The St. John Vianney boys volleyball team proudly display their second-place medals they earned at the Eastern Invitational Tournament on Apr. 9. The Lancers carry a 10-3 record into their May 6 Shore Conference Tournament opener with Pinelands. Courtesy photo
The St. John Vianney boys volleyball team proudly display their second-place medals they earned at the Eastern Invitational Tournament on Apr. 9. The Lancers carry a 10-3 record into their May 6 Shore Conference Tournament opener with Pinelands. Courtesy photo

The St. John Vianney of Holmdel boys’ volleyball team is 10-3 this season, and that sterling record actually traces back to the 2021 campaign.

Entering its May 17 match at Lacey last year, an extremely young Lancers team was 0-7, but hardly discouraged. One of the main reasons for that upbeat approach was a conviction in their belief. Many of the players are members of Catholic Athletes for Christ and live by those lessons.  

“Faith has really been a central talking point for us both last year and this year,” said coach Jessica Gadaleta, who coaches the team with her husband, Brian. “After that tough start, it was just sort of keeping the faith and trusting in the process and trusting in God’s plan for us. And just kind of coming out and working hard every day.”

The combination of faith and work ethic has paid off. SJV beat Lacey that day, and won six of their final seven matches. That gives the Lancers a 16-4 mark within the calendar year; and Gadaleta feels last season’s finish has fueled this season’s success.

“Absolutely,” she said. “You could draw a direct line from May 17 last year. We had to wait a while for that first win; but once we got it, it really improved their morale and showed them what was possible. They had to take those lumps and take those losses because it made them grow as players.”

And while the Lancers were able to survive, there was always the chance things could go the other way and spiral out of control.

“I really give them a ton of credit because the lineup was sophomore-heavy, so they’re young guys and it would be really easy to get discouraged and quit when things aren't going your way,” Gardaleta continued. “But they trusted the process, they trusted the coaches and what was really great was when the season was over, they were so encouraged that they invested the time in the off-season to play. And we’ve been really impressed by the turn-around.”

As of May 5, SJV was 8-1 in the Shore Conference’s B North Division and in second place behind Colts Neck, which was 10-1 with its only loss coming to SJV. The Lancers enter the Shore Conference Tournament as the fifth-seed and will host 12th-seeded Pinelands of Little Egg Harbor in a first-round match May 6. A win will pit them against No. 4 seed Jackson Memorial, which handed Vianney one of its losses in a tightly played match.

“If we can get by Pinelands, we like our matchup with Jackson Memorial and definitely want another shot at them,” Gardaleta said. “Our loss was a very close game that went to extra points both times.”

Jackson Memorial is 10-4, while the combined record of the three teams SJV has lost to – which also include Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, and Freehold Borough –  is 33-8. The Lancers beat Freehold in a rematch.

“CBA brings a different style of play than maybe the other two we lost to,” Gardaleta said. “They play very fast and have a good setter who can distribute the ball all over the court. That was a learning curve because both of our middles are new this year. That really helped speed their development. It’s tough to train those kinds of things in practice if you don’t run it yourself. Seeing that will help prepare us for the Shore Conference Tournament and the state tournament.”

The Lancers’ renaissance has come after some growing pains that were partially caused by the 2020 COVID shutdown. When the freshmen lost a year of playing JV, they were thrust into a varsity role as sophomores without having any high school experience to get adjusted.

They now have a year in the trenches – and it shows.

A major key to the success has also been one of the team’s pleasant surprises. Junior Josh Hrbosky has taken over as setter and is among the state leaders in assists with 292, and also has 56 digs. He joined the team midway through last year and played outside hitter but showed enough court awareness to be invited to “Setter Boot Camp” this year.

“We just do some extra training and try to figure out who our setter’s going to be because it’s the most valuable position on the court, touching the ball on every play,” Gardaleta said. “Josh was kind of a dark horse going into that. But he’s really settled into the role.

“Early on you could tell he was a bit nervous. His decision making was a bit off, but as the season has progressed, we really look to him to lead on the floor and he has taken control of the offense. I’m so proud of his progress. And he just loves the game; any time you see him he’s watching volleyball, he’s reading about volleyball.”

Juniors Matthew Brana and Jack Farah have been strong outside hitters. Brana has 89 kills and 46 digs; while Farah has 91 kills and 81 digs.

“We know we can always look to them for a side out; both of them are having phenomenal seasons,” Gardaleta said. “They’re really different kinds of players but they each lean into their strengths.

“Jack is super athletic. He’s an explosive athlete, really powerful,” she continued. “Matt’s 6-foot-2 and pretty big on the pin for us but he’s a smart player too. He just brings that calming, steadying energy to the court. He gets fired up after a big point but he never gets really low after we lose a point so he keeps everybody even keeled.”

Seniors John Moreira (89 digs) and Jonathan Williams (92 kills, 17 blocks) have also made an impact.

“John Moreira is a goalie so he’s used to playing defense,” Gardaleta said. “He’s really honed his skills as a libero. Jonathan Williams has just taken over games. He can get off the ground and he’s got a really fast arm swing, so he’s been quite a surprise for us on the right side.”

Junior Dan Herndon has been strong in the middle with 27 digs and 21 blocks off the bench, and Gardaleta feels “we can really plug him in anywhere on the floor. He just brings so much athleticism for us.”

Other contributors have been senior Liam Greene, juniors Anthony Velardo (40 digs), Zachary Martin (14 kills, 17 blocks) and Frank Blunda, sophomore Johnk Skibniewski and freshman Nico Aquilone.

“I can’t really say enough about all the kids on the roster,” Gardaleta said. “It’s a small roster comparatively for us, we usually carry about 16. But everybody contributes.”

The coach feels the team’s biggest attribute is its resiliency. After their rough start last year, the players have bounced back and shown mental and physical toughness.

“Our boys dig a ton of balls, they block a ton of balls, so we really did invest time in playing good defense,” Gardaleta said. “We knew we had some big hitters we could play on our pin, but they’ve really taken the time to work as defenders and to learn the system and play together. They play very well as a team.”

And the results have been evident.