Just like old times Secaucus volleyball team steamrolls toward state playoffs undefeated once again

Think it’s fun coaching an undefeated high school volleyball team?

Try enduring that daily pressure while you’re seven months pregnant.

Well, that’s how Secaucus High School girls’ volleyball coach Sheila Ulrich Rivera is handling this season. A year after winning the NJSIAA Group I state championship and going all the way to the Tournament of Champions finale, Rivera’s Patriots are at it again, winning their first 21 matches of the current season.

The Patriots are ranked No. 3 in the entire state, after knocking off the No. 16 team, previously unbeaten Midland Park, last week.

So it should be a fun time for all, right?

“I’m just exhausted,” said Rivera, who, with husband Ralph, is expecting her first child in December. “I don’t know how most women do this, work 12 hours while pregnant. But we’re getting there. The girls do make me nuts, but I love them. They always ask me, `What am I craving?’ So they try me whenever they can.”

But Rivera knows that something special is brewing once again in a land where volleyball dominance has simply become expected. Over the years, Secaucus has amassed an amazing 17 NJSIAA state championships, easily a state record and the sixth highest total for any school in the nation.

Rivera knows what it’s like from all ends of the spectrum. She was a standout player at Secaucus and won three state titles during her playing days. Then, she served as an assistant coach to Maria Nolan for several years while the Patriots continued their winning ways.

When Nolan stepped down after the 2001 season, Rivera was elevated to head coach and the championship run continued with last year’s sensational 24-2 campaign and the trip to the T of C finale.

Four of the players from last year’s miraculous run have returned, including two of the finest players in the entire state.

Senior Cory Roesing, an All-State honoree in each of the last two years, has improved over her brilliant seasons in years past. Middle hitter Roesing, who led the Patriots to a victory in the Hudson County Coaches Association tournament over Memorial last week, giving Secaucus its 16th county title in 19 years, is destined for All-State honors again this year.

“She’s hitting the ball harder,” said Rivera, who also happens to be Roesing’s aunt. “She sees everything on the floor. You can just tell that she wants to do everything she can for the team. But all of a sudden, she has become a vocal leader. For three years, you never heard anything from her. Now, she’s a senior and she’s more vocal.”

Fellow senior Kristen Bronowich is as equally talented and respected as Roesing. Rivera knows to put Roesing on one side of the court and Bronowich on the other to give the team some needed balance.

“I try to offset them,” Rivera said. “It didn’t start off like that, but now, we spread them out. Krissy is very consistent and has picked up her hitting a lot. She’s very controlled.”

Rivera said that she loves how the two seniors are leading the way in everything.

“There really is this great chemistry throughout the team and they’re the ones looking to keep it all together,” Rivera said. “It’s definitely not a `me’ team. It’s a ‘we’ team. They’re both very complimentary toward each other and they keep up with everything. You see how everyone just looks to the two seniors and they’re always there.”

Even down to the team’s dietary habits. Every Thursday, the entire team in unison eats dinner together.

“They might go to each other’s house for dinner or they go out together,” Rivera said. “It’s a weekly thing. They’re all so close knit. They’re always talking about where they’re going to eat. It’s fun to watch.”

Sophomore setter Monica Dempsey and junior do-everything Jenna Totaro are the other returnees from a year ago.

“Monica just smiles at me and does whatever we need,” Rivera said. “Jenna has been both a setter and an outside hitter. She’s been setting only for two months, but she’s doing a very good job.”

Junior Elise Lennon is a middle hitter alongside of the talented Roesing. Senior Larissa Impreveduto is sharing time with junior Michelle Mitchell for the last spot among the starters. Junior Nicole Waters comes in off the bench and gives the Patriots some depth.

So the state playoffs begin this week. Secaucus earned the No. 1 seed in Group I and will face the winner of Lyndhurst/Ridgefield Park in the second round of the tourney Friday.

Can there be a repeat performance?

“Sure, at least four of them know what it’s like to win it all,” Rivera said. “Once you get a taste of it, you want to taste it again. I think it’s important that we have those who experienced it, because I couldn’t get that through to them. I know what it felt like as a player and I would love to be able to go out there again.”

There would be just one slight problem with that now. Rivera would be playing for two. – Jim Hague


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