Despite fast start, Belleville girls volleyball believes it can do more

Belleville’s girls volleyball team may be off to a 7-2 start this season, but veteran head coach John Spina was hardly in a celebratory mood about it.

Sure, the record and already being halfway towards last year’s win total is nice. But when Spina looks at the lineup on the court, he sees a group that has the athleticism and potential to be far better than it has shown so far.

“I feel like we haven’t hit our peak. It doesn’t feel like we’re close,” said Spina. “We’re a super-athletic group that gets by on being quicker, more athletic right now.  “We show moments of being great and we show moments of being very susceptible to losing to teams that are not on our level (athletically).”

Even with those occasional bouts of inconsistency, the Buccaneers ripped off seven consecutive wins, a streak which ended on Friday with a three set loss to SEC Colonial Division leader Cedar Grove.

At the forefront of Belleville’s early success has been its veteran outside hitter tandem of Christina Bajuz and Kaitlyn Coto.

Bajuz, a 5-foot-7 senior and four-year starter, led the team with 45 kills through the first eight matches despite missing one due to injury.

“She’s having a very strong season. She’s getting a little better each day,” Spina said. “She’s been our main outside hitter and serving really well.”

Coto, a 5-foot-7 junior might not have the power of Bajuz, but has impressed Spina with body control in the air to avoid net faults and the way she has hit around blocks. Coto has 36 kills.

Unlike last year when Belleville relied almost exclusively on Bajuz and Coto for points, the Buccaneers have shown greater depth and balance on offense early on.

Senior Kayla Monticer has emerged as a strong third option on offense. At 5-foot-4, Monticer is far from the prototypical middle hitter, but makes up for the lack of height with her leaping ability as she has 21 kills and a team-high 34 digs.

“What’s unique about her is that she is 5-foot-4 if that, but she jumps (really well),” said Spina. “Sometimes we get these girl girls who are 5-foot-9, but their fingers barely get over the net because they can’t jump. Kayla’s getting her whole hands over the net because she’s got such a good vertical. She’s very dynamic.”

Katelyn Oleas, a 5-foot-8 junior, is at the other middle hitter spot. Oleas, who is only in her second year of playing volleyball, is a powerful hitter who should continue to play a bigger role in the offense as her skills continue to develop.

Due to Belleville’s lack of a libero, both Monticer and Oleas stay on the floor for all rotations, a rarity for middle hitters.

Galadrielle Balderavona is a returning starter at setter with 103 assists and 13 digs. While Balderavona’s 5-foot-0 height is uncommon at the position, her quickness has made her a key defensive contributor in addition to her passing.

“She’s just such a great defender on the backline,” Spina said. “She saves so many balls during the game.”

Freshman Ruby Perez has emerged as the starter at opposite hitter and while the stat line is limited at the moment, Spina believes she has the potential to be a big-time player.

“I knew from the first day when she came into the gym that she was coming up to varsity,” said Spina. “It’s like on the job training (for Ruby) because she never played volleyball before this year. She has a ton of potential.”

Coming off the bench, junior Candie Dong has seen spot duty as a back row defender. Junior Isabella Luna is the backup setter. Junior Jelena Santiago can come in as a serving specialist and another junior, McKayla Reed, provides added depth at middle hitter.

Belleville seeks to return to its winning ways as it begins a stretch of four division games in four days starting with a trip to East Orange on Tuesday.

“When they come together as a group, they’re going to be dangerous because they’re athletes,” Spina said. “I can’t say I’ve had a team with this many athletic kids on the floor at the same time in girls volleyball.”

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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 (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)