UPDATED: Columbia HS girls volleyball team enjoys historic season

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MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The Columbia High School girls volleyball team is entering the home stretch of its best season in recent memory — and they are not done yet. After going 18-1 and winning two Super Essex Conference–Colonial Division titles, in the seasons played in spring 2021 and fall 2021, the team was promoted to the highly competitive Liberty Division in 2022. Despite significantly tougher competition, the Cougars have continued to find success, finishing division play with a stellar 9-3 record, currently good for second place. 

“Going into this season the goal was just to stay up in the Liberty after this season,” said head coach Juan Bas. The top teams in each division move up, while the bottom teams move down. “Anything more than that would be whipped cream and a cherry on our ice cream,” said Bas. “As it stands, we will finish at least tied for second, which could see us move up to the American (top) division next season. I’m overjoyed and thankful that we’ve accomplished our base goal and for the quality of players we have — from a volleyball perspective, yes, but also from a personality perspective. We’ve tried to stay together as a unit and, as I told the girls early on, we succeed together.”

With several tournament and regular-season games remaining, they are on track to surpass the 17 wins achieved by the program in both 2014 and 2015, the most in program history since the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s. 

The season began on a high note, with a home win over Nutley, a huge road victory at West Essex, and a highly spirited match against the eventual division champions, a three-game affair won by Montclair, 21-25, 25-11, and 27-25. 

Led by captains Jamie Fardin, Zoe Hall, Allie Harris and Julia Roses, the Cougars showed steady improvement and steely resolve, winning 11 of their next 13 matches, including avenging a home loss to West Orange with a dramatic 26-24, 26-24 win on the road. 

“With a team of veterans leading the way, combined with our amazing sophomores experiencing their first year of varsity play, we have a solid mix of volleyball skills, personal leadership qualities, and esprit de corps in the program — and not just the varsity,” said Bas. “They have exceeded all expectations, and, with such a young team, we are looking forward to a strong end to this season and continued growth in the program in the years to come.” 

Included in the streak was a thrilling comeback win over Bloomfield on senior night on Oct. 11. With the bleachers packed with students and families, the school spirit roared encouragement and support. In that game, Bas elected to play all of his seniors, and the group of Fardin, Harris, Roses, Della Zimmerman, Galia Koonyevsky, Julianne Hatton-Hennigan, Kalina Taylor, Natalia Kraiker and Danielle Ilunga came through, rallying for a dramatic 25-23 win in the second game and cruising to victory 25-10 in the third.

The team continues to build momentum. They played extremely well in the annual Millburn Invitational, winning an exciting rubber match over West Orange in the semifinals before falling by 2 points in the championship to Madison. 

The Cougars continued their high-wire act in the first round of the Essex County Tournament at Caldwell last Saturday, Oct. 15, rallying from a seemingly insurmountably 23-15 deficit in the third and final game by displaying an abundance of toughness and determination. After a side- out, Harris served 3 straight winning points before Caldwell scored again, making the score 24-19 in favor of the home team and requiring Columbia to win 5 straight points just to avoid elimination. 

“We beat Caldwell earlier in the season and we knew we could do it again, but I had to reinforce in the girls’ minds that they’re not just going to roll over,” said Bas. “Caldwell is a good program and the defending Essex County Tournament champion, so they were very motivated to win this match. During those tough moments, especially that third set when we were down, I just reminded them to play basic volleyball. I told them to do what they do best, not to force anything.” 

While the Cougars made all of the plays down the stretch, Caldwell hit balls out on the next two points. With sophomore Libby Kosik serving, Columbia won the next 2 on kills by Hall to pull within one point at 24-23. 

“Libby rotated in to serve at the end,” said Bas. “During her previous rotations, she had hit a few nets. Did that cross my mind? Yes. But what also crossed my mind was that Libby is an athlete and strong individual. We trust her, and we knew she’d pull through. She served seven good balls, including two aces. Ice in her veins, heart of steel, Zen-like focus.”

The point to tie the game was a long one, with both teams making clutch digs, until a high set from Roses set up Hall for a kill. Hall reached back and cranked a rocket off the Caldwell defender to even the score. A tough serve from Kosik led to a free ball that led to a beautiful touch shot winner by sophomore Maddy Casto, and the Cougars were 1 point away from a most unlikely victory. Another strong serve from Kosik sent Caldwell scrambling; they were unable to get the ball back over the net, and the Cougars prevailed, 26-24, by winning 11 of the final 12 points. 

The team has found success in large part due to their tremendous team spirit and support for one another — and an abundance of talent. The offense is run through setters Roses and junior Paloma Duvergne, who have combined for almost 400 assists so far and put the hitters in position to finish points. Hall, Harris, Casto, Hatton-Hennigan and sophomore Sinikka Reynolds-Vickberg share the load on kills, and the team’s diversity of finishing attackers makes it difficult to defend. On defense, junior libero Anne Sullivan leads the way with 163 digs, and along with Fardin, Hall, Taylor, Zimmerman, sophomore Corynna Manjos and a host of others, is adept at keeping points alive and setting up the offense. Serving is another team strength, with at least eight different players providing consistent and diverse serves and a startling 200 aces so far this season. 

The team is looking forward to hosting the first round of the state tournament at home in the CHS gym on Oct. 29.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the record in divisional play from the two seasons in  2021.

Photos Courtesy of Carol Fardin