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Lady Tigers honing in on third straight PSAL crown

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Sometimes it just comes down to reputation.

The Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy girls volleyball team is a machine, pure and simple. It is the two-time defending Public School Athletic League champion, has not lost a single league game since November 2015, and is the top seed in this year’s PSAL postseason tournament.

So when the Lady Tigers took the court for their playoff opener against Baruch High School last week, RKA scored a mental victory even before the match’s first serve, at least according to junior Zahra Jafar. RKA’s reputation being what it is.

“I feel it’s partially that,” Jafar said. “I think when teams see us warm up, I think it gets in their mind.”

That certainly seemed to be the case in the first set with the Blue Devils as RKA posted a quick-like, 16-minute 25-7 victory. And although Baruch did manage to muster a bit more fight in the second set, pulling within 16-15 at one point, RKA never seemed concerned as it regrouped and rolled to a 25-18 victory in the second set to advance to the second round of the PSAL playoffs.

The top-seeded Lady Tigers was set to host 17th-seeded John Dewey High School on Wednesday.

“I don’t think we were ever in danger of losing the set,” RKA head coach John Reingold said. “But Baruch brought their game up tremendously. Defensively, they were much better than I thought they would be. But we were sloppy. We can’t have eight or nine hitting errors or service errors. That’s why we found ourselves in that position.”

Jafar thinks it was beneficial for the Lady Tigers to face a touch of adversity in that second set as the road to a three-peat only gets tougher as they advance through the tournament.

“I think it is a good thing because it gives us a chance to show what we’ve been working and put together some things we were doing in practice,” said Jafar, who had eight digs and three kills in the win. “For example, in this game, we got to run our offense quite often. And Pam was hitting outside, which is not something she usually has to do.”

Pam is senior Pam Gonzalez, who finished the match with 17 digs, five aces and six kills. And Gonzalez got ample support from the rest of the starting cast with Patricia Casino logging 20 assists; Krystal Paulino contributing eight digs, three aces, two assists and two blocks; Julianne Fernandez chipping in with eight digs; and Ketrina Alika dominating around the net with a team-high nine kills.

Despite the victory, Reingold was less than pleased with his team’s second-set performance.

“If we play well, we can definitely make a run” at a third title, Reingold said. “But if we play like we did in the second set against any top teams, we’re losing that second set and we’re going to three. I think they understand that. But this is the first time this group has been in a one-and-done scenario, so we’ll see.”

RKA was a team entering the season with questions about its ability to defend its crown after suffering massive losses due to graduation. But there is no pressure to live up to the past teams, Alika said. The pressure sits squarely on who stands across the net from the Lady Tigers.

“Our mindset is we’re the best team on the floor, and we deserve this, and this is our year,” Alika said. “So we just always keep that in mind and play our best when we step on the court.”

Being the top seed has its advantages as the Lady Tigers will not only play Dewey at home Wednesday but will remain in their den — should they advance — for the quarterfinals on Friday. Then it would be off to York College for the semifinals and Queens College for the championship game, if all goes according to plan.

“Playing at home is great because it’s right here and we don’t have to worry about getting on the bus and getting back here around eight or nine o’clock, and then still having homework to do,” Jafar said. “And some of the girls live kind of far from here, so it’s good if it’s home so they can leave right from here.”

The Lady Tigers now sit four wins away from a third consecutive PSAL championship, and it may be time to make room for yet another championship banner.

“We can’t go into it too cocky,” Jafar said. “But if play clean and we play our game, I’m pretty damn sure we can go all the way.”

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