Nov. 19, 2020

By Greg Selber

For those volleyball fans seeking a real, old-fashioned marathon, playoff-style, North was the place to be Thursday as the Harlingen Lady Cardinals came calling for a bi-district showdown with the Lady Cougars. In a match that was the very definition of the sport: momentum, lost and gained, the Lady Coogs surged out to a 2-0 lead before Harlingen rallied for three straight sets of success to end the season for the home girls. 

It was also a match not without controversy, as no fewer than three official’s calls in the pivotal fourth set were hotly contested; two were changed long after the original fact, one for each side. The visiting side and its fans were vociferous to say the least, and that is a long-time tradition with Harlingen sports, fired-up kids and fans, at times skirting the outer edges of sportsmanship.

At any rate it was a bitter blow for a North squad that competed well for the 31-6A title this season, finishing a strong second to Mission. Bitter indeed, considering the fact that the Lady Coogs overturned a 7-point deficit down the stretch to streak to a first-set victory. And when Coach Raul McCallum’s bunch put away the second as well, developments augured well for a playoff triumph. However, Harlingen, which had begun the night just as McCallum had feared it would – dominating with hitting ability – righted the ship midway through and carved out a 2-2 tie. The Lady Cards then clinched the ticket to area with a surprisingly easy 15-5 decision in the finale.

Coming in, McCallum had noted that if his girls could play the way they have been doing it all year – too, play the way they had been practicing recently – they would be fine. After all, he could count on several kids with previous postseason experience. For the most part, North did what its coach asked, producing a very solid effort through to the midsection of the match. After losing the fourth set in such difficult circumstances, though, the Lady Coogs could not duplicate its sound showing through four, dropping out of sight in the clinching moments.

The Lady Cards, with elastic 6-foot-2 Juli Bryant getting accurate passes, stormed ahead early on but North weathered the blast, getting a key rejection by Alexis Espinoza, a breath, and some momentum. Senior standout Ivana Ramos then heated up as the Lady Coogs sought to cut into a consistent Harlingen lead. She served a pair of aces to bring her team to within 3 at 21-18, and then junior Kaylee O’Bryan came up with a ringing kill. This seemed to unnerve the visitor and North had galloped to an 11-4 finishing run to record a 25-22 opening set win.

In the next part neither side could reach the apex of performance but North got some slick service from Shayla Gaytan and formidable work up front from O’Bryan to lead, 14-10. A series of Lady Card errors and a booming bomb from senior Melo Cantu – she was terrific in the set – made it 21-14. But instead of giving up the 7-point lead as its enemy had done previously, North capped the win, 25-17 as Ramos hit deep. A point later, Espinoza’s block led to another Ramos kill to seal the deal.

Anyone hoping for an early night was to be disappointed. Harlingen started to regain the hustle and force it had started with and led steadily during the third set. North evened the count at 10-10 with a nice feed from Stephany Kotzur to a slapping O’Bryan while Ramos starred with four vital points: an ace, a midrow drive into the grill of the Harlingen libero, and two more stellar hits. It was thus 19-19, set and match in the balance. Cantu hit a winner, O’Bryan blocked for point after an Espinoza block at net and North was up, 22-20, about to detonate/celebrate. But Harlingen reassumed command with sharper execution, and only a huge Cantu blast retied the affair at 23-all. Then, despite a couple of great plays from Ramos, the Lady Cardinals squeaked by, 25-23. No sweep tonight.

Set four was vintage playoff drama, with screaming fans, hollering kids, and officials scrambling to keep the match from going sideways. North was up 6-3 early, the slender Gaytan serving with aplomb, but the visitor rallied. At about 8-8 the first major fireworks erupted as the Harlingen coach spent at least four minutes haranguing the refs about a call that did not go her way. Interestingly, after a long conference, the blues decided to reverse the original decision.

At that stage the Lady Cards were buoyed and fierce, building a 4-point lead until another iffy whistle moment. This time the Lady Coogs got the benefit of the flip-flop from the adjudicating contingent and this in turn bolstered their spirits. An ace from the ever-tricky Gaytan made it 15-15 but Harlingen worked its way to a bulge of 19-16. It soon became 24-19 but here, the hitters in red and white faltered with a series of mistakes. The score teetered to 23s again (mirrored set three) until the excitable sophomore Bryant block-scored on a sequence that sent the North faithful into a frenzied uproar. The point went to the Lady Cards though it appeared that the ball might have landed just out of bounds. An emphatic Bryant kill ended the go, 25-23 against North, setting the stage for the final muster, about which the less said, the better.

In all, North completed a pleasurable campaign despite the narrow defeat at home. Having withstood the loss of key cog Hannah Duffey to injury along the way, McCallum’s girls had a season they can be proud of, especially considering the unique conditions (waiting for a day when COVID will not be part of the storyline). They had their chances to cap a sweep and move on to area, but could not. This allowed the Lady Cards to get back off the mat and eventually carve out the controversial split decision, a decision nonetheless.

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