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Lady Tigers clawing way back to championship

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The first question posed to Zahra Jafar? Why wasn’t Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy’s  volleyball city championship banner from last season already adorning the wall of the Lady Tigers’ home court.

“Good question,” the RKA’s star junior said. “They need to make room for it.”

The next query had more to do with whether the Lady Tigers could sustain their run as the premier program of the Public School Athletic League’s B Division. It’s a league RKA has dominated in recent seasons with back-to-back city titles. So, despite the graduations of stud players Amber Elson and Sommer Code, could we still be looking at an historic three-peat for the Lady Tigers this season?

“There are still some things I think we need to work on,” Jafar said. “But if we keep pushing and keep playing hard, I think we have a good chance at another championship. I really do.”

That little prediction was the last thing the rest of the PSAL needed to hear. After Code and Elson left RKA with two straight championships under their belt, other teams thought — or hoped — maybe the Lady Tigers would take a step back this season.

But after RKA’s first two games ended with victories where the Lady Tigers didn’t even lose a set, it looks like RKA is simply picking up where it left off.

Head coach John Reingold was not sure what he had entering preseason practice. But it didn’t take him long to discover that this team is every bit as talented as his two title teams. And, in some ways, perhaps better.

“I’m not trying to sell them some schtick,” Reingold said. “But I told them I really do think they are good enough where they can make a run, and I think they’re starting to get that in their mind that, ‘We can do this for us.’ But we’ve stopped talking about the three-peat for now. When this team develops its own identity, then maybe we’ll start talking about it again.”

The team’s identity — what makes it so successful — is how multi-skilled its players are. That’s a trait even his past two title teams lacked.

“What I really like about the team is its versatility,” Reingold said. “Sommer and Amber were great, but kind of one-dimensional players. This is not that team. This team is Krystal (Paulino), Zahra, Pam (Gonzalez) and Pat (Casino), who all play multiple positions on the floor. We have multiple players who can do multiple things, and I’ve never had that versatility before.”

That versatility was on full display last Thursday when RKA —  coming off a straight-set win over Health Professions High School in its season opener — smoked Comprehensive Model High School 25-6, 25-8. And there were contributions from all over the roster.

Pam Gonzalez had a team-high 10 aces. Ketrina Alika added six aces and five kills. Julianne Fernandez chipped in with eight digs. Paulino logged four aces and eight assists. And Jafar finished with a most-versatile four digs, two assists, two kills, one ace and one block.

Paulino thinks the Lady Tigers might have actually won the match even before it began.

“I think in warm-ups, when they see how we warm up, I think teams get a little intimidated by us,” the senior captain said.

Since the start of the 2016 season, the Lady Tigers have posted a phenomenal 28-0 regular-season mark to go along with those two titles. Their last divisional loss came Oct. 19, 2015.

So is that a streak the Lady Tigers continue to rally around?

“No, not really,” Jafar said. “We have more of a focus on moving forward and just keep going.”

Hey, whatever works. And everything seems to be working rather nicely again this season for RKA. And if this year turns into yet another storybook season for the Lady Tigers — one that ends with a third straight championship — well that would be just fine by Paulino and her senior teammates, Gonzalez and Alika.

“Even though we lost our top players from last year, I think everyone has worked really hard to get to where we are right now,” Paulino said. “We want to prove to other teams and other people that we can still bring home another championship. It would mean the world to me to win another one.”

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