way to secure a victory against any kind of opponent.”
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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.)