By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
Back in August, Glen Jansen realized his Donovan Catholic girls’ volleyball team had the ability to compete with the best. He understood it worked hard and could be poised for a nice season.
But even Jansen could not predict just how great it would be.
The Griffins set a school record for victories by going 29-5 (14-0 at home); came within scant points of winning the Shore Conference Tournament title; were division co-champions and finished one win shy of reaching the Non-Public state finals.
“This was just a great group of girls,” Jansen said. “Coming into this season, I knew we had a lot of talent. We had seven seniors, but I did not expect 29-5. Maybe other people may have. But I thought we were gonna be good. When you have a 29-5 season, very few things go wrong.”
Probably the biggest disappointment was splitting with Pinelands during the regular season and then losing to the Wildcats in the third game of the SCT finals, 27-25.
“That still haunts me, a couple of months later,” said Jansen, who coached Colts Neck volleyball for 10 years before returning to his alma mater last season.
The other tough loss to take was to Immaculate Heart, 2-0, in the Non-Public semifinals. It was the furthest any Shore Conference team went in the states.
Neither of those setbacks, however, could detract from the overall body of work.
“I thought we had an amazing and very impressive season,” senior setter Jenessa Lombardi said. “Every year I was here we improved on wins for the season, as well as growing closer as a team. Even though we didn’t make it to the finals we broke so many records for Donovan Catholic and I find that incredible.
“Being that we played Immaculate Heart Academy last year in the quarterfinals, we knew what to expect against them. It’s a little disappointing that we didn’t make it to the finals but Coach Jansen put out his best six and we played our hearts out and that’s all you can really ask for.”
Lombardi is part of a nucleus that upped the ante since they arrived on varsity as sophomores. The Griffins went 12-10 in 2015, jumped to 22-6 and won a state game last year; and took it to another level this season.
Vanessa Copes and Lombardi led the way as an outstanding setter-hitter combination. Lombardi had 632 assists this season and finished with a school record 1,230.
“Jenessa’s statistics are absolutely unbelievable,” Jansen said. “I can only think of a few setters who played for (Shore power) Southern Regional who had more career assists than Jenessa in the Shore Conference.”
It was something she worked hard to achieve.
“Ever since I started my volleyball career, getting 1,000 assists was always my dream,” Lombardi said. “I am so proud that I achieved this goal and exceeded it by 230. I would not have been able to do it without my talented teammates, as well as my amazing coaches throughout the years. Hard work, determination and coach talks really pushed me to be my best.”
One of those teammates was Copes, who Jansen simply referred to as “arguably the best complete player in the history of Donovan volleyball.”
The stats will bear that out. This season, the senior had 268 kills, 181 digs and 74 aces. She finished her career as the Griffins all-time leader in aces and kills, second in digs and fourth in blocks. Her chemistry with Lombardi was undeniable.
“It’s very strong, and has developed so greatly throughout the years of our friendship on and off of the volleyball court,” said Lombardi, who belongs to St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Lakewood. “Being a captain and sharing the leadership role with her, as well as (fellow tri-captain) Yedda Nagamatsu, brought us closer as well by coming up with team bonding exercises and giving pep talks before games. Vanessa and I have been friends since elementary school, so the bond that we share is so great.”
Nagamatsu collected 152 digs and 88 kills while also sparking the team whenever necessary.
“Yedda is our glue, she’s like the soul of our team,” Jansen said. “She’s our shortest player but she plays a lot bigger than she is physically. Whenever we had trouble, Yedda pulled us together.”
Other key contributors were sophomore libero Alexis Tamburello (337 kills), senior middle hitters Olivia Passalacqua (112 kills) and Melissa Buxton (85 kills, 45 blocks) and junior Marta Pawka (218 kills, 142 digs).
“Marta’s the second best hitter to play at Donovan behind Vanessa,” Jansen said. “Olivia and Melissa did a great job defending first and then giving us some offense. And Alexis gave us one of the top liberos in the Shore Conference.”
Pawka and Tamburello will be the lone returnees out of the core seven next year, but Jansen is encouraged by where the program stands, after his two years at the helm.
“We’ll have Marta and Alexis, and we can throw in a lot of other girls who would have been starters at other schools this year,” said Jansen, a 1997 Donovan graduate. “We have an army of girls that are ready to go and had a JV team that lost just two games all year and are ready to go at the next level.
“All but four of our returning players are playing club at some level. The seniors set a great tone with that, and with a lot of hard work this year. Our senior captains are not only some of the best players the program has ever had; they raised the bar and showed the underclassmen what it takes to be successful.”