It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy.
Here were the Lady Tigers — the two-time defending volleyball champions of the Public School Athletic League — poised to go for a rare three-peat and attempting to do so against an Eleanor Roosevelt team that was making its first-ever appearance in a championship game.
But then the Lady Tigers unexpectedly dropped the first set — the only set they had lost all season — and in doing so also saw senior captain Pam Gonzalez go down with a badly sprained ankle. And while Gonzalez gamely tried to play through her pain, limping through most of the final two sets, her diminished role proved to be too much for RKA to overcome as the Lady Tigers’ two-year reign as PSAL champions came to an end in a 25-20, 23-25, 25-18 loss to Roosevelt last week at York College.
“Honestly, I think her injury shook everyone because Pam is our primary hitter,” junior Zarah Jafar said. “I think, for a little while, everyone didn’t think that we could do it without her.”
The match began as it usually does for top-seeded RKA, jumping out to a quick 8-1 lead in the first set. But third-seeded Roosevelt, which knocked off No. 2 Wagner to reach the title game, methodically worked its way back into the game, finally catching the Lady Tigers at 18-all.
Roosevelt took the next two points for a 20-18 lead, and that’s when RKA’s night took a decided turn south as Gonzalez injured her ankle on a play around the net. After being attended to by trainers for several minutes, she limped off the court, and it appeared her night was over.
But at the start of the second set, with RKA needing a win to keep its title hopes alive, Gonzalez limped back on the court and her return gave the Lady Tigers an emotional boost, fending off elimination with a dramatic second-set victory to set up the do-or-die third.
“She really raised us emotionally,” RKA head coach John Reingold said. “I really don’t even know how we won that second set because we really didn’t put together any offense at all.
And against a very good team like them, I just don’t know how we won that second set.”
Unfortunately for RKA, that emotional high didn’t carry over into the third set as Roosevelt jumped out to a 10-5 lead. Roosevelt weathered a Lady Tigers’ comeback attempt, an opponent that closed to within two points. But the Huskies responded by closing the set on a 7-2 run to claim their first PSAL crown.
It was a gutty effort by Gonzalez and the Lady Tigers which saw them come up just short of their hoped-for three-peat.
“I was in a ton of pain,” Gonzalez said. “In the amount of pain I was in on the floor, I honestly did not think I would be able to keep playing. But I knew I had to keep pushing and give all I got to make my team proud. We got that far, and I wasn’t going to give up on them.”
Reingold thought pushing the match to a third set was going to favor the defending champs.
“I had the script wrong and I have to tip my hat to Roosevelt,” Reingold said. “They hadn’t been there before, this was their first time. So I thought with this being their first time and then we take that second set, I’m saying to myself, ‘They have to be scratching their heads and saying, ‘How the hell did we lose that second set?’ But then they come out for the third set and picked up the first four points pretty quickly. That’s when I was like, ‘We’re in trouble here.’”
It was a deflating finish to a fine tenure for Gonzalez.
“It was really tough to end my high school career that way because I wanted to give way more than I was able to at that moment,” Gonzalez said.
“It was tough not being able to give my all because we worked so hard to get to where we were, and we deserved to get even (further).
“Even though we didn’t win, I’m so proud of my team and how far we got because we made it further than anyone thought we would.”