Hillsborough varsity volleyball seeks county win

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By Justin Feil, Contributor
Lianna Bruno credits her growth from a quiet freshman to an outgoing senior in large part to playing volleyball for Hillsborough High School.
“I came into volleyball because my best friend wanted me to try out,” she said. “I was like, okay, let’s go. I was out of place. I never played before.”
She learned the ropes as an opposite hitter, but made a major change that helped her develop as a player and a person when she became a setter the next year, her second on the junior varsity.
“You’re learning skills, and you have to go to camps all the time to make sure you have that set ready for your hitter and to make sure everything is right so the offense can do its job,” Ms. Bruno said. “And also you’re the captain of the court. You’re the person that decides who gets the set, you decide who might get a kill.”
Though the position is an important one for a volleyball team, Ms. Bruno said it is an “extremely important one” in her eyes.
“Setting is more about being that leader and captain on the court. That was my biggest challenge because freshman year, I was not a very outgoing person,” she said. “I had to adjust. I’m proud of how this position has shaped me.”
Fast-forward two more years and Ms. Bruno is in her second season starting on the Hillsborough girls varsity team. She isn’t shy in the least. She plays with confidence and charisma and is a captain for a Raiders team that is hoping to capture the Somerset County Tournament.
Ms. Bruno had 20 assists, seven service points including one ace, two digs and a kill to help the second-seeded Raiders open the SCT with a 25-15, 25-18 win over seventh-seeded Rutgers Prep on Tuesday.
Hillsborough faces a stiff challenge in today’s semifinals at home against the number three seed Ridge. The winner plays in the final, also at Hillsborough.
“I know our number one goal right now is to have that banner on the gym wall with ‘2017’ on it for volleyball,” Ms. Bruno said. “This could be our year because of the fact that we’re all so motivated to get it. We want it.”
A win would be particularly meaningful for this year’s seniors, she said.
“I want us to go out and have fun and play our best,” Ms. Bruno said. “I know if we do that we can do anything.”
All but one of Hillsborough’s starters are seniors, but the Raiders had contributions from everyone in Tuesday’s win. It was their fifth straight to improve to 13-7 overall.
Faith Adams had 10 kills and four digs; Jordan Williams had six kills, seven service points including a team-high three aces and three digs; Isabelle Gonzalez led the team with five digs; and Marisa Mazuera had three kills, four service points and a block.
Other players also contributed during the game as well, including Erika Arendas , who had two digs; Jillian Boose had a block; Lenah Chedid had three kills; Morgan Krempasky delivered an assist; Gianna LoCicero had a dig; Natalie Minter had a service point; Hannah Otto had two digs; Nicole Sacca had a kill; and Nicole Salazar had an ace, a kill and a block.
“The seniors have been great leaders throughout the course of the year,” Hillsborough head coach Cheryl Iaione said. “They’ve helped the underclassmen with the experience of being at this level, which at times can be very difficult…I think everybody on this team is a better player than they were when they stepped on the court in August.”
The seniors have been an integral part of the program for four years. They were brought up through the ranks and transitioned into bigger roles each season. Many of them were a major part of last year’s team.
“All those people that are core to our starting lineup now, started last year,” Ms. Bruno said. “That made the switch from last year to this year a lot easier.”
Ms. Bruno has enjoyed a solid senior season and she’s still working to improve over the final weeks of it. She also sees the possibility for the Raiders to be even stronger down the homestretch.
“Personally I need to work on my defense,” Ms. Bruno said. “That’s definitely been a struggle for me throughout the season. I’m getting better, but for Thursday, I need to sharpen that up. That is key. We need to cut down on stupid mistakes – service errors, hitting errors, when we have that opportunity to get on top and get points and lose it. If we keep cutting those down, that’ll really make a difference Thursday.”
Hillsborough has twice faced Ridge in the regular season, and both times Ridge came away with hard-fought three-game wins. The Raiders would like nothing more than to get revenge in the semifinals to set up a potential final with top-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan, a team that they split a pair of three-game matches with in September.
“We played Ridge twice,” Ms. Bruno said. “We lost both times. We took them to three sets both times. The second time in my opinion, we had a really tough third game, we were down a couple points and lost momentum. That was definitely the tough one. The first one was a really good game. We have lost twice to them, and we’re definitely fired up. If we come out strong and play our best, then I do believe we can beat them.”
The Raiders have seen enough talented teams to have plenty of experience to fall back on. They have contributors across their roster that will be called upon in tournament time.
“Out of 14, I pretty much have a 10-person rotation,” Ms. Iaione said. “It just depends on any given day which 10 it’s going to be.”
Beyond the county tournament, Hillsborough is hoping to play in the state tournament. Seedings were due out Wednesday after Beacon press time, but the Raiders have a strong resume and schedule that should give them a good power point ranking and seeding.
“I definitely feel like our conference games are incredibly difficult,” Ms. Bruno said. “We play amazing teams and sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Those games are always tough going in, but we always try to play our best and normally when we play our best that turns out really well for us. The past five games, we’ve been coming out and playing like us. If we keep doing that, we can keep taking on whoever we end up playing.”
Hillsborough has won eight of its last nine games, but their concern is that some of their recent opponents haven’t been that challenging. The Raiders will have to ramp up their intensity for the county tournament today and for states.
“I have to find a way to get them back to where they were,” Ms. Iaione said. “I have to pull something out of my hat (Wednesday at practice) and get the crispness back that we had as a team and find a way to motivate them a little more.”
The banner pursuit should be motivation enough, particularly for the seniors who don’t have any more chances left in high school. They want to wrap up their four years on a high.
“Our sophomore year we had the 25-5 season for varsity,” Ms. Bruno said. “That has been the high standard to try to reach. I do think we’ve fought hard extremely hard for all the games. We’ve put in so much effort. I think it’s definitely paid off.”
The Raiders have had some big bright spots already this season, and winning a tournament title would cap off the careers for another big senior class.
“It has been a roller coaster,” Ms. Bruno said. “It’s been amazing. I think the one thing that makes us different from any team is how close we are and the fact that we literally are best friends on and off the court. We have each other’s backs. That’s the part that has gotten us through this.”
Ms. Bruno doesn’t want it to end any time soon. She has a limited number of opportunities to play left before she shifts her focus to nursing in college. She is hoping to make the most of her final tournaments with the Raiders and her final chance at playing organized volleyball.
“I’m not doing club this year,” Ms. Bruno said. “It’s going to be weird to go from going to varsity to not touching a ball. I think it’s going to be weird. It’s been my life for last four years.” 