Even in defeat, Belleville boys volleyball proves they can compete

Members of the Belleville boys volleyball team were understandably frustrated by a week which the Buccaneers lost twice and saw its run in the Essex County Tournament come to an end.

But while the results in the Essex quarterfinals against West Caldwell Tech and a regular season matchup vs. Livingston weren’t what Belleville was hoping for, head coach John Spina leaves the week more optimistic than he was before about the team’s outlook the rest of the way.

“The way they’re learning how to keep games tight with good teams is impressive,” said Spina, who earlier in the season played a Fair Lawn team ranked No. 5 in the state and at the Livingston Tournament, squared off with top-ranked Old Bridge. “We’re playing good volleyball. They learn from their mistakes and they continue to get better. I think these kids are up for any challenge on any given day.”

Against West Caldwell Tech, Belleville overcame a disastrous first set to take the second, before dropping the third by a heart-breaking 29-27 margin last Tuesday. Two days later, against a Livingston team currently ranked No. 4 in the state, the Bucs took the Lancers to the brink, before ultimately falling in straight sets, 25-23, 28-26.

“I think this week was really meaningful because both of those games that we lost were down to the wire and they had a lot of pressure on them during those games,” said Spina. “Having been in moments like that where you can perform under pressure and you can perform in stressful situations is key to developing a player and making them a complete player.

“Of course, we want to win those games. Against West Caldwell Tech, we had four chances to win on match point, but they made some serves and we had a couple of bad plays. They’re a tough team and we had them on the ropes. In the Livingston game, it was the same thing. It was a very tough team and we had them on the ropes in both sets and just couldn’t finish the job. But just being in games like that will go a long way for our younger kids.”

Leading the way for Belleville (9-5) has been one of North Jersey’s better setters in senior Jonriz Palmares. The 6-foot-0 Palmares, last week’s The Observer Athlete of the Week, has 272 assists, 98 digs, 28 kills and 10 blocks. His biggest strength has come in the way he has incorporated his teammates into the offense.

“That keeps everyone focused and ready to go. And I love it,” Spina said  “Sometimes setters get locked in on one hitter and he won’t do that. When you lock in on one kid, the other kids (get frustrated). Jonriz doesn’t play that game. Jonriz goes with whatever we can go with at any given time and he feeds everybody. When everyone’s getting fed and no one’s starving, they’re all ready to go.”

The need to be diverse on offense was all the more important following the graduation of star outside hitter Richmond Casino. In Casino’s place, are senior Casey Maramot (11 kills, 74 digs), a power hitter, making the most of his chance after being hampered by injuries last year and sophomore Gabriel Campos (78 kills, 74 digs) has seized the other spot after transferring from Harrison.

Senior Ryan Banach (50 kills, 16 blocks) has emerged at middle hitter after playing JV a year ago. Junior Joshua Nodong, a reserve outside hitter last year, starts at the other middle hitter spot.

“Josh wanted to go into the middle,” Spina said. “He came into the season asking me to play middle and I said, ‘no, I want you outside.’ But then I saw what he brings to the middle. He brings a more athletic dynamic so I said alright, let’s roll with it.”

Senior Brandon Do (29 kills, 61 digs, 25 assists) starts at opposite as his all-around game allows him to stay on the court for all rotations and also create hitting opportunities for Palmares in certain situations.

“He’s got great hands and is probably, all-around one of my most dynamic players,” said Spina. “He’s a jack of all trades and I can put him anywhere.”

Junior Kevin Phan (123) starts at libero for Belleville. While there is not a set defensive specialist, sophomore Michael Hernandez can fill the role, as well as that of a serving specialist in a pinch. Junior Vincent Pan is another quality serving option off the bench.

Belleville looked to build off the lessons from last week when it faced SEC American Division foe Millburn on May 8 before concluding the regular season with road games at West Essex, Newark East Side, Nutley and Westfield.

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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.)