by Andrew Garda

For the Montclair High School girls volleyball team, the upcoming 2017 season is the culmination of a long road. Of the 16-girl roster, 14 players are seniors and 11 of those seniors have been with the program for four years. Three of the remaining five players have been with head coach Pam Reilly for three years.

That experience should come in handy during a tough schedule.

“I have high hopes for this team, especially the seniors who have been in the program for four years,” Reilly said. “The preseason went exceedingly well and [we’re] very excited about moving on into the regular season. I don’t want to get overexcited, but I am very excited about the things I’ve seen, the progress we’ve made and the strides we’ve made.”

One area in which strides have been made is communication, something that hasn’t always functioned at peak efficiency the last few years, according to senior attacker Delaney Wastler.

“We’ve been working playing as a team, because that’s where we’ve sort of had a disconnect in past seasons,” Wastler said at the team’s media day. “So we’ve been doing a lot of pasta parties and team bowling nights and stuff like that to work as a team.”

Wastler says things like scavenger hunts, such as one they took part in at Watchung Plaza, help them learn to communicate when doing things beyond just volleyball. Those communication skills then naturally flow onto the court.

Senior outside hitter Margaret Lemma agrees and says it goes both ways.

“We spend a lot of time together and I think natural bonds are formed which, when doing other activities, like the pasta parties, only make them stronger. I think that everyone is super comfortable as we head towards the beginning of the season, honestly, because we’ve had all summer to yell at one another or try and communicate with one another. I think it’s like a bond we all have.”

The team has had all summer to work together, but they didn’t have to. Any summer practice is voluntary, and those who show up do so because they want to be there. They’ve been doing it since the spring offseason, when they would gather on days when the boys team wasn’t using the courts during its own season.

“You can’t be forced to come to practice since school isn’t in session,” senior defensive specialist Samantha Lee explained at media day. “So, a lot of us coming during the boys’ season, coming to open gym, and coming every day during the summer is our choice, because we want to be better.”

It’s not just about themselves or even the other starters, Lee said.

“We want to work for the girls who are on the bench or on the court. Doesn’t matter who, we just want to play for each other.”

Senior defensive specialist and setter Chloe Bollinger says the fact that the players chose to be there inspired them to work harder and brought out their competitiveness. If you missed one practice, you were determined not to miss the next one.

“When everyone is making that choice, and you’re left out, you also make the choice to come,” Bollinger said. “It creates a cohesive dedication throughout the program.”

That’s dedication that has truly been building for four years. This class of seniors has been together since freshman year and were inspired by the seniors they saw their first year to create their own bond.

“We started to form this really strong bond and [could] see how everyone else has played,” senior outside hitter Ariana Martinez said. “Building the program together has really shown us how good of a team we can be. We’ve seen how good we can be at our best and we’ve seen each other at our worst and it shows we have to be working as hard as we can, every day, to reach the best of our ability.”

Lee agrees.

“I think one of the reasons we try to help each other is we had a really strong senior class who we looked up to and [said], ‘we’re gonna look like them in four years.’”

And when they reach the peak of their skills? This is a team that feels it can do great things, things like win a conference championship.

That’s what their coach wants as well.

“My goal is to make sure that these ladies, who have been so dedicated to this program since they were freshmen, go out on top,” Reilly said, though her definition of out on top might be somewhat different from the players’ definition.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that we win, though hopefully [we will]. That’s exactly what I want, what I’ve been wanting since last year when they came together as a solid group of juniors. But bigger than that, on a larger scale, to instill in them some of the work ethic and teamwork and life skills they will need when they leave here.”

Yes, Reilly said, she wants and expects a conference title. More importantly, though, she wants this group of young women to leave her team ready for whatever the next phase of their lives brings them.