John Reingold hid it from his team, but he was concerned.
Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy’s girls volleyball team, the defending Public School Athletic League champions, were squarely on the ropes, and the end of their reign was in sight.
The Lady Tigers, who hadn’t lost a single set all season, were stunned by Robert Wagner in the first set in last week’s PSAL city championship game, and trailed in the second set as well. It was territory RKA was not accustomed to living in.
“We were down 17-13 in second set, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘If they get another one or two points here, we’re dead in the water,’” Reingold said. “We were in a bad spot. At that point, all the momentum was with (Robert Wagner). We were in trouble. We needed to get a stop right there.”
But it was then the Lady Tigers rediscovered their championship form, beginning to play like the program that had not lost a game since the PSAL semifinals in November 2015. RKA rallied to take the second set by two points before posting a four-point win in the third set as the Lady Tigers repeated as PSAL champions with a 23-25, 25-23, 25-21 victory at Queens College.
The win caps a perfect league season for the Lady Tigers (19-0), a program that had never won a city title prior to its current two-year run.
“I knew we were going to win when it was 15-10” in the third set, said senior Amber Elson, who piled up 34 assists in the championship match. “Krystal (Paulino) was serving, and we were like, ‘We got this.’ I knew we were going to win because all my girls were smiling. That’s when our chemistry was really boiling.”
After dropping the first set to No. 2 seed Robert Wagner, the top-ranked Lady Tigers found themselves in a spot similar to last season’s title match when they also dropped the first set. That experience helped them navigate their situation again this season.
“This just shows how much perseverance our program has,” Elson said.
That first-set loss was just setting up what turned out to be an epic battle between two volleyball heavyweights.
“It was a brawl,” Reingold said. “It was a wild three-set match. After we lost the first set, I told them we haven’t even played well yet. We had four or five service errors and we lost by just two. I said it’s a long match, and they’re going to have to knock us out. I told them to take it one point at a time, one set at a time.
“Then we played well enough at crucial points to win those last two sets.”
One of the more memorable plays of the match came in the third set with RKA clinging to an 18-17 lead. That’s when Sommer Code made a long, running, over-the-head shot with her back to the net that helped the Lady Tigers go up 19-17 rather than allow Wagner to tie the game. Even Code had no idea at the time how much distance she covered to save the point.
“I wasn’t really sure I could get to that ball,” said Code, who finished with 16 kills, seven digs and two assists, “It was like a 50-50 chance. I didn’t truly realize how far I had gone until I turned around to get back into the game.”
“I think that ignited the fans as well as the team,” Reingold said. “That was a huge point, a huge point.”
Wagner managed to pull within 22-20 later in the set, but RKA held on at the end to complete its repeat.
“I honestly don‘t think we’ve ever played three sets that close,” Code said. “Last year was hard, but this one was definitely tooth and nail. But this one is special because I was surrounded by the same teammates as last year. It was always about getting back to the championship game. And now that we got it, it just doesn’t feel real.”
Reingold said it will be hard to say goodbye to his talented senior class which included Code, Elson, Juliann Garcia — who had six kills and four blocks — and Elianna Encarnacion, who added eight digs.
“I’ll miss them very much,” Reingold said. “They put themselves in a unique category here. This was not easy to do. I told them it was going to be harder this time. But it all worked out.”