By Joseph Staszewski
Benjamin Cardozo High School was in danger of dropping the first set for the second straight playoff match in girls’ volleyball and again refused to be closed out.
Much of that was thanks to the presence of 6-foot-2 outside hitter Anja Malesevic. The Serbian import was the X Factor in her first season in the United States. The senior gives the Judges a dominant hitter to finish off rallies that other teams in the league just didn’t posses.
“There are not many [teams] this year who have a player who can do that,” Cardozo Coach Danny Scarola said.
Malesevic recorded five straight kills to help rally Cardozo from six points down in the first set to win it. That put the top-seeded Judges on their way to a 25-23, 25-12 victory over No. 2 Midwood in the PSAL Class A girls’ volleyball final Nov. 26 at Hunter College. It is Cardozo’s third title in the last four years. Malesevic finished with 19 kills.
“It’s a blessing really to have her on the team,” said Judges’ setter Jessica Yin, who had 19 assists.
None of Malesevic’s success would have been possible without the hustle of teammates after the Hornets (13-1) took a 22-17 lead in the first set. Two Midwood errors opened the door for the comeback and Cardozo (14-0) made sure to capitalize. Rachel Ng (19 digs), Megan Lou, Nicole Kim, Alyssa McAdams, Whitney Young and Yin scrambled all over the court to dig out balls and help keep rallies alive.
“Get it up in the air,” Scarola said. “We will make a play. It was all heart.”
Midwood, which took a set off the Judges in the regular season, went up 23-21 before Malesevic scored the next five points, two after long rallies. Her first kill of the rally just hit the back line to keep the Judges from moving a point away from losing the set. Cardozo, with help from the serving of Ng, scored the first four points of the second set to immediately put Midwood back on its heals.
Winning a city title was an amazing experience for her after coming from a country where club, not high school volleyball, is big. She was appreciative of the strong support from fans and got a history lesson from Scarola afterward when he showed her all the times Cardozo’s name was on the championship trophy.
“I never felt such a feeling,” Malesevic said. “This is the first time in my life. I’m able to describe it. All my emotions went out there. I left my heart on the floor.”
She and Cardozo got to the final by taking a tight first set in almost identical fashion in a 25-18, 25-21 win over No. 4 Brooklyn Tech. The Engineers led 20-18 before two Brooklyn Tech errors began another Judges charge. This time Malesevic scored the final three Cardozo points to close out the set during a 6-0 service run by Yeung.
“When we started serving and we got the ball back, that’s when we started playing our game,” Yeung said. “I was just trying to keep it in, get my team back in the game.”
It was all part of the process of regaining the title after falling in the semifinals last season. It made all the work to get it done worth it.
“We worked hard,” Yin said. “Now we won it all, so it felt good.”