It wasn’t that long ago when the John F. Kennedy Campus boys volleyball team was little more than a league doormat. The 2016 and 2017 campaigns saw the Knights go a combined 0-20, and there seemed to be little hope on the horizon.
But last year, head coach Matthew Singer transformed the once moribund program into a playoff contender, leading the Knights to a 6-4 league mark and their first playoff appearance in quite some time.
This season, Singer and the Knights were looking to build on that. And when they won five of their first eight divisional games, the postseason picture appeared to be coming into focus once again.
But with a chance to lock up a playoff spot last week, the Knights dropped a hard-fought, three-set match to Bronx Science, the first time Science lost a set all season. But that loss made the regular-season finale against Truman a must-win proposition for Kennedy, and they responded with aplomb.
The Knights blew Truman away in the first set before stumbling in the second, which forced a deciding third stanza. But Kennedy got its act back together, rolling through the final set to post a 25-15, 23-25, 25-16 victory over the Mustangs to sew up a second straight playoff berth.
“We needed this one,” Singer said. “I’m excited. My program is growing and the kids that I’ve recruited to come play are showing up all year round, for preseason, during the season and postseason. So I’m excited for what’s next.”
What’s next for the Knights, who are the No. 25 seed in the Public School Athletic League playoffs, was a scheduled visit to No. 8 High School for Math and Science in a first-round playoff game May 7, after the newspaper goes to press. A victory in that match would put Kennedy up against either No. 9 Midwood or No. 24 Bayside on May 9.
But win or lose in the first round, this Kennedy program is a far cry from the one that endured those back-to-back forgettable campaigns.
“It’s a new feeling,” Singer said. “In the past we had a lot of turnover or kids that would just come in and play for one year. So I’m much more confident going into the playoffs this year. We’ve done a lot of extra work on the side, having scrimmages with teams from the other boroughs, and playing in more tournaments. I think the experience is really helping them, but we still have a lot to work on.”
The Knights rolled through the first set with Truman like the team bus was double-parked needing just 19 minutes to dispatch the Mustangs. But the Knights seemed to temporarily lose their focus after that, which allowed Truman to steal the second set and make Kennedy work overtime for the victory.
“There was some pressure because this was a game we had to win,” said senior Idris Idris, who had 18 assists in the win. “But we believe in ourselves, and we knew we had it in us. We’ve faced stronger teams (than Truman), and we won those, so we believed we could win this on, too.”
In a drama-free third set, the Knights took the lead for good at 5-4, extended their cushion to 19-10 at one point, and then cruised to the victory. And they achieved it all without senior star Abel Katea, who was missing for undisclosed reasons.
“Aside from being a star hitter, he also brings energy to the court,” Idris said of Katea. “But I feel this team is so diverse and flexible that we could manage without him.”
Despite the win, Singer is not the only one who believes the Knights have some work to do before opening the playoffs. Senior Daniel Hamilton also has some concern.
“I know in the beginning we were playing great, but then towards the end of the season, I thought we were kind of playing on a lesser level,” said Hamilton, who had 10 kills in the victory. “I don’t know what happened, but I think we kind of went down a little. But we’re going to bring it back up for the playoffs.”
Both Singer and Idris think the Kennedy program is one on the rise, but it’s also one that is not yet hitting on all cylinders. But that, they say, is coming.
“I’d like to say we’re not playing our best yet,” Idris said. “I see a fire that is slowly lighting up in our team, and if we stay consistent, we can really make a big push.”
“Are we playing our best? I’d like to say yes,” Singer said. “I don’t believe this is their peak but we are definitely on the incline. Hopefully I can get them to that peak when we’re in the playoffs.”