Coach: GCIT seniors help make for ‘strongest team’ in program history

After first round exit this past spring, Cheetahs more prepared than ever for postseason

MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly: Leah Petroski (left to right), Jill Harden, Kyla Sayson, Sophia Caltabiano and Alexis Caltabiano have helped lead GCIT to a 20-3-1 season thus far. Coach Chris Retzbach said the senior core has helped build the “strongest team” in program history.

The stars aligned this season for the GCIT girls volleyball team to be a special team, in not only the Tri-County Conference but also across the entire state, as its core group reached their senior years for one final season in 2021.

Following what has thus far been a spectacular 20-3-1 season with both county and NJSIAA postseason play just around the corner for the Cheetahs, head coach Chris Retzbach, in the midst of his fifth season in the position but eighth total as a part of the program, says the seniors have helped the program reach new heights after becoming what he believes is the “strongest team” in program history. 

After a recent NJ.com ranking placed GCIT ninth in the state, just behind nearby Williamstown and Paul VI as their closest South Jersey foes, Retzbach has more than enough to back up his statement. 

“These five seniors have been playing together for three years now so they’re all very well gelled together; they know each other really well and know how to get things done on the court with one another,” Retzcach said. “I don’t recall ever us ever being ranked higher than that, they’ve been playing absolutely great all year.”

After COVID forced last year’s girls volleyball season to be played this past spring and with all of the seniors playing beach volleyball over the summer, the team came into the season potentially more prepared than ever before. 

Couple the preparation and top tier talent with a yearning to make up for a first round NJSIAA playoff exit last year, and this year’s squad came into the 2021 season with determination to make their final season together count.

Senior Alexis Caltabiano has made herself known as one of the most dangerous outside hitters in the state, being amongst the state leaders in both kills and aces this season, and despite being a three-year varsity player, has not yet played in the NJSIAA postseason with the Cheetahs during her high school career.

As if she or her senior teammates needed any extra motivation heading into their final season after a heavily altered 2020-2021 season, Caltabiano worked hard this offseason to come back from an ankle injury and prepare herself as best as possible for a postseason run.

“I missed the playoffs my sophomore year due to a trip and then last year I sprained my ankle before playoffs so I’ve never played a playoff game before,” Caltabiano said. “I’m more pumped than ever since I’ve never been there before and I want to help us go farther after a first round loss last year… I played beach [volleyball] a lot this past summer to help try to strengthen my ankle to get ready for this season.”

Looking back at three years of playing together, the senior said the bond between the group helps them be better volleyball players and teammates on and off the court after spending so much time together.

“It really helped that we were all the same age and honestly had pretty much all the same classes together,” Caltabiano said. “I think we’re the most bonded seniors that I’ve ever seen and it shows on the court.” 

Senior Kyla Sayson made varsity her freshman year, having seen the transformation of the team from then to now over her high school career, watching the Cheetahs post three 20+ wins seasons which would have potentially been four if not for the COVID-shortened season last year. 

Sayson, who was recently honored for lodging 1,000 assists during her GCIT career, said she found it challenging at first to both play at the high level but also watch the team chemistry develop into the unit that it is now.

“It was a little difficult at first when I was obviously the youngest but as time went on I got more comfortable with the girls that would be around me and it got easier every year,” Sayson said. “Everything that we’ve done this season couldn’t have been done without all of these girls playing how they did, Jill [Harden] and Gabby [Franco] have done a great job of getting their passes up and Alexis and Sophia [Caltabiano] have done just as good getting it down the other side, none of this is possible without all of us together.”