Undefeated Nutley boys volleyball team looks to make Essex County Tournament statement

Standing from left, Head coach Kevin Reilly, Shane Castellanos, Jimmy Valderrama, Tresor Foda, Alex Tramontana, Joseph Duca, Pat Smyth, assistant coach Amy Gewecke. Kneeling from left, Ilhan Ilhan, Marcos Tapia, Carl Villarin, Julian Jansen, Gavin Warburton. Photo by Jason Bernstein

Kevin Reilly anticipated a season of growth for the Nutley boys volleyball team in its second year as a varsity program.

But the Maroon Raiders head coach admittedly didn’t envision this.

Just 13 months into its varsity history, Nutley stands at 9-0, including a perfect 7-0 within the Super Essex Conference’s Colonial Division. Not only are the Raiders undefeated within the Colonial, it has yet to even concede a set in those seven matches.

“Our conversations all offseason were about growth and continuing to build the program from a skills standpoint and a numbers standpoint,” Reilly said. “What we did not factor in was just how dedicated these kids were and the amount of effort they put in themselves in the offseason. They came back ready to do something really special this year.”

According to Reilly, Nutley ran weekly open gyms during the summer, but credits the players for going beyond that and playing club volleyball as well as outdoor tournaments..

“I think that’s what every coach hopes for. That it’s a 12-month love for these kids and a year round, not just from March to June,” said Reilly. “It makes all the difference in the world.”

Reilly believes Nutley has plenty of capable offensive options on the court at any time. But among that group, sophomore Gavin Warburton has emerged as the top option. The 6-foot-2 outside hitter has enjoyed a breakout season with a team-best 83 kills and 23 aces.

“He’s been smart at the net. It’s not just going up and trying to put the ball through the floor,” Reilly said. “He’s played a crafty game and his maturity from sophomore year is impressive.”

Junior Ilhan Ilhan is a returning starter at the outside hitter spot with 35 kills.

At middle block, Nutley has one of the state’s hidden gems, in 6-foot-5 senior Alex Tramontana. Tramontana, who will play at Ramapo College next year, has significantly improved his offensive game with 49 kills, while being a potential game-changer defensively with 19 blocks thank to his shot-altering length near the net.

“He controls the net for us. It is scary for the opposing team to have to worry about his arms every time when they go up to swing,” said Reilly. “He’ll put the ball through the floor, he’s smart, he finds lanes to hit at. If he’s swinging full (strength), he’s awfully tough to block.”

Sophomore Shane Castellanos has 19 kills and, according to Reilly, is “solid all over.”

Senior Pat Smyth has moved from libero to opposite, and thanks to a much improved shot, it’s a shift that has paid off well as Smyth has 32 kills on the season.

Keeping multiple options in a rhythm and engaged might be a challenge, but it hasn’t been for senior setter Joseph Duca. Duca, also committed to play at Ramapo, has 193 assists on the seas

“I think the awesome thing about this team is that they truly feel like there are multiple options at all times for them,” Reilly said. “Duca does a great job of distributing his passes around. There’s no moment where if we’re getting double-blocked somewhere we can’t find somebody on a quick set to take advantage of a single blocker. They are smart enough to find that and they’re talented enough to take advantage when it’s presented to them.”

Seniors Julian Jansen and Marcos Tapia share the libero spot with Reilly adding that both are also vital at jump-starting the offense from the more defensively-focused spot.

“They both give us some really great, consistent passing,” said Reilly. “They help set up our offense, they’re vocal when they’re on the floor. They really keep our machine running.”

Senior Tresor Foda, Jimmy Valderrama and Carl Villarin, all bring valuable contributions off the bench. Villarin, a setter, was one of the team’s top hitters a year ago, while Foda and Valderrama have both made their presence felt on the front line.

The seeding meeting for the Essex County Tournament was set for Monday, after our deadline with preliminary and first round action set for this week.

Last year, Nutley earned a 14th-seed in the 20-team field and defeated Eagle Academy before falling to West Caldwell Tech in the first round.

Where the Raiders will get seeded is a bit of a mystery since as a team in the Colonial Division, do not play the schedule that powers like Livingston, Bloomfield and Belleville do. Regardless of the seed Nutley receives, it knows the ECT represents a prime opportunity to make a name for itself and show this is a program on the rise,

“I think that has been on their minds, really this entire season,” Reilly said. “We are very excited for the county tournament and as much as we feel we are establishing ourselves as a program, you gotta do it louder for the people in the back. We’re looking to show everyone in the SEC who we are.”

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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.)