It's no easy task to please Peter Zisa.
The Fair Lawn High School volleyball coach accepts nothing less than championship-caliber play from his teams.
While he's gotten that the past two seasons from his boys, who have cemented their place in the Fair Lawn High School record books with back-to-back state titles, his girls haven't been nearly as successful. Over the same span, the Lady Cutters have struggled to register a winning record and even missed qualifying for last year's county tournament.
Off to an early 3-0 start in regular season play this season, the girls team finished 3-3 at the highly-competitive North Highlands Invitational last month — dropping two close games to Old Tappan (MSG Varsity's No. 7 team in the state) and splitting with Livingston (MSG Varsity's No. 5 team in the state).
Afterwards, Zisa, unsatisfied with merely keeping it close against the state's top teams, decided to retool his playing rotation.
Among the most notable moves were his insertion of Kristine Javier into the libero spot — where he said the solid junior passer has since provided more ball control when setting up the offense — and his switch of sophomore Isabel Guide to opposite hitter from outside.
Two weeks later, some of Zisa's changes have stuck, while others — intended solely as motivational tools for underperforming starters — have sparked a healthy competition between the team's players.
"Everyone is basically vying for court time and opportunities to play," said Zisa, who said the battles for playing time have forced the team to focus and improve. "The kids are in a slightly uncomfortable state, but not so uncomfortable that it’s overwhelming — just enough so that they know that nothing is secure and they have to continue to grow and continue to get better.”
Zisa's attempt to light a fire under his team has paid off.
Before Monday's loss to Secaucus, the team was undefeated in regular season play, having beaten formiddable opponents Mahwah and Southern Regional in a tournament over the weekend, and risen to 10th in MSG Varsity's state rankings.
Zisa called the Southern tournament -- which featured excellent play by seniors Ashley Rongo and Jillian O'Leary, and the spirited return of Guide at outside hitter -- the Lady Cutters' best performance of the season.
"[Guide] played with a renewed sense of urgency and confidence that she hadn’t been exhibiting, and because of that, the team performed better," Zisa said. "She’s accepted the challenge and brought her level of play to a new level."
Fair Lawn's ascension to the state's top 10 will likely be short-lived, however, after the girls dropped their first regular season match of the year to an unranked and largely untested Secaucus team (16-25, 25-27) on Monday.
It's that sort of inconsistency, Zisa said, that will be the team's greatest stumbling block going forward into the county tournament next week.
"Consistency is going to be a big thing, and that’s not just from one game to the next but from one point to the next," he said. "That’s been an Achilles' heel of the team the last two years."
Nonetheless, Zisa is hopeful that the team's maturity — the Lady Cutters field nine seniors — and growth over the course of the year will allow them to cope with this adversity and improve its consistency heading into the county tournament next Saturday, where the team will face off against many of the toughest teams in the state.
"Unfortunately we haven’t been able to play as many Bergen County teams as we would like this year just because of the change in division and change in league," said Zisa, citing Fair Lawn's move to a less competitive league this year. "We’ll finally get those tests in the county tournament."
County tournament seeding will be announced next Wednesday, Oct. 10.