by Andrew Garda

The Montclair Kimberley Academy girls volleyball team has one of its biggest rosters ever, with 30 kids in the program. To head coach Mike Tully, that means he and the staff are doing something right.

“It means kids are hearing good things in the hallways. Kids talk and apparently when they talk about us they say good things,” he said during a recent practice.

It also means that one of Tully’s tasks now is to find a way to seamlessly merge the veteran players with the mass influx of new faces.

“We have some really skilled, competitive kids who really love this game,” Tully said. “Our upperclassmen do a great job of leading [bringing the team together] and we have a culture where that happens almost automatically.”

Tully said the key is the seniors and upperclassmen treating the younger players as well as they were treated when they were new. It seems to be working too.

“We just had a team circle where we gave out our uniforms and talked about our aspirations for the season,” he said. “Many of the girls just talked about wanting closeness and building teamwork.”

Senior Zoe Kusnierz, a defensive specialist and libero — a back-row specialist who is allowed to play back court only and not rotate — agrees that teamwork and togetherness are vital to success this season.

“I think being supportive to the new players is very important,” she said. “We’ve been doing a lot of team bonding, things like sleepovers and making sure to include them, make them feel at home.”

Kusnierz says it’s critical to establish good communication among teammates, and the veterans do it both by the team-building exercises and simply reminding their teammates that on the court, you have to talk.

“Communication comes along when you’re comfortable with your teammates and trusting everyone,” she added. “My goal is for everyone to feel comfortable with this team. In the past, the seniors [have] been such great people, in my high school experience.”

Kusnierz is trying her best to do the same for the younger players, and she does that both by talking and listening.

“I think the most important part as an older player is having an open mind, so that it allows the younger players to have an open mind too. We’ve been talking a lot this year about having a growth mindset. To be really open minded to new ideas, because really that’s the only way you’re going to get better.”

Tully said he sees results of Kusnierz’ and the veteran’s efforts every day in practice, as the players compete for playing time, but they have fun doing so.

“We compete in practice every day. We’re carrying 14 on varsity, but the reality is all of those kids can’t play all the time.”

That means players are constantly vying for spots and anyone can get a start by working hard.

“We have more depth this year than we’ve ever had,” he said. “There’s not a single kid out there who would look out of place on a varsity court. I’m hoping to get a lot of them a lot of [playing] time, but the reality is some girls will get more playing time than others. Everybody has a role and whatever role you have, do it to the best of your ability.”

This year’s Cougars squad has a lot of young talent on it that, combined with the returning players, gives them versatility and a deep bench to work with.

“We have good balance. I think we have lots of kids who have fun playing volleyball together and who like to compete and who like to be with each other.”

That togetherness and belief in one another makes Tully’s job a lot more fun.

“I told them that my job is to love them. Their job is to love each other.”