Old Tappan wins its fifth straight, this time against River Dell by J.C. Baumuller special to northjerseysports.com

ORADELL — In preseason polls NV/Old Tappan was ranked No. 2, just behind No. 1 powerhouse Immaculate Heart Academy. So, it was mildly surprising that they lost its season opener to No. 13 Northern Highlands in three sets.

That loss may have been a wakeup call as the Golden Knights have now won five straight matches, including a 2-0 (25-18, 25-9) win over River Dell Wednesday afternoon.

“We opened against Northern Highlands and we didn’t have the outcome we wanted,” said senior libero Gianna Fasano. “Right after that we bounced back and we’ve had practices going to 5:30 every day, We’ve all been working hard and we really have come together after Northern Highlands.”

“I feel we needed that loss to show us nothing is going to be handed to us,” added senior defensive specialist Gianna Sabatini. “And because we are Old Tappan we really have a target on our backs. People always play their best when they play us so it’s really important we remember we always have to go hard no matter what.”

The Golden Hawks kept the first set of Wednesday’s match close. Late in the set Old Tappan led by only two, 19-17, when they went on a 6-0 run to reach a set point. Senior opposite hitter Nina Trent had back-to-back kills and junior setter Chrissy Chu added a service ace to get them there.

An attack error by the Knights gave the Hawks a point but a serve into the net, the sixth of the set by River Dell, gave Old Tappan a 25-18 win.

“We can’t miss serves,” said River Dell coach Dianne Furusawa. “It’s kids who shouldn’t be missing serves. It’s very, very frustrating. If we want to be an underdog that can take [the match] that can make a difference.”

In the second set Old Tappan led, 9-6, when they began a 16-3 run to close out the match. They led, 17-9, when Sabatini stepped to the service line and reeled off eight straight service winners, including four aces.

“[Coach] Landeck focuses on hard serves in practice and making sure that when we’re in the game we use the hard serve,” said Sabatini. “She gives us spots and I really wanted to finish it for my team. I don’t hit and they all contribute by hitting and I wanted to contribute by serving.

“I like having that role because it’s the one aspect of the game that you can control. There are no other outside sources. You have the ball in your hands and you serve it. After that it’s out of your hands. But if someone were to hit it at you, you pass it. That depends on what someone else does.”

There were several points in the match that ran long as the defense dug out kill attempts as the hitters on both sides kept pounding away.

“We get into situations in practice,” said senior defensive specialist Isabella Wong, “where we go back and forth and we get very competitive with each other and we want to pound the ball. When it’s in a game it gets exciting and gets me pumped up. I feel when the pace is faster in the game we play better as a team because everyone moves faster and reacts quicker. The energy builds up the longer the rally.”
Old Tappan’s passing was great throughout the match, as the back row was repeatedly able to get the ball to Chu.

“Passing is very important,” said Wong, “if you make a good pass for the setter to be able to set up the hitters. Having a lot of hitters helps us to put the ball away and end a rally.”

“[Coach] Landeck really has the defenders serving and passing for two hours each day at practice and it really pays off,” said Fasano. “I thought Gianna Sabatini, Emma Illovsky, Isabella Wong and I all did a good job of getting the ball to target. And that helps the three people in the front.”

Old Tappan’s offense is not restricted to one key player as no fewer than seven players scored at least one point.

“I love it,” Trent said. “It makes it an even playing field and makes our team 10 times better  because if everybody can do the job and everybody can get kills I believe the other side won’t expect it. We don’t need a star player. We just need everyone to work hard.”

“It’s something that can put us at an advantage,” said Old Tappan coach Melissa Landeck. “We have a lot of capable hitters and at different times if someone is having a good day or the matchup is right we can find different people at different times to get the job done. It’s not on one person’s back. I thought Chrissy [Chu] did a good job of mixing up the hitters and getting the ball to the right person so it made it more difficult for River Dell to defend. We had good options in every rotation and Chrissy did a good job of using all of them.”

Old Tappan improved to 5-1 while River Dell fell to 4-3. Trent led all scorers with 7 kills, while sophomore teammate Jola Olutiola added 6. Fasano chipped in with 12 digs and Chu distributed 22 assists. Senior captain Logan Grebla had 5 kills and 12 digs and sophomore Davan McHale dished 7 assists for the Golden Hawks.

“We can only get better and we will continue to get better and continue to work hard,” said Trent. “It comes with practice and training, just keeping our heads right and straight. I hope for good things for our team.”

“Northern Highlands was a wakeup call and we realized we need to get stuff done,” added Fasano. “Last season is not this season so we’re going to keep getting better and better and practice for the games ahead. We are a mature team. We have nine juniors and four seniors and two really good sophomores. We have room to improve but I think we’re going to be really good this year.”