The fall of 2019 was a season of firsts for the fourth-year Scarsdale boys volleyball program. The Raiders beat a team from Rockland County for the first time, had a winning record for the first time, won a postseason game for the first time, played in the Section 1 finals for the first time and took a set off Suffern for the first time.
“It’s been amazing seeing the team grow from something where everybody is learning, everybody is new to it and now we’re competitive enough to be in the finals, to play coherently and be a competitive force,” senior David Peng said. “Honestly, I’m very proud of myself and proud of my teammates.”
Scarsdale’s program had humble beginnings in 2016. Coach Jim Williams had 12 varsity players, including only two with actual experience — then-juniors Jeremy Wolfe and Steven Wetchler — while junior varsity coach Greg Leong had seven players. The next year the interest increased and Scarsdale went from zero wins to three wins, all against newcomer Eastchester. Last year was a tough year for Scarsdale, which was 1-19, beating only Eastchester.
This year the Raiders were 8-6 in the regular season — 2-1 vs. Eastchester, 2-0 against newcomer East Ramapo, 1-2 against Clarkstown North, 3-0 against Clarkstown South, 0-3 against Suffern — and topped Clarkstown North in the Section 1 Division 1 semifinals 3-1 before losing 3-1 to Suffern in the finals. In each case in the postseason, the losing team won the first set.
After three years of subpar play, Scarsdale got tired of losing and had the manpower to deliver wins this fall.
“Once they got the taste of winning that certainly helps,” Williams said. “With East Ramapo being in their first year I empathize with the coach. You just keep plugging away. Eastchester had a tough struggle their first year. You’ve got to get through those first couple of seasons to build your team, build your program and good things will happen.”
The Raiders had to beat Clarkstown North in the semifinals, which was no easy task. North beat Scarsdale the first two times in the regular season, but the Raiders did take the third meeting and then the fourth in postseason.
“In the regular season we lost to them twice, so we really didn’t feel confident against them,” senior Justin Mandel said. “Going into the semis we weren’t sure if we were going to win. We lost the first set, so we were down, but then we blew them away three in a row. That gave us a lot of confidence and that was evident coming into the finals today.”
Williams enjoyed watching his players both on the court and the bench enjoying their first taste of sectional success at North.
“We lost the first game and it was close, but we lost it,” Williams said. “I absolutely hate that gym at North. It’s dark, the ceiling’s low and it’s hard to play in. We just buckled down. We knew we had to get the ball to our outside hitters, move the ball around, set the backside, set the middle, set the back row and we started getting points. We got runs here and there and we were able to string it together into wins.”
Not having defeated Suffern before, Williams’ goal coming into the finals was simple: “Keep it close, keep it entertaining.” The Raiders did just that.
Scarsdale won the first set 25-22.
“The first game everything was clicking, but Suffern also woke up after the first game,” Williams said. “They had a lot of long balls and serves in the net. Once they cleaned that up they were able to get us.”
Taking a set off Suffern let the Raiders know they truly belonged. “I think that’s something we can be really proud of,” Peng said. “That’s a good memory that we did get a set instead of zero.”
The Raiders competed well in the second set. They were down 22-19 and made two errors at the net to make the score 24-19 and setting up the final point and Suffern didn’t look back, winning the next two sets 25-13 and 25-18 for a 3-1 victory.
“That first game was a lot of fun,” senior Ari Sontag said. “The second game was disappointing obviously because I would have liked to have won this game, but I’m still proud of the way the team played and the way we held our heads up. We came back in the fourth and still made it competitive.”
Overall, the Raiders made some errors, but the serves were strong and with a purpose and the hits were powerful.
“I’ve never seen everyone hitting the ball so hard,” Mandel said. “Usually we’re trying to get it in. Today we were hitting our hardest. We knew the competition, so if we’re not hitting our hardest to the opposing team they would have just come back and hit it straight to the ground.”
Suffern hitters Jo’el Emanuel and Aidan Anderson were just too much for Scarsdale to handle. They’re tall, they can jump and they can swing.
“It’s so tough to block their hitting, especially when they run the plays where their outside hitter kind of pinches into the middle and the whole block has to shift over,” Sontag said. “It’s hard to get there, so they have a free shot down. And they get up really high.”
The duo simply wore Scarsdale down. “The first game we blocked them,” Williams said. “Every game after that a little less. If we can’t cut down their hits it’s hard to compete with them.”
Williams went with a starting lineup of Peng, Sontag, Mandel, Gustavo Quaresma de Moura, David Lang, Santiago Gomez and Dorji Phuntsho, subbing in Schoen Amidor for Phuntsho in the back row.
“They’re fighters,” Williams said. “They’ll scramble, go after the ball to keep it in play. Santiago and Justin were swinging away and every once in a while David uncorked one.”
The Raiders were able to walk out of the Pace University gym knowing they had accomplished something that was another building block for the program.
“It’s more joy because we made it this far,” Sontag said. “We’ve done our work. We’ve done what we needed to make it here, which is impressive in our fourth year as a program. And the team looks pretty good for the future.”
The Raiders showed something for the first time this year, according to Williams. “They’re a real volleyball team,” he said.
The handful of four-year players have led the way and helped set the tone starting from their days being among Leong’s seven JV players.
“They know where to be, they know what to do,” Williams said. “They’ve done it enough that they know how to play the game, so now it’s more about how do they position themselves, angle their bodies and anticipating where the ball is going to go. We’re working at that level as opposed to here’s how you pass. That’s made a huge difference this year.”
As much as the program has been home grown, Dorji Phuntsho transferring in last year from Thailand as a junior and Santiago Gomez this year as a sophomore from Colombia have helped put Scarsdale over the top. Phuntsho is a middle blocker, Gomez an outside hitter. Both are dangerous players.
The lineup has evolved over the season, which accounts for some of the team’s late-season success, though key regular season players like Jack Mintzer and setter Ethan Gates helped the team succeed even though they didn’t start down the stretch as Scarsdale went from a 6-2 to a more traditional 5-1.
“We were running a 6-2 with two setters, but Gustavo was just too instrumental setting all the way around,” Williams said. “In the last couple of games we’ve been playing 5-1. I moved one of my weak side guys over to middle and the third weak side guy, Ari Sontag, is coming in and starting and he’s just a very aggressive player.
Sontag is a two-year player, with both years on varsity. He came in as an upperclassman from the soccer program. He had friends who played and he went from inexperienced volleyball player to starter in the section finals in just two seasons.
“Ari is a guy at the beginning I would have said was just there. Greg kept pushing me, saying, ‘He’s aggressive, he’s aggressive, get him up there,’ so I did and it’s really paid off. He’s blocking and he’ll get you a hit once in a while. He’s just playing well at the net.”
It takes time to try different rotations and see which six, plus the libero, mesh best. “You really need six guys,” Williams said. “If there’s one weak player they’ll find him every time. You’re always looking for that combination of players so you don’t get stuck in that rotation where you just can’t get a side out.”
Quaresma de Moura is the setter, Mandel and Gomez the opposite outside hitters, Phuntsho middle blocker, David Lang the lefty on the weak side, Sontag on the weak side and David Peng the libero in for Lang and Sontag. Amidor spells Phuntsho in the back row.
“Dorji does a fine job in the back row, but I find if I save his legs I can use him later in the match to attack from the back row,” Williams said.
Peng is another player that came on strong this season. “David Peng has really been anticipating the ball, he’s covering the blocks, covering the hits and getting a lot of digs that we didn’t get in the past,” Williams said.
Mandel played one year of junior varsity, two years of varsity. He joined JV mid-September 2017 at the urging of a friend and was welcomed into the program. This year the points and rallies were long and there was a fight until the ball hit the floor, which wasn’t the case in past years.
“The growth with each point is awesome,” Mandel said. “Personally my first year as a sophomore I was just trying to get the ball in on a serve. Now I’m doing a jump serve and trying to aim it — and I’m not the only one doing that — and it’s become more about strategy and hitting to open spots and picking what player to hit to rather than just getting the ball over and hoping for a point.”
Williams and Leong have been a dynamic duo on the sidelines.
“They’ve helped a lot,” Mandel said. “I first met Greg Leong when I was a sophomore and he taught me all the fundamentals of how to play, how to swing my arm, make the adjustments and ever since he’s been helping me. Jim is an amazing organizer and he’s also helping us with the small things that help our game. Both of them together are great leaders for this community.”
Williams credits Leong with building the varsity program from the bottom up. This year Leong kept 26 players in the roster.
“The rationale is who knows who is going to grow a foot this year or who is going to decide this is their sport,” Williams said. “He kept about 14 freshmen. Mostly sophomores played on the team as far as the games, but having that many kids to pull from, you just start playing the probabilities. There’s a couple of kids on his team that have developed into really good players and will make a big contribution next year. It will give us some replacements for seniors who are graduating, but also some depth.”
The goal for the two coaches is to build the sport, which means including as many kids as possible.
“I think both Greg and I have created a program where kids feel included,” Williams said. “They may not get to play a lot, but they still feel part of the team. They like the practices and coming to practices.”
There’s no doubt the Raiders are being hit hard by graduation, but the foundation for the program — and now the bar — has been set.
“Between the kids that are coming back and some sophomores that are almost as tall as me I’ve got some height coming and if they can grow another 6 inches over the summer maybe we can jump with those guys,” Williams said. “We’ll be strong and we’ll be good next year.”
The seniors are confident they are leaving the team in good hands, but more importantly hungry after some unfinished business this fall.
“Watching the JV kids play I think they’re doing well,” Peng said. “Coach Leong has trained them well. We’re preparing for a good future and I think we’ll be competitive the next few years.”