The Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy gymnasium is a rather intimidating venue for opponents to enter.
The Lady Tigers’ home court has its walls adorned with a bevy of championship banners, several of them boasting of past volleyball successes. It’s always brimming with boisterous RKA fans, and it has not seen a Lady Tigers’ opponent come into its cozy confines and leave with a victory in, well, a very, very long time.
But after a grueling one-hour, 45-minute match against No. 21 Bayside in the opening round of the Public School Athletic League’s playoffs, there was nothing but stunned silence and lots of tears as the 12th-seeded Lady Tigers unexpectedly saw their season come to an end, 25-27, 25-15, 12-25.
“I remember we lost one early on here, I think in our second year,” RKA head coach John Reingold said. “So that was at least seven years ago.”
The match began just as virtually every other RKA match has in the past several seasons, with the Lady Tigers — who went 12-1 in their first season in the PSAL A Division — jumping out to a 20-14 lead in the first set. And with RKA’s reputation at home, it looked like Bayside was going to be easy pickings.
But the Lady Commodores staged a fierce rally and caught RKA at 22. The Lady Tigers managed to claw their way back to a 25-24 lead, but again they could not put Bayside away, and the visitors once again rallied to pull out a stunning 27-25 win.
“We gave away that first set and you can’t give that away,” Reingold said. “The first set was ours. We were up 20-14 and then they went on a roll.”
But RKA looked like its old self in the second set when it put away Bayside 25-15 to even the match and send it to a decisive third frame. And when RKA notched the first point, just about everyone in the gym was expecting another runaway for the home team. But Bayside went on a 13-5 spurt and never looked back.
“I knew we had a lot of fight left in us and there was enough good play in that first set to carry over into the second, and it did,” Reingold said. “So I actually felt good going into that third set. But we just didn’t come out and start well. We went down 3-1 and never really got it back.”
Senior Pat Casino, who was part of RKA teams that went to three straight PSAL B championship games in her first three years — winning two of them — spoke through tears about her sterling career.
“Even though we lost today, we had an amazing season,” she said. “It was a season that no one expected from us at all. We got bumped up into the A this year with new players on the court, and we were still figuring everything out. But we managed to piece everything together and make a good run. But my whole career I’ve learned so much from the coaches and from the girls, and I will always carry that with me.”
Junior Erika Hoti spoke of what Casino has meant to her and the Lady Tigers’ program.
“Pat has taught me so much about everything,” Hoti said. “She’s been there for me no matter what. Without Pat, I don’t think me — individually, or the team — would have pushed this far. She was the biggest motivation for me this whole year.”
Minutes after the game ended and before Reingold could speak to his emotional team one last time, Bayside coach Samer Abdelfattah approached Reingold to offer his congratulations, and even spoke to the RKA players.
“Riverdale is one phenomenal team,” Abdelfattah said. “I told my girls they don’t lose on their court. So this was a huge accomplishment for my girls. We did the impossible and I’m so proud of my team and Riverdale. It was just such good volleyball. They are a terrific program and they have a great coach.”
RKA freshman Adelina Elezaj, a rising star for the Lady Tigers, said one playoff loss will not blot an otherwise brilliant season.
“We fought so hard and we put our heart into that game and I’m very proud of us,” Elezaj said. “This program has been going on since 2007, and it’s just going to keep going on and on. And even though Pat and the other seniors were such great assets to the team, we’re just going to grow and make everyone proud and continue the legacy here.”