John Spina can remember watching Christina Bajuz struggle at times as a sophomore. And while there might have been a temptation to sit her down, instead the veteran head girls volleyball coach at Belleville decided to keep Bajuz on the court so she could learn from the errors.
“She struggled a little bit in a full-time role last year and my thing as a coach has been if I see something special in a kid, I don’t care if they struggle,” Spina said. “I allow them to struggle and we’ll grow together.”
Now a year older and with significantly more on-court experience, Bajuz and the Buccaneers are enjoying the success of that growth.
At 10-5, Belleville is enjoying one of its better seasons in recent years and the play of its junior outside hitter is a big reason why.
Bajuz has already blown past last year’s total for kills, posting 100 this season, including 27 during a recent four-game winning streak. Bajuz’s recent play has earned her the distinction of being The Observer Athlete of the Week.
Both Spina and Bajuz credit her breakout performance to the added experience she has acquired, especially from playing club during the offseason for the first time.
“Club was just such a good experience,” Bajuz said. “I feel like in order to improve you got to get more experience and that honestly heightened my growth so much because I was able to play with different girls from all different towns. I was able to get more experience and play with other girls and I grew so much from that.
“I feel like after playing club I’ve become more confident. I don’t have to be afraid of having people count on me because I can count on myself to hold a team up.”
The most notable areas of improvement have come in Bajuz’s accuracy on her hits as well as the ability to score points from the back row.
“She came back much improved this year,” said Spina. “She always wants to learn, she’s always asking questions.
“A lot of Christina’s kills come from the back row. She’s jumping and swinging and putting the ball down. You don’t see that often, particularly in the division we’re playing in.”
Belleville is currently second in the Super Essex Conference’s Colonial Division with a 9-3 record, trailing only Payne Tech. Bajuz’s 100 kills are third most among players in the division. She also has a team-best 32 aces, as well as 77 digs.
“This is her coming out party this year. She hasn’t reached her peak yet, but I think by the end of the season she will be,” said Spina. “She’s hitting the ball as hard as any girl I’ve seen on my teams in the last however many years.”
“The girls know that whenever I’m hitting they can rely on me,” Bajuz said. “Everyone looks up to me in a sense because they know I’ll put the ball down or get it over.”
Bajuz doesn’t have to do it alone on offense though. Sophomore Kaitlyn Coto has also been a breakout player this fall with 70 kills and 105 digs, as she and Bajuz have developed an on-court chemistry.
“On the court I feel like it works out really well. She and I both have a similar hitting style,” said Bajuz, who has also made it a priority to build an off-court bond with her as well. “We both want to be aggressive when we go on the attack. So even when we make a mistake, we come back and we look at each other and we know we got the next one and we’ll encourage each other no matter what the play was.”
That bond, as well as the chemistry built with other key players like defensive specialist Ashley Cely and setter Galadrielle Balderavona has the Buccaneers playing with significantly more confidence than last year as it heads into their Essex County Tournament opener on Thursday when it hosts the winner of East Orange and Shabazz. With a win, Belleville would then play top-seeded Livingston, ranked No. 14 in the state by NJ.com, on Saturday
“I love volleyball, but that was just tough. I kept reminding myself the entire time of why I started playing this sport. It’s so fun and brings people together. Being able to play this year and have so much success with a team that I really enjoy playing with. I’m so thankful and every single day I get to go back on the court and have fun playing. I’m just so grateful to have this kind of experience.
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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.)