August 26, 2021 – By NJP
Caldwell will be looking to stay near the top of the SEC in Fall 2021 and NJP sees them with a good chance of accomplishing this task. They are currently ranked 4th in the Super Essex behind #28 Verona, #52 MKA, and #62 Livingston. Caldwell returns half of their varsity squad and one of the premier middles in Essex County in Ava Pannullo.
Ava is an effective and passionate blocker for the Lady Chiefs. She led Caldwell with 21 blocks and finished 5th in the SEC in that category for returning players. She also smoked 49 kills during the shortened Spring season.
Pannullo plays with energy and spirit. She also brings confidence and skill to her role at middle. She continues to work on her vertical and we think she can put up some big numbers this Fall as one of the go-to hitter’s and blocker’s up front along with Christine Infantalino, Iliana Acosta, and Lulu Ceccon.
Caldwell is one of the perennial leaders in Essex County girls’ volleyball, especially over this past decade. We expect Coach Kelly will have her team fine-tuned for the Fall. She has a wide array of club players coming together on this year’s squad and if all falls into place, the Lady Chiefs again will dominant.
Here is our interview with Ms. Pannullo…
Hello Ava? Thanks for joining the NJP player interview club. Tell us a bit about yourself
I attend James Caldwell High school in Caldwell (Essex County). I graduate in the spring of 2022. My father’s name is Ricardo Pannullo. My mother is Marilyn, and I have a younger brother Jayson and an older brother Michael.
How long have you played volleyball and what inspired you to take up volleyball initially?
I have been playing volleyball since 8th grade. I enjoyed playing in gym class and that introduction piqued my interest in participating in High School at a competitive level. I also credit my middle school gym teacher who as it turns out was also the James Caldwell High school Varsity volleyball coach. Coach Kelly saw something in me and encouraged me to try out for the team. The rest is history. I fell in love with the sport.
What are your metrics/details? Height, vertical, position, club team, etc. What is your favorite position to play?
I am 5’7, 140 lbs, with a 22 inch vertical, and I am a middle/middle blocker. At least on my team, being a middle is not the most desired position, however I love being a middle because I can block everything, and I love blocking. It is one of the most satisfying feelings in volleyball when the hitter on the other team is looking to get a kill to add to their stats and you completely destroy them and stuff their block.
Tell us about your Lady Chief teammates. Who do you expect to be this year’s standout players in the Fall?
The 2021 Lady Chiefs are returning 6 seniors, myself included. They all play travel ball for Side Out Sports (SOS) and every one of them are comfortable playing multiple positions. Their versatility and willingness to play where needed will be critical to the success of the team. Each of the girls contributes in their own way much like the fingers of a hand which together form a fist. If I have to single anyone out, I think all of us would agree that Christine Infantilino is the person we count on to bring her A-game every night. She is a polished competitor who leaves it all on the floor every night, and the rest of us feed off of that. Ava Topolewski brings her experience and technical skills to bolster our backrow while Lulu Ceccon will provide the sets to help trigger our attack. Sarah Sherwood will compliment Lulu and share setting responsibilities. Isabel Voca will bring her versatility and tenacity to the lady chief cause. Iliana Acosta will be a force on the outside while Casey Pac will hold down the all-important libero position.
NJP considers you as one of the top players in the state. Do you plan on playing in college? If so, which ones are you looking at? What do you plan to study in college or what is your career path?
What began as a peaked interest my freshman year, exploded into a full-blown love affair with the sport when I made varsity my sophomore year. I found myself competing against older, taller, and more experienced front lined players and surprisingly more than holding my own. My confidence soared commensurate with an evolving skill set. I have to thank my JV Coach Chris Terrenova for preparing me for the next level. He was so instrumental in my development, and I will always be grateful for the time, patience, and effort he invested in me. Thank you coach T! I have every intention of playing college volleyball and will do whatever it takes to prove myself worthy of the privilege. It is still early in the college selection process for me, but I did visit Stockton University in New Jersey and the Stockton Head Coach Alisson Walker who was extremely accommodating and forthright in her presentation of the Stockton volleyball program. I left thinking that the Ospreys would be a program that I would be proud to represent. As for embarking on a career path, my interest at the moment is in psychology and possibly even pursuing a medical degree with an eye on psychiatry. Human behavior, the human mind, has always fascinated me. Mental health is such a relevant problem in today’s society, and I would like to help people that are having difficulty helping themselves. Psychology or Psychiatry are challenging fields that would allow me to make a difference in people’s lives at a very basic level.
You led your team to the kill and block statistical categories in the Spring. What are your goals for your senior campaign?
I have so many goals for my senior year. It sounds cliche but setting clear goals helps me do better and better every year. Since my sophomore year I have had some recognition in the Super Essex Conference receiving an honorable mention, then a place on the First team in the American Division. This year I intend to secure another spot for myself on the first team, and to get even higher on the stat lists for Kills and blocks. I would also like to be a contender for player of the year, better yet be awarded for the position. That is probably my most ambitious goal. My smaller goals consist of refined my skills and becoming an overall better player for college. To help achieve my smaller goals I intend to improve my vertical, as well as become stronger in my legs, arms, and core.
Caldwell settles in at #82 of 322 high school teams in the NJP preseason rankings. Both Livingston and Verona are above you in the rankings for the SEC-American Division. What will it take this season for the Lady Chief’s to stay competitive with these two league rivals?
The Lady Chiefs are capable of defeating both Livingston and Verona however to do that will require that we strengthen our backrow passing. Our coaches are forever preaching that “It all starts with the pass.” To take advantage of our hitting skills, cleaner, more easily handled passes must be provided to our setters so that they can set all three hitters up for kills. As a middle, nothing frustrates me more than a bad pass to the setter that eliminates the middle as a hitting option. Defeating Livingston and Verona will also demand better focus and resolve from all the players. There were too many times last year where we lost our concentration and committed unforced errors. Sloppy play needs to be eliminated to maximize our chances of defeating our rivals.
What qualities make a teammate a good team captain?
A good team captain is passionate, hardworking, and completely invested in the success of the team. Good captains lead me by example, set the tone in practice, and make sure everyone is on the same page and pulling from the same end of the rope. Being the most skilled player on the court helps to legitimize a captain’s standing but performance does not automatically translate into effective leadership. A good leader is prepared to make personal goals subordinate to team goals and encourage teammates to do the same. A good captain commands respect but at the same time is respectful of others, is competitive but not overbearing, and a person who exudes confidence but is never arrogant. I remember being a scared freshman and how much I appreciated our captains taking me under their wings and showing me the ropes. They were patient and supportive and I never forgot how crucial that was to my confidence and development. A good captain takes stock in their teammates especially the younger ones and makes sure that everyone gets recognized and made to feel important.
Tell us about the coaches or mentors that have positively influenced your volleyball career…
My high school coaches are really the only volleyball coaches I have ever had. They truly want me to reach my full potential and succeed in everything I do in the volleyball season. I remember the last day of tryout my sophomore year my former JV coach, Chris Terrenova, gave me the biggest hug and depressed how happy he was that I improved so much, enough to be awarded a spot on the Varsity team! The head coach, Rachel Kelly has always been hard core and pushed me and all her players to be in tip top shape for each season. She and I are both very competitive. Knowing this, she looks to challenge me at practice, making me jump higher, run faster, hit better and harder, and ruin the morale of the hitters who I just stuff blocked.
What are your other hobbies or interests?
Aside from volleyball, I also play basketball and softball. In basketball, I am a forward and in softball I tend to play the outfield. I have actually played softball the longest out of the three sports and have played every single position with the exception of catcher. I had fun in all of the positions however centerfield was always my number one. when I am not playing sports, I enjoy singing. I like to sing for fun and have become quite good as I have gotten older. In middle school I sang the National Anthem at Montclair State University twice at my own softball games and was in the regional choir in the 8th grade.
Who motivates you?
I fortunately have many people in my life who motivate me to be a better person or athlete. My parents do both. In terms of athletics, my dad played sports all his life and carried his love of sports into college at the University of Rochester and as a professional baseball player in Italy. With a dad like that, it is hard to not push yourself to be the best athlete you can. His success at my age motivates me to create success like that for myself and to continue playing volleyball in college like he did baseball. I also get very motivated by other players whether they are on my team, not on my team, older than me, younger than me, etc. When I played for the varsity team as an underclassman, I was motivated to get better because my teammates were older, taller, and more experienced, and their advantages over me motivated me to get the advantage on them and show my coaches I could compete with them. When I check my stats online and see girls from other towns who have done better than me, it makes me want to get double their stats the next season.
Do you think attitude is a factor in winning?
Your attitude is absolutely a factor in winning. A bad attitude not only affects the way you play but also the way your teammates play. If you are a leader on your team and you have a bad attitude that could discourage your teammates and bring down their confidence. Volleyball is the ultimate team sport and if someone is not giving it their all, and not giving the positive energy that is needed to compete, it can affect the entire outcome of the game. I’ve seen the effects of attitude in a game or before a game firsthand. There have been times where we walk into gyms with no confidence and already anticipating a loss and we play poorly. The other team may go on a run, and everyone gives up and we practically hand over the game. There have also been times where we walk into the gym, and we have a great warm up and you can tell the other team is flustered and threatened by us. We go on runs and the chemistry and the energy are great. The positive attitude is what initially set us up for success.