By Wayne Witkowski
When Jackson Liberty High School’s girls’ volleyball team beat perennial Shore Conference A North Division contender Barnegat High School for the first time in many years Sept. 27, it affirmed the feeling of senior setter Shayna Saltzman that this is a special season.
Last year’s Jackson Liberty team started off 8-0 and went on to finish with its most victories ever at 14-6, but with early-round exits in the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Group III tournaments. This year’s edition has enough experience and talent to set even higher goals, as it comes into this week with its best start ever at 12-0 in regular-season matches.
“We have many experienced players and a lot of club players who are juniors and seniors working together, and putting that talent together from club [play] makes us more successful. We’ve been playing together for a long time,” Saltzman said. “We play beach volleyball on summer weekends, which helps our movement on the court. It helps for a fast-paced game and quick sets.”
Saltzman said the team worked a lot on passing for this season, and it has been a key to its success.
“She can turn any pass to a ball to attack,” coach Melissa O’Neill said about Saltzman.
Saltzman plays for Warren Six Pack, while some of her teammates play for the Ocean County Volleyball Club and others play for the Princeton Volleyball Club teams. But when practices began in August for Jackson Liberty’s varsity, they all worked toward blending that talent.
Saltzman said she also felt that a scrimmage against Red Bank Catholic High School in which Jackson Liberty played better set the tone early.
“This team has been so successful because they love this sport and have put countless hours into their game by playing on club teams, playing on beach teams and truly enjoying every moment they can on and off the court,” said O’Neill, who returns as Jackson Liberty coach after taking a family leave last season.
Saltzman commandeers a punishing attack of middle hitters Lauren Coughlin and Paige Kolakowski, both juniors; outside hitters Brianna Nixon and Alexis Villalta, both seniors; and opposite hitter Brianna Mamrega, a senior. The libero is senior Jaclyn Emm, who is a new starter, along with Kolakowski. O’Neill said Emm has measured up well to the challenge of replacing Arjona Canka, an outstanding libero last season who graduated.
“The offense is pretty quick, and we run different system plays with the middle and outside hitters mixed up,” Saltzman said. “It keeps teams off balance.”
Only twice did the Lions go to a third set — against Barnegat and Lacey Township High School. They swept Lacey in the Sept. 29 rematch and look to an Oct. 17 rematch against Barnegat as the one that could determine the division championship.
The team also participated in two tournaments, the first hosted by Eastern Regional High School, where the Lions lost in the one-set format to Livingston High School, 25-23, in the semifinals. The other tournament was in Bloomfield, where Jackson Liberty reached the finals, losing, 25-23, to Mount Olive High School.
O’Neill said Brian Chesley, the head coach of the boys’ volleyball team in the spring, also has helped as an assistant in setting up the strength and conditioning program. He has also refined the team’s serving with more power and with serve reception.
O’Neill credits Saltzman, Nixon and Villalta for their leadership as captains.
“This is a team of girls who truly enjoy playing together and push one another to play their best at all times,” O’Neill said. “They believe they are a dominant group. Going forward, the key for success will be to not get too overconfident. Volleyball is such a mental sport, and our team has to remain upbeat and positive and play hard. We can only control what we do on our side of the court.”
Add to that the “Red Zone” student cheering section raising the team’s enthusiasm with its support.
“It adds to our success,” Saltzman said. “For the first time, we have huge crowds. Students are even tailgating.”
Saltzman and her teammates hope that fun lasts far into tournaments.