Cooper: Small school, big volleyball win

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Bogota Bucs on Sunday celebrating their Bergen County girls volleyball championship — the first by a Group 1 school.

The Bogota Bucs on Sunday celebrating their Bergen County girls volleyball championship — the first by a Group 1 school.

Bogota became the first Group 1 school to win the Bergen County girls volleyball title, prevailing over Immaculate Heart in three sets Sunday at Old Tappan.

It was the third matchup of the season between the two squads. All three went three sets, this was the first one to go to the Bucs and it’s one they will savor.

“We wanted to make history today,” said Bogota senior setter Rebecca Kelemen. “It’s real hard. IHA is a very skilled team, the talent is even on both sides but we were mentally prepared to make history. We came here with a mission and we completed it.”

How hard is it for a Group 1 school, much less a small Group 1 like Bogota, to win a county title? The facts show it is practically impossible for a small public school.

In girls sports, no Group 1 team has won a Bergen County championship in basketball. It’s never happened in soccer or swimming. In tennis, the competition is split between big schools and small schools, and cross-country is divided into four groups. So, big and small aren’t allowed to compete against each other.

The only girls sport in which it’s even close is softball: Lodi (1987), Cliffside Park (1986), New Milford (1977) and Westwood (1974) are the only small public schools that have come away with the big trophy. And even that is a bit skewed, because all those schools had larger enrollments at the time of their wins than they do today.

Small schools, such as Bogota with its enrollment of 281, face a tremendous challenge. They don’t have the same numbers, obviously. They don’t face the same level of competition consistently, and should they survive the crucible of a county tournament facing public schools four times their size, there may be a non-public school just waiting to pounce.

That’s why what the Bucs did Sunday will resonate.

“I know that, and you know what? That will sink in,” said an emotional Bogota coach Brad DiRupo. “Last year, I probably thought about it too much, and this year, I tried not to think about it. I just wanted these kids to be kids and play volleyball like they know how to play. It’s a thrill for me and our players to be the first [Group 1] team to win a county title; it’s a testament to their efforts.”

In Bogota, girls just play volleyball. It’s the thing to do.

“We run clinics for kids, and we have a middle school program and then we have our own club program, which I have past players coaching,” said DiRupo. “That’s our equalizer. Where schools have 1,000 kids to pick from, we only have the high 200s, but our kids are trained.”

Carly O’Sullivan, Bogota‘s exquisite outside hitter, started playing in fourth grade.

“I think it’s just tradition,” O’Sullivan said. “You see it, you hear about it. When you are young, you are inspired to be on [the team], and you know it’s not just a team, it’s a family.”

That bond was tested Sunday. Bogota trailed in the third game, 7-1, before putting it all together.

“When you are down 7-1, you are just down to playing points,” said DiRupo. “You can’t look at the big picture. If you feel like you have to win the next two points, it’s just a burden on your shoulders, you just have to take it one at a time in that situation. I said we needed to calm down, play each point and battle back and that’s exactly what they did.”

IHA had a lot to play for. The players wore “Pray for Dean” T-shirts before the game in honor of school administrator Toni-Marie Hals, who is fighting cancer. There was also a moment of silence before the game for longtime volleyball official Neil Donohue, who passed away in the spring.

The Blue Eagles were sharp in the first game and junior Nia Reed finished with a game-high 24 kills, but IHA couldn’t stop history Sunday.

“I am just so happy right now,” said Kelemen. “The seniors have been working for this since freshman year. Everyone on our team has been working on this for a long time. In the off-season, we said it doesn’t matter what you do during … it’s how you finish.”

“It doesn’t matter what type of school you are, [or] if you have the fastest players or the tallest players,” said O’Sullivan. “If you play hard and give it your all, you will win