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STAYING CALM, HAMMERING AWAY: VEGA, CUELLAR LEAD EHS TO HUGE W AGAINST VELA

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Oct. 27, 2020

By Greg Selber

Sometimes it’s the little things, gradually, that stack up to act as the platform for the biggies. For instance, anyone watching Tuesday’s Rivalry clash between Vela and EHS probably noticed that the angular junior Jazmin Cuellar had periods of white-hot intensity, spitting death at the Lady SaberCats in the middle of the second set and in parts of the third. Her smashing spikes were electric, helping lead the Lady Bobcats to a surprising (not to them) sweep of Vela at a sudden home volleyball game.

Prior to the rash of COVID outbreaks that struck the Vela football squad as the week began, this brawl was supposed to have taken place on Canton. But the administrators involved, quite used to being nimble and resourceful now – wearily, verily, it has become a pattern borne of necessity – moved the feast out southeast.

They could have played in the Cordon’s parking lot sans lights and Cuellar would have still been instrumental, out front banging away after a slow start. She is often in the middle but can play anywhere. But often, the behind-the-scenes work is just as vital to the result, which brings us to Hannah Vega. 

As EHS launched to 5-2 in district ahead of two key tilts, with Edinburg North and then Mission, the senior libero was masterful in her patented understated way. Swaying left and right, up and back, offering soft and accurate passes, Coach Deanna Dominguez’ captain on the floor was the cement that solidified the swift bricks that the exciting Cuellar was firing into the Vela edifice.

“She’s the silent killer,” laughed Dominguez, whose club is marching toward the zenith of the charts with a two-week run of stellar, collaborative play. “Hannah doesn’t say a lot out there, but she leads by example; she’s level-headed and always seems to do something good when we need it most.”

The ultimate Something Good happened in the third set. After having dispatched the visitor 25-23 and 25-18 – it must be noted that the wind in the Vela sails went decidedly slack after sophomore Fey Vazquez was knocked out for the night with a sprained ankle – EHS found itself down 5-1 early. Veteran Julissa Santa Maria, whom Dominguez tabbed as the most underrated Lady Bobcat, scored on a slick overhead second hit. 

Then Vega made what has to be one of the most unlikely yet beautiful plays of her four-year career. Running speedily from the midsection of her half, back to catch up to the ball, deep, she stopped when it appeared that she had overrun the pill, and while twisting her body to re-orient back toward the net, executed a perfect left-handed bump of the ball. The uncanny move produced a hittable pass, leading to a point. Afterward, Vega was slightly at sixes and sevens when trying to decode the magic.

“I wasn’t really sure it was going to come over,” she said about the line drive Vela offering that produced the Dig of the Year. “But it did, and I just broke back and ran back. Then, I don’t know, I just took a swing at it … and there you go.”

It happens like that in The Zone. A practiced and experienced athlete just lets muscle memory take over. A simply transcendent instant, and it jump-started a mammoth 16-1 EHS run (Vega serving, by the way) that put the lid on an exceedingly impressive performance against an eternal rival.

SURPRISES ABOUND

The recent stretch of magnificent volleyball has catapulted the Lady ‘Cats into the mix with a flourish, while Vela – on a streak of its own – struggled to compete after the loss of the lanky Vazquez. Before the match, Coach Celi Ortega, recently returned from illness, lauded the effort and results of her 4-2 team and also added some props for a seasoned staff.

“Gosh I was like, I guess they don’t really need me back,” she smiled, noting that her coaches have been amazing in her absence and that the roster’s newcomers have been superb so far. “Those new girls are workers, they have such a great mindset, I am very proud of them. Having kids with such a positive attitude makes coming to work a lot of fun.”

And at times Tuesday, Vela looked to be a decent bet to continue its winning ways. After falling behind early in the first set, the Lady Sabes worked back into it with Vazquez slapping a pair of winners until she was felled by the injury when it was 12-all. From there, Vega came up with a desperate diving save which fashioned a point and a 14-12 lead. But the Lady ‘Cats ran afoul of unforced errors and soon, Dayanne Ramos rose for a crafty tip to make it 18-17, Vela.

Don’t imagine that Cuellar is all the Red and Blue have on the frontline. Sophomore Natalie Hernandez is always a hitting threat while freshman Emily Carranco (wait for basketball season to see more of her) is coming into her own day by day. The latter made a sharp putdown of a Vela try, directly after another sprawling save from the ever-present Vega, and Santa Maria ended it with a flip that sailed deep into the Lady Sabe defensive backline, and down.

The first-set triumph was tonic for the Lady ‘Cats, who stormed to a 7-1 lead in the next session as Hernandez hammered one off a pass from Samantha Saenz and then scored again. Vela got back at it thanks to a powerful mid-row dagger from Maria Sanchez and then Emily Sanchez elevated to absolutely pulverize a kill. Maria Sanchez did her best Vega impression now with a diving left-handed rescue to begin a scoring sequence and EHS led by just a mark.

However, with Vega on the service line popping her elusive softies, the home girls gained a 17-12 advantage, Cuellar snapping off a wicked blast from Santa Maria to juice the rise. Sam Villalobos came up well for the Lady Sabes and then the key moment of the set, EHS up 18-16 but Vela approaching with venom.

Dylan Cantu sold out for a brave dig of Cuellar, and in the same sequence, Villalobos blocked the rangy EHS junior up top. But Cuellar, whose power is reminiscent of such program greats as the vicious Victoria Handy, is also very quick, and she ended the marathon point with a graceful leap punctuated with a spot-on slash to the open space. Hernandez then turned in a tip and a shot past the defense for some breathing room, followed by a Cuellar block from the rafters and an ace by Hernandez to cap a 7-point EHS success.

As stated, the third set was marked by the brilliance of Vega, along with an assist from sister Hailey. Vela led 5-1 to start but went dry as Santa Maria was everywhere, keeping plays alive and using quick wings to ferry the ball to where it needed to be, time and again. Cuellar continued to erupt, spraying bombs past the tiring Lady Sabes, and Vega The Younger tried to outdo her sister with a fantastic dive to save a ball right under the net, her legs splaying up behind her on a play that was first class all the way. Later, the sisters combined to bump and set nicely, no doubt thrilling their diehard parents in the socially distanced stands.

Set three was no contest. 22-8 at one stage before ending 25-12 for the whitewashing.

After those losses to North and Mission, Dominguez has seen her kids come together well, and the Elder Vega explained what the difference has been lately.

“We just made too many mistakes against those teams,” said the laidback leader. “The energy has been big for us since then and we have just been playing better. We’ve been playing hard and hustling, it’s paying off. It can be crazy out there during a game, and I think the main thing is, we have been staying calm. We have to stay cool and when we do, we can play with anyone.”

NOTES: The first half of 31-6A play ended Tuesday with Mission and Edinburg North tied for first at 6-1 followed by EHS at 5-2 and the pair of Vela and P-SJ-A standing 4-3.

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