By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

One of the best volleyball players in the Cape-Atlantic League once had visions of becoming a college basketball player. And while her high school basketball career didn’t pan out the way she thought it would, she may very well be an NCAA Division I volleyball player next fall. 

Liv Leap came into Mainland with high hopes for basketball, and volleyball was just something to do in the fall to keep in shape. She played it in seventh grade, then missed her eighth-grade season because of an injury, so by the time she was a freshman the sport was still relatively new to her. Little did she know that all those moves she had spent years trying to perfect in basketball would one day make her one of the top middle blockers in all of South Jersey. 

“I came into high school wanting to pursue basketball and hoping to play that in college. Volleyball is a fall sport and that happened to come first. I had a tryout and the coach really liked me, so I started out on JV (as a freshman) and got a few minutes on varsity. I improved a lot freshman year, and in my freshman year of basketball, I didn’t love it as much as I did volleyball, so I decided to continue with volleyball and pursue that and put more time into it,” said Leap, who plans to attend Liberty University in Virginia next fall and hopes to make the volleyball team as a walk-on. “Coming into freshman year it was almost like a brand new sport for me. I had played basketball since third grade and that was my sport forever. I just fell completely in love with volleyball. It wasn’t really a big sport around here, but coming into high school — because of my height and my ability to play defense in basketball — that really helped me transition into volleyball. I found my spot in volleyball as opposed to basketball.”

“When we started with the program, Olivia wanted to be an outside hitter. We moved her into the middle position, and obviously that’s where she has thrived. She has one of the best hang times in the Cape-Atlantic League and she has grown a lot in the last couple of years. She’s a natural out there at that position,” said second-year Mainland coach Torie Rich. “She’s grown a lot the last two years as a person and a player, and she’s an awesome girl to have on the court. She’s somebody you want on your side.”

When Leap was a sophomore, the Mustangs went 12-10 and Leap got some good time in, registering 21 kills, five blocks and four digs, mainly as a back-up to middle blockers Nicole Faragher and Francesca Pilli. The fall 2020 season was basically canceled because of covid, but girls volleyball had two seasons in 2021 — one from February through March and the normally scheduled season of September through November. It’s been this year when Leap has really shined. 

In the spring’s 14-game season, Mainland went 10-4 in Rich’s rookie season as coach, and Leap’s numbers, well, began to leap off the stat sheet. She recorded 84 kills, 15 blocks, 12 assists, 68 service points and 34 aces. Mainland finished as the No. 1 team in the CAL East Conference and scored big wins over traditional powers such as Pleasantville, ACIT and Absegami. 

That momentum carried over into this fall, when the Mustangs put together their best season ever, going 21-2 and winning the CAL Tournament title for the first time in a thrilling three-set win over Absegami.   

“At the beginning of the season we took a trip as a team down to Florida. We knew it was going to be good competition, but we didn’t realize how good those teams were going to be. We ended up not even winning a set and we played about eight games. It didn’t bring us down because we knew it was the beginning of the season and it wasn’t going to have an effect on our season back home, but being able to see that level of competition made us better. We knew where we needed to be, and how to get there,” Leap said. “We were the first (Mainland) team to win a CAL championship — (last spring) winning the East Conference and this year winning the whole league — we definitely had a huge impact on bringing this whole program up and showing the younger girls what it looks like, and feels like, to win and be at the top so they can strive to be there again.”

“We had seven seniors this year and especially those three captains — Cadence (Fitzgerald), Bella (Canesi) and Olivia — being able to get that championship under their belt before they graduated was huge, and something they’ll always remember and always be proud of. We’ll always be striving to be as good as that group we had this year,” Rich said. 

Leap’s numbers were off the charts this year, as she finished with 109 kills, 44 blocks, 19 assists, 165 service points, 61 aces, and she led the team in digs with 103 — a rare feat for someone who spends most of their time at the net.  

“If anything improved from last year to this year, it’s been her defense. She broke a ton of dig records this year, which is unheard of for a middle blocker to have those kind of back-row records. By getting that piece of her game down she became the complete package,” Rich said. “She was huge for us. As a senior captain she took charge out there and kept that positive attitude that we needed. Olivia was so good with working with the younger players. Knowing she’s leaving and somebody is going to have to fill her role, she was a great role model for the younger girls who are coming up. She spent a lot of time working with them in practice, and outside of practice, to get them to the next level. 

“It was so fun to watch,” Rich added. “We knew when Olivia was up front we didn’t have to worry about the ball getting over because her blocks were awesome. We just had a lot of confidence when she was on the court. She’s one of the kindest kids, and hilarious, too. She’s one of those kids who catches you by surprise because she’s so quiet. It’s been so fun to get to know her the past two years. She’s one of those good kids who everybody would be lucky to have on their team.”

Leap credits all those years of playing basketball with turning her into the volleyball player she is today. 

“Basketball kind of trained my whole body movement, my hand-eye coordination, my balance on the court, my jumping ability. Having trained in basketball all those years — we even play on the basketball court, so it wasn’t a completely new look for me. I just had to learn a few tweaks with my body movements, and I’m still learning. But it did make things a lot easier being able to transition from basketball,” she explained. “My hits got a lot harder this year. I knew I needed to increase my hitting power, so I started working out more. I increased my kills per game, which I was very happy with, and just my relationship with the team helped us perform a lot better this year. We were good last year, but compared to this year, it was a big difference.”

Leap was huge during that win over Absegami in the CAL Tournament final, as she finished with five kills, six blocks, 11 digs and 14 service points. It’s only fitting that she was on the service line when the Mustangs won the final set, 25-23, to take the match. 

“We were rivals with Absegami, and we still are. Last year, our goal was to get a win against them and we did, in the last game we played. This year we knew we could pull it out. They did take us to three sets, but we had confidence in each other. Those last couple of points, being at the service line and knowing this was the game right here, it was very stressful but I knew if my teammates believed in me that I could believe in myself, and we pulled it out,” Leap said. “I’m most proud of my improvement. Sophomore year I got the award for most improved, junior year I got team MVP and this year I was named the Defensive Player of the Year award. My defense has seen the biggest improvement. Coming from sophomore year when I could barely serve receive to know having the most digs on the digs, that’s a huge improvement and putting all that work in finally paid off.”

Rich said what she’s most impressed with is Leap’s leadership abilities as a team captain. 

“That’s what you want from a senior. You want somebody the freshmen will look up to, and that’s absolutely what you got from Olivia. We’d walk in (to practice) and she’d be working with the freshmen and sophomore players. When we went to the JV tournament at Cedar Creek, she was one of the ones who was there from the beginning, no questions asked. She wanted to go there and support them because they support her at all of her games. She’s absolutely the definition of a role model and a leader,” Rich said. “I didn’t know what to expect from her at all (two years ago), but she’s such a fun kid, and so mature and genuine. It was nice to have her.”

Although the Mustangs lost in the state playoffs, Leap said she is happy with how her career at Mainland went. 

“Just knowing we had this ability — my freshman and sophomore years we went into games hoping we could win, but junior and senior year we went in knowing we could win if we just believe in each other and ourselves, and in our coaching,” she said. “Coming out with only two losses on the season, we couldn’t have asked for anything better. From where we started, it’s very satisfying to see where it all ended.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays