The Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy girls volleyball program is a team on a mission.
After back-to-back Public School Athletic League championships the past two seasons, this year’s version of the Lady Tigers looks to carve out its own little piece of history at the school. Sure, many of the current players were members of those past title teams, but they were more the supporting cast, with now-departed players like Sommer Code, Amber Elson and Juliann Garcia taking center stage.
While it’s now time for a changing of the guard at RKA, the Lady Tigers also have managed to keep their eye on the ultimate prize — a PSAL title three-peat.
“This team is forging its own identity,” head coach John Reingold said. “It’s different from the other two (championship) teams. The other two teams, for two years they were all together and dominated and won those titles. Now this is kind of like turning the page. Those girls were great, and those teams were great, but this team wants its own identity.”
And this RKA team just got one step closer to earning a championship of its own as the Lady Tigers steamrolled John Dewey 25-4, 25-9 in a second-round playoff game. After that, they took down a stubborn Leadership Academy in the quarterfinals, 25-8, 25-18, Monday night to advance to the PSAL semifinals for the eighth straight season.
Top-seeded RKA was scheduled to face No. 5 seed Bronx School of Government & Justice in the semifinals Nov. 20 at Queens College.
“In a way we had to fill the shoes of Sommer and Amber and Juli, but now we’re creating our own identity and we’re leading this team in our own way,” junior Zahra Jafar said. “It’s like me, Krystal (Paulino), Pam (Gonzalez) and Ketrina (Alika). We’ve been given a chance to show what we can do, and not just be compared to the girls who were on this team before.”
RKA had little trouble with 17th-seeded Dewey, taking just 40 minutes to dispatch the Dragons. In what seemed more like a glorified workout than a playoff game for the Lady Tigers, Alika logged 10 kills and junior Patricia Casino posted 21 assists with Gonzalez, Paulino and Jafar each adding seven digs.
The quarterfinal match with Leadership Academy was only slightly more competitive with RKA again winning in straight sets. The Lady Tigers jumped out to a commanding 11-2 lead to begin the first set, never letting the eighth-seeded Lady Eagles get any closer than seven points the rest of the way.
Leadership did come out with a bit more fight in the second set, even taking an early 10-6 lead. But RKA responded with a 12-1 run to take an 18-11 lead, waltzing the rest of the way.
“In that second set when they had that lead, we just told each other to settle down and catch our breath and get the next point,” said Paulino, a senior, who was playing her final home game. “It made us build up our grit and gave us more determination to win that set and show them that we wanted it more.”
Despite the two playoff wins, Reingold knows the road to a three-peat will only get more difficult as the postseason progresses.
“We could have been picked off today, but I liked our resolve,” the coach said. “But we have a lot of work to do. That Government & Justice team, from what (assistant coach) Larry (Ellis) tells me, is going to be a little better than (Leadership Academy). But if we play well, we’ll get through that.”
Which would set up a third straight trip to the championship game at Queens College on Nov. 27.
“It’s kind of nerve-racking every time we play now,” Paulino said. “We still have that pressure on us because we don’t have the girls who graduated last year. So it’s all on us now. But I have confidence that we will pull through and win it all again. I would love to win it one more time to prove that it was us and we did it on our own.”
Winning another title also would mean one more championship banner for the wall at RKA’s gym. Of course, last year’s banner has still yet to make an appearance.
“It’s in Jersey,” Reingold said, laughing. “Larry and I were supposed to go pick it up over the summer and we didn’t get around to it. It’s already been made and it’s waiting for us to go pick it up. It’s been there for about eight months. But we’re going to go pick it up soon.”
And maybe, just maybe, have another one made up in the process.