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THE WINNER IN VOLLEY LEAGUE OPENER? NORTH, BUT EVERYONE, TOO

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Oct. 13, 2020

By Greg Selber

Just a regular old Tuesday, hey? No.

The drum line was practice-boogying outside and around the corner the color guard was marching, too. All wore masks. Inside the gym at EHS, fans (parents) were socially distanced into pairs, an odd reprisal of Noah’s Ark. The total capacity, as stated by Bobcat AD J.D. Salinas, was 55, max. No breaches of corona conduct were allowed, expected, or eventually extant, as the slim sliver of supporters got together for something no one had been quite sure would ever happen. 

The start of the District 31-6A volleyball season, about six weeks late, sure. But for the inhabitants of the Ark, the fact that sports was going to try and forge ahead despite the pandemic, well, this was the branch in the beak of the bird which augured the possibly that, against the odds, the pall that has covered the land for so long might actually be lifting.

Despite the restrictions and the special accommodations, it was EHS-North and any faithful follower would gladly trudge a mile over broken glass or hot coals to see these two bitter rivals play anything against each other, including marbles, Mumblety-peg, or Super Smash Bros.

In this case it was volleyball, and both coaches embraced the bizarre concept of beginning the league wars with exactly two matches under their belt, none for Raul McCallum’s Lady Cougars. The rust was intermittently notable but in between the seasonal and madly compressed growing pains, the two squads put together some solid stretches of the sort of play that has made them both playoff regulars for a long, long time. Remember.

Though the homestanding Bobcats started faster, winning the first set, it was the visiting girls in Blue and Gold that rose to the final occasions, sweeping three sets running to take the victory. Despite missing one stalwart, the elastic but injured Hannah Duffey, McCallum’s kids gradually gained steam as the improbable night wore on. In fact, after the initial shock of masks, hand or forehead temperature zaps, and social distancing even on the benches, it settled, gloriously, into just volleyball. Praise be to the fates for this glimpse of the normal.

Normal also the struggles of the new. McCallum noted that when the ball went up at long last (normal seasons crank it up in August, recall), his Lady Coogs were a bit flummoxed.

“We did have some nerves at first but then we seemed to get past that,” said the third-year mentor. “We had been looking good in practices, but it took us a little while tonight to shake it off.”

Meanwhile, EHS coach Deanna Dominguez has her deepest roster in some time, with fully a dozen quality options to call upon with several returning veterans of note. Before the night got rolling, she noted that if every season offers challenges, 2020 has certainly doubled down on it.

“It always takes time, to see what is going to be,” she commented. “And with so little time to work together – we’ve had two games now, a loss to Rowe and a win over Edcouch – the preparation and team building is just going to have to happen more quickly. We’re doing the best we can.”

That the Lady Coogs were able to shake off the rust and nerves was partly due to a revamped contingent up front, where junior Kaylee O’Bryan was excellent Tuesday and got some help from lefty Alexis Espinoza and former Econ player Jade Guerra; collectively, the contingent gave the Lady Bobcats trouble from the start.

“I think that will be one of our strengths this season, the blocking,” McCallum said. “We don’t have a lot of depth, but we have some girls who will play well and block.”

It was O’Bryan indeed who rose for a tip at the twines midway through the opening set to give North a 12-11 advantage. But at that point, the size and power of EHS started to reveal itself. One of the key factors this season for Dominguez will be Jazmin Cuellar, an explosive transfer (North, btw) who can play middle, outside, and actually had some sweet sets in the lid-lifter. The long-limbed junior will pair with last year’s breakout freshman, Natalie Hernandez, and a couple of newbies with serious promise. Mia Dominguez (yes, related) and Emily Carranco both have the height to make things tough for opposing defense, and each enjoyed productive stretches against North.

The plethora of solid net options was noticeable, and yet all the while we knew that the libero dynamos in the back would make their considerable presence felt. That means the indomitable Evana Ramos for North, she of the national ranking in digs from a year ago. And for EHS it’s Hannah Vega, an earnest soldier who has upped her game every season to become the squad’s most dependable starter. The Lady ‘Cats are at first blush the more seasoned team, with Kristen Salinas, Julissa Santa Maria, and Arianna Guerra all claiming extensive varsity success. For North, Shayla Gaytan, Victoria Faz, and Melo Cantu, among others, have been down this road before.

It was Hernandez of EHS who turned the tide in the opening set, serving her swerving tries to great dipping effect, establishing an 18-13 advantage. Cuellar registered a few stinging kills, and a swooping tip that was pure grace; another time she hammered one so hard off a North dig effort that the ball rocketed off the roof and back down, super fast, for a point.

With Ramos rallying her side via a service ace, one of her numerous specialties, it took a miraculous one-handed overhead save from EHS junior Miranda Reyes (sister, Maria, memories) to get the home side back on track at 21-18. Down the stretch, North faded with several errors that one might expect from a sextet in its first real action, EHS tucking away a 25-23 win after Hernandez hit strongly through a block for the final marker.

TIDE GON’ TURN

Halfway into the kickoff set, Duffey had made her point during a timeout. Waving one arm at her teammates (the other is in a sling, courtesy of an untimely elbow injury), the hitting star from 2019 exhorted them to “calm down, we have to calm down!”

Her advice was soon heeded as North settled in and got down to business.

Despite a spirited start by young Dominguez in red and blue, the Lady Coogs cruised into a 10-7 lead. The home crew tied it with some glow up net play from the other fish, Carranco, until one of the sequences of the night unfolded. On a North bomb, Vega did the splits with a desperate but perfect dig, only to have Ramos of North dive to her left to make an equally terrific save a few hits later. Hernandez eventually spiked for point and one could see the joy on both sides pour forth. In the stands too. This was what everyone had come for, the magic of a girls’ sports rivalry that has always captivated city fans. Kaboom!

Carranco continued her heady play in front to give the Lady ‘Cats a 14-11 edge. It got to 18-12 before Duffey’s “potatoes,” as she lovingly calls her mates, sprouted for the comeback W. O’Bryan quietly but effectively marshaled forces at the net and when EHS went through some serious issues with setting/passing, North barged into the opening and would not look back. The imposing Guerra was fierce at this stage, knocking shots back into EHS faces, with Espinoza also looking strong. The latter gal rapped a crosscourt winner to the floor and it was set to North, 25-22.

The vibe was now straight-up fire for the Lady Coogs and they vaulted into a quick 5-0 lead, O’Bryan rising to stuff a Lady ‘Cat try with prominent force. Ramos ran onto a midrow ball and produced a prodigious slider of a clout, and at a key juncture, Cuellar had a wonderful reach-over tap down nullified for a reason that was never truly clarified; this from an official crew that like the kids, had ups and downs Tuesday.

At any rate North blasted on from there to a 14-4 bulge, scoring seven in a row at one point by dominating every aspect of the game. The set had begun with a genealogy lesson as the Latest Kotzur – the ebullient young Stephanie of St. Joseph fame – toed the service line with admirable poise for the first five scoreboard clicks.

North’s lanky Faz, the tricky lefty, knocked one over to keep the percolation going and then Gaytan dug one out to a levitating Ramos, who did the rest with an undefendable dagger to the back. Just as it looked like curtains for a flagging EHS, Hailey Vega, younger sister of Hannah, contributed a ringing ace and Cuellar started to heat up once more. But the closest the Lady ‘Cats could get was six as Cantu made a big dig, Faz another kill, and 25-18 was the final por el tercer set.

The less said about the final session, the better. It ended with North completely ascendant, 25-9, obscuring for a moment the competitive and entertaining previous three go-arounds.

But on this night, though actual results were pretty vital considering the sudden district stakes, the authentic, aesthetic win was against pessimism, despair, and the nagging sense that this crazy year of 2020 might never end. Sure, they wore masks, and yeah, the parents boarded two by two. It was fits and starts, a bit of rust from two teams that will no doubt be way better than this once the games start flying fast and furious.

Bottom line, it was a match. And they played. And we came, we saw, and we (sort of) conquered the cloud that has been mercilessly dogging our every step since March. Hosannah!

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