By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
PLEASANTVILLE — In the second set of the South Jersey Group 2 girls volleyball championship on Tuesday afternoon, the host Pleasantville Greyhounds watched as Jackson Liberty mounted a late comeback, cutting Pleasantville’s lead from 24-18 to 24-21. That prompted Greyhounds coach James Bucko to call a timeout to get his squad settled down.
The move paid dividends, as coming out of the timeout, senior middle hitter Janay Trice slammed home an emphatic kill that gave Pleasantville a 25-21 victory in that set and a 2-0 win over the Lions. It marked the first sectional championship in program history for the Greyhounds.
Jayla Trice, Janay’s twin sister, described that final point and the exuberation that followed as an out-of-body experience.
“A lot of times it will be me and her, the two big middle hitters, and for her to get it and me to watch that — I think my soul left my body,” she said. “It was beyond me, I couldn’t even believe it. I was just happy it was over, and for her to get that kill. I was hoping she would get it. I didn’t want us to win on a missed serve, I wanted it to be that last kill, the final hurrah. I wanted it to be like that.
“I’m so excited right now. It’s a crazy way to go out with a bang my last year,” Janay added. “This is history because we’ve never even made the semifinals before. I don’t think we’ve ever made it out of the second round of the playoffs, so this is just crazy to win it all.”
Top-seeded Pleasantville beat No. 3 Jackson Liberty 25-18 in the first set, and advanced to the Group 2 state semifinals. They’ll travel to take on Central Jersey Group 2 champion Governor Livingston at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, with the winner facing either Sparta or Montville on Sunday for the overall state championship. In South Jersey Group 4, No. 3 Williamstown — the Tournament of Champions winner last season — upset No. 1 Southern Regional, 2-0, and in South Jersey Group 3 Mainland Regional’s great playoff run came to an end with a 2-1 loss to Pinelands Regional. The second-seeded Mustangs won the opening set 25-23, but the No. 1 Wildcats rallied to win the next two sets to advance.
The second set between Pleasantville and Jackson Liberty was back-and-forth throughout until the Greyhounds went on a run to take a 12-11 lead. Janay Trice scored a big kill, then Pleasantville scored the next two service points to wipe out an 11-9 deficit. From there, the Greyhounds never trailed. Pleasantville got a key kill from setter Natasha Feliciano to go up 20-15. The Lions got to within 21-18 before Pleasantville ripped off three straight points to set up match point.
“I had a lot of confidence in the girls going in. Every big moment this year, every challenge, they’ve stepped up and performed. I couldn’t be more proud of them. Going into the season I knew we’d be very competitive in the Cape-Atlantic League. I figured we’d be one of the top three teams. Our goal was to win the division and maybe take a shot (at the league tournament), but this is beyond my expectations. This is awesome,” Bucko said. “We have two really good hitters in the middle with the twins, Jayla and Janay, and we have really strong setters. I think we have possibly the two best hitters in the league and possibly two of the best setters in Natasha Feliciano and Anabel Peralta. These girls worked hard and played so well together. They have great team chemistry, and they do everything well. When you are consistent and have that confidence and cohesiveness as a team, good things happen. They are very resilient and never give up. They believe in themselves.”
Janay Trice said there was no doubt in her mind the Greyhounds were going to prevail, even as the Lions tried to mount a late comeback. When it got to match point, she said she knew it was just a matter of time.
“At that point, I was really excited. I knew we only needed one more point and there was nothing my team was going to do to let us lose. I knew we would pull through together and win. My main goal was just to put it down, and I did. Our team is just amazing, our coaches are the best, too. All four years working toward this — for us to finally win and for me to put the last point away was amazing,” she said. “It was very nerve-wracking. I was out of breath on the court. We kept getting the ball up, but they were a very good team, great competition. My main goal was to make sure out team stayed calm and stayed in the right head space so that we were able to make that last point. We just wanted to get the ball over the net and not make any silly mistakes, so I was just trying to keep us calm and keep our energy us. Our crowd was amazing, and I think that momentum helped us pull through.”
Added Jayla, “we have really great coaches, and the girls on the team, we play together as one. This shows how scrappy we are, how we’re always ready to play. We keep good energy and good vibe all the time, no matter what. It’s one-point-and-done, and we keep pushing to the finish — and that’s what we did.”
This South Jersey championship is the icing on the cake for Pleasantville, which has posted a 22-1 record this season and won the CAL championship with wins over Cedar Creek, Mainland and ACIT in the league tournament. The Greyhounds’ only loss came against South Jersey Group 3 champion Pinelands on Oct. 26 in a regular-season matchup.
“This means a lot to me,” Janay Trice said. “It makes my heart so warm because I love this sport, I love this team. I’ve been a part of this for so long, and in my last year I wanted to go out with a bang. This is awesome.
“This means the absolute world to me to see the joy this championship brings them. And for the whole community to come out — teachers, administrators — I have a ton of former players, both boys and girls, and to see their reaction and how overjoyed they were at our success means a lot to the kids, and to me as a coach,” coach Bucko said. “A win like this — as I’ve always said in the past, success breeds success. I think the community and the district sees what kind of program we run here, and kids want to be a part of it. Not just because it’s a winning program, but because there is that cohesiveness, that togetherness and that family atmosphere. You can see the electricity and the energy in this building. It wouldn’t surprise me if even more kids want to get involved in this.”
What’s next: Pleasantville at Governor Livingston on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in the Group 2 state semifinals. Jackson Liberty’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays