October 25, 2020
By Greg Selber
Everything is different today, it’s true, although the world has to be just right sick of thinking and talking about, dealing with, the so-called New Normal. Which means that going to a sporting event offers a vastly different (hateful word in this context) experience than it has in the past. For the folks who ventured out east Saturday to watch Econ host the Lady SaberCats of Vela, even the process of getting into the gym was quite new. Tough to figure out which gate would be open and note to the weary/wary: usually not the one you pull up to. Such is life.
The corridor and walkway leading to the Econ gym looked like a political polling site with sign upon sign demanding one’s attention; instead of names of candidates, however, the two dozen placards stabbed into the ground on sticks comprised a regiment of bromides, axioms, rules, and warnings about safety, health, and what not. Understood and appreciated but for the love of Aviso Fatigue, please, just get me past this gauntlet and into the volleyball!
Inside the gym was an interesting situation as Econ and Vela prepared to duke it out. These days the depth of the various volley rosters has become almost as important as the talent therein. Allow the estimable Christina Soto to explain this development.
“Right, we just played last night and here we are again,” chuckled the Lady Jag leader. ‘It’s been something, we really have to try and get the most out of all our girls because of the back-to-back games. We have some sophomores who may not have been quite ready for the varsity, but we’ve thrown them in there some and they’ve done alright.”
Soto and the rest of the coaches have been dealing with the bang-bang nature of Friday-Saturday matches the last two weeks, but also with the fact that because the start of the campaign was so long delayed, they didn’t have time to settle in, and neither did the kids.
“At first it was tough, the waiting game was the hardest part,” she sighed. “Will we get to play? Yes, no, yes, will we play at all, nobody knew. And then when we got the go-ahead we had what, a week? So we get in, start working and right away we have a scrimmage. A few days later, bam! District! It has tested us all, but the girls have a good attitude, they’re working hard, and we’re just in the same boat as a lot of teams. But frankly, some of the district teams had a week more to prepare, but whatever; we’re ready to compete.”
Coming off a loss to P-SJ-A Friday, the next afternoon Econ was in against a Lady Sabe squad that had taken care of La Joya in its Friday muster to rise to 3-2, but now would be without coach Celi Ortega, who was to miss the clash due to an illness (No! just allergies).
So Vela went to battle guided by its able cadre of assistants, and a relatively new group of kids. The post-Glenys Maldonado Era has begun reasonably well but to add to the difficulty Saturday, regular setter Gaby Avila – one of the few returning starters from a year ago – was attending to an academic endeavor and would not show.
This meant that the Lady Jags were feeling pretty peppy about their chances, and truly, off the bat they were sharp, launching to a 7-1 early advantage behind senior Marixa Zamora’s strong net play. When junior Arlysa Sierra boomed a nasty kill it was 9-5, Orange, the visitor struggling to settle in.
However, Vela manage to enter the fray in style at that stage, running off 10 points in a row as athletic sophomore Dayanne Ramos was impressive with hits and classmate Sam Villalobos was equally adept. Those two 10th-graders look to be up to the varsity challenge, and the latter had some fine moments as a callow youth a season ago. Among the veterans of the program, senior Dylan Cantu finished strongly in the opening set with a tap for point against two defenders and then a score through a block. Though they had started in a hole, the Lady Sabes took the tape, 25-14, with slim junior Emily Sanchez spiraling a couple of tricky knuckleball serves down the stretch, a preview of things to come from this newcomer.
There were few signs of tiredness from either side, which is a testament to how hard the teams have conditioned during the limited available time for such vital exploits. As Soto stated, it’s all about personnel these days, and for those who do not start, rest assured, they’ll probably find themselves ensconced somewhere in a rotation that has by necessity become deeper and more malleable given the unique circumstances of 2020. Always “accentuate the positive,” crooned the Andrews Sisters with help from Bing Crosby, way back when.
Set two was a real set-to at first as Econ benefited from stylish plays from junior Jasmine Loredo and some hustling excellence from sophomore Dana Serna to carve out a 6-5 lead. Loredo seems to be hitting harder this year, timing at the apex, while Serna, a breakout star from last basketball season, shows quickness, soft sets, and her usual breakneck pace; kid has endless motor.
Vela rallied behind senior stalwart Izabella Rodriguez and springy sophomore Fey Vazquez and when Villalobos palmed a quality ace, it was 9-6 Lady Sabes. Vela was in the midst of another devastating run, no question, and after an 11-1 flurry, had put the set safely away at 16-7. The energetic Ramos, who shows potential as a leader along with fiery new libero Maria Sanchez – the latter stood out Saturday for her upbeat vibe and competitive spirit, along with some terrific line-drive serves – keyed the rest of the set, with the bigs holding sway up front and Econ starting to have real trouble keeping up. Emily Sanchez then turned in several more sailing, dipping palomas from the service mark, and soon it was 25-10 with Vazquez adding a soaring put down through two defenders at net.
TOUCH AND GO FINALE
It was quickly 5-1 Vela in what threatened to be the clincher, Maria Sanchez rocketing a serve that was impossible to see, much less dig, and Cantu also scoring from the start point; service was a Vela strong suit Saturday. The Blue and Black lead climbed to 9-4 after Ramos helped save a wildly struck ball with a quick-thinking dash and dig, leading to a Rodriguez point through block. Clicking.
Thus confronted, the Lady Jags illustrated the can-do attitude that Soto had discussed beforehand, marching back into contention with a burst, Zamora scoring off a Serna feed to give Econ hope. Vela was determined to hold, though, and took a 14-13 advantage when junior Melanie Garcia amazed the crowd with a desperate save which eventuated in a Vazquez winner.
Still the Lady Jags came on, rising to a 16-14 bulge thanks to another Serna-to-Zamora connection and a leaning kill from Sierra, who smacked from extreme left, almost out of bounds, sending the ball back to the right, down hard to the floor.
Vela countered with a wicked ace from Sanchez, M., and in a subsequent timeout, she led a raucous round of staccato cheers as the action was at that point heated and fun to see. Soto’s club seemed to have the set in hand down the trail at 22-18 after a Zamora tapdown, a running save from Loredo, and a big smash from the powerful Sierra.
But Maria Sanchez wasn’t having it; she climbed the ladder for a pulsating midrow hit. Cantu notched an effective one-handed push, whereupon Rodriguez, entrenched at the service line, brought her team home. With a push from the promising Villalobos (two fine kills), the Lady Sabes rode this new wave of strength all the way in, ending it 25-23, but not before some chancy moments.
Hence, the day was done and there would no doubt be some weary kids heading to their respective homes after this one. Throw down that dastardly mask, breathe! Having collected a pair of wins in a 21-hour span, Vela looked to the next week with a 4-2 mark, in range of Mission and Edinburg North, which each stood at 5-1 after Saturday’s action. EHS has won three straight to rise to 4-2, while the Lady Bears are 3-3, Lady Raiders 2-4. The Lady Sabes have a new-look lineup but with enough veteran spice to even the mix out, and one imagines that Ortega will be back on the sidelines sooner than later.
For the Orange, well they are past the point of settling for mere moral victories, and their battle against Vela – though ultimately unsuccessful – points to clearer potential skies ahead. They have some horses, and the real yearning for wins that is always part of the puzzle. Some time soon they will duplicate their triumph registered earlier in the league slate over La Joya. Can’t sleep on this squad, at all. All signs point to improvement.