Fair Lawn High School volleyball coach Peter Zisa stands in the B Gym before a rolling double-sided whiteboard scrawled in red marker with volleyball pointers arranged like steps in the solution to some complex algebraic equation.
Two dozen girls volleyball players form a semi-circle around Zisa, hanging intently on the master tactitian's every word as he implores them to get back to basics and clean up their sloppy play of late.
The team is 3-0, but Zisa, fresh off back-to-back state championship seasons with the boys volleyball squad, demands greatness from his teams.
"My expectations for any team that I have is to win some type of championship," said Zisa, whose girls finished with a losing record last year and failed to qualify for the county tournament for the first time in years. "We’ve played some of the elite teams and been right there and then we’ve played some of the elite teams in tournament play and preseason play and completely folded."
Zisa said this year's senior-laden squad is much-improved, but still nowhere near the level it needs to be to compete for county and state championships -- hence, the Volleyball 101 approach.
"What I’m seeing is that in game play, we’re using some improper technique in certain skills," he explained. "So today we’re just kind of reverting a little bit to make sure we’re doing these things correctly."
While a divisional realignment this offseason shifted the Lady Cutters to a weaker league where they'll be legitimate contenders for a title, Zisa worries the team's new opponents won't adequately prepare them for the powerhouse squads they'll face in the counties or states.
"So far, the level of competition that we’ve played has definitely not been to the par of the league we used to be in, but we’re going to play whatever opponent we have in front of us," he said. "We’re going to play them the same way. We’re going to be more concerned about what we’re doing and not so much about what our opponents are doing."
In their first taste of elite competition over the weekend in the Northern Highlands Invitational, the Lady Cutters finished 3-3, racking up two big wins against an overmatched Cresskill team, but dropping three of four to more formiddable foes Old Tappan (21-25, 22-25) and Livingston (23-25, 25-21).
While lacking in individual star power, this year's Cutters squad boasts nine battle-tested seniors whose experience Zisa believes allows them to match up with anyone.
"When you look at this team relative to some of the elite, they’re going to have players that are going to blow you away and I don’t think we have players that blow you away," he said. "I have eight, nine strong players that are in the rotation and because they’re all strong we don’t have any weaknesses and we’ll be able to compete based upon our team ability versus any one or two players that might be on the court."
The Lady Cutters' top returning players are middle hitter Jillian O'Leary and setter Ashley Sudol -- both three-year starters -- and outside hitter Ashley Rongo, a two-year starter whom Zisa calls his most versatile player in terms of understanding the game, making adjustments and choosing the right shot.
Zisa is banking on those three girls -- all seniors -- along with the rest of his veteran squad, to return the program to its ealier championship caliber by season's end.
"Hopefully some of the failures and shortcomings that we’ve had over the last two seasons we’re going to have learned from them and be able to handle those situations much better than we did in previous years," he said. "The expectations are strong, but there’s still a lot of learning and growth to go."