Last fall, Anthony White made a lineup change that altered the course of his John P. Stevens High School girls’ volleyball program.
He put in a freshman, Laurel Sarkaria, at the most important spot on the court: Setter, the girl in the middle responsible for keeping plays alive and passing to her teammates.
J.P. Stevens proceeded to go 14-2 down the stretch and win the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament title, the program’s first GMC championship since 2008 and its second in school history.
The Hawks even got all the way to the NJSIAA Group 4 Tournament quarterfinals, falling to state-power Westfield High School, 2-1, in a third set that came down to extra points.
No one saw the run coming, not even White himself. Sarkaria unlocked a Hawks team that no one knew existed.
“I knew she had potential. I just wasn’t sure what she’d do in a varsity game,” White said. “Then I decided to just try it, and everything clicked.”
Now everyone knows this Hawks team exists, but it still doesn’t matter. J.P. Stevens is the girls’ volleyball equivalent of the football team that runs the ball through an eight-man box.
Opponents know what they are going to do, play fast and attack at the net, yet they still can’t stop it.
J.P. Stevens is 10-0 with seven sweep victories. It has beaten two GMC rivals, Colonia High School and Monroe Township High School, that it lost to in 2018. On Sept. 6 the Hawks traveled up to Jersey City and beat a state power, Hudson Catholic Regional High School, in its own gym, 2-0.
J.P. Stevens is a state title contender for perhaps the first time in history.
“Our attitude is take care of the county first and worry about states after,” White said.
In less than a year, J.P. Stevens went from happy to win the county to “take care of the county.” Sarkaria unlocked that potential, but her two older teammates, outside hitters Simi Carlsen and Irene Quan, made it possible in the first place.
The two captains are the ones who finish Sarkaria’s passes at the net. Carlsen, a 6-0 junior, and Quan, a 5-10 senior, have recorded 96 and 78 kills, respectively, in 2019.
White advises his players to make low passes and to attack the opponent after one pass, instead of two. He thinks Sarkaria, Carlsen and Quan work best together when they are playing fast and applying constant pressure.
It’s hard to argue with the results.
“The efficiency of our offense is driving us,” White said. “Other teams are rally teams. We put the ball down.”
“We catch the other team off guard,” he added.
The Hawks are enjoying themselves. They are playing fast and polishing off opponents. Their record is up to 24-3 since Sarkaria entered the lineup.
The players even enjoy going to practice. White gives his captains, Carlsen and Quan, the latitude to make it fun.
There are themed t-shirt days, like college t-shirt day and retro t-shirt day. There are also rounds of “Two Truths and a Lie,” a game where each person tells two truths and a lie about themselves, while the other people try to guess the lie, after the conditioning portion of practice each day.
“Everybody gets along well,” White said. “They look forward to practice as much as you can look forward to practice.”