August 26, 2021

By Greg Selber

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This will in all probability be the Lady Jaguar pattern in 2021: fight to stay in games, wait for the opportunity to strike, and then take it. Christina Soto’s youthful bunch has growing chemistry and some promising athletes this season, after having lost just two kids to graduation, and Econ began the climb up the 31-6A hill Tuesday with a road test at North.

Although they were swept by the Lady Coogs in the league opener, the Lady Jags showed their resilience with a number of comebacks in each set, illustrating the sort of mentality Soto is looking for from her charges.

“For example, we are in a tournament this weekend and we start off with Mac High,” said the veteran coach. “We want to be able to just go out and play hard and having an opponent like that, one of the best, is a good challenge for us. The girls have to just forget about who they’re playing, and stay together and play their game. Games like that will show us what it’s like to compete at the highest level and anything we do well in those games will help us down the road. We just need one big moment, an upset, and I think this team can really get going.”

The North match was somewhat of the same type, as Raul McCallum’s club is off to a very solid start behind the all-around excellence of senior Kaylee O’Bryan and a fine supporting cast. And at times, the Orange played like it wants to be a playoff contender, getting off the mat several times when it looked like curtains.

New standout Etsel Ramirez staked the home side to an early advantage in set one with a dagger down the left sideline, but then Soto’s kids percolated, with sophomore Adia De los Reyes smashing a kill off a perfect set from team leader Dana Serna. When Serna scored thanks to a hustle play from basketballer Bianca Coronado, it was just 6-5 North. Soto has high hopes for the strong-legged De los Reyes, while Coronado looks like a winner from the service line in the nascent season stages.

North meanwhile found itself in need of an adjustment Tuesday as it became apparent that the visitor was going to try and neutralize O’Bryan. McCallum, after surveying the scene with his seasoned eye, gradually transitioned his group into a new approach. At the fore of the change were frontliners Alexis and Maya Espinoza.

“We started to move the ball around and get other girls involved,” McCallum noted afterward. “You have to be ready for what the opponent is doing, so we changed it up a bit when they were finding Kaylee.”

Alexis Espinoza was very effective Tuesday, plinking left-handed scores in bunches from the right side and middle, taking the pressure off O’Bryan, who was to emerge later in the match with a flourish. Espinoza tallied three points midway through the first set, her palmed lob to space giving North a 15-9 advantage. But Econ fought back, as De los Reyes slammed through a block and the Lady Coogs endured a patch of poor play. With Coronado swerving/serving, the Lady Jags were right in it, down 15-14. But then Maya Espinoza came up with a couple of handy net plays and Ramirez again pounded one down, skirting the sidelines with an undiggable effort. The Lady Coogs benefited from a sweet, running spike from Jade Guerra, and reassumed command.

However, the Lady Jags showed the pattern well, rallying to within four as they took the action to North, playing on the front foot and racing around their court side, paced by the athletic Serna. Coronado dived for a save after Serna had blocked earlier in the sequence, and it looked like Econ might come good before faltering late, North tucking it away, 25-18, to end the set.

To start the second go, O’Bryan got unlimbered for a big kill, preceded by a deft block for point. Undaunted, the Orange worked to a 6-3 lead off a kill from Raylene Corona, another hoops regular, with the Lady Coogs looking unsettled. Maya Espinoza turned the tide for McCallum’s gals, though, with a clever little tip, and the home side surged into a lead at 11-7.

Not to be headed, Econ answered with talented Sidni Alvarez roaming above the net and De Los Reyes sending a bullet over for a point, capping a fine run of play. Corona made a sharp pickup in midair of a poor pass, scoring with a slap to make it 15-15, anybody’s match.

Of course, with the agile O’Bryan lurking in the wings, it was always going to up an uphill struggle for the upstarts from the east. The senior swatter twice on the same sequence denied Econ tips at the net with swooping leaps, and then absolutely flew like a graceful condor to advance to the net and pop one down. After Alexis Espinoza pawed a strong lefty winner, North led by four, eventually closing out the victory with a hammer from Ramirez and then a riddle of an arching lob from the same gal; it befuddled the Lady Jags and struck the wood in the deep back, open.

These are the types of scenarios that Soto was talking about. How would Econ bounce back from adversity, after having been intermittently close in the first two sets, only to see the foe spring back even stronger?

The early answer was not a happy one, as North stormed to an 8-0 lead off the bat, Shayla Gaytan knocking her tricky knuckleballs at a wavering Orange backline. At 13-6, though, Econ bucked up and brought it, Coronado digging one with aplomb, Britzia Mancilla rejecting a North try at net, and the frontline holding sway with solid leaps and coverage. When Mancilla and Ashley Cantu combined for a net block the Lady Jags were down one, 16-15, and feeling confident.

But now North leaned in on its star, and O‘Bryan paid the bill, soaring for a kill and then toeing the line for a service ace, launching her mates to a 20-15 lead. The set had begun as a blowout but had become a real pier six brawl. Still, the Lady Jags tired at this stage, leading to a North rush that closed the third set out. Finishing with a 9-2 burst, the Lady Coogs had accomplished the goal, winning the 31-6A opener.

Econ, meanwhile, can file away this one knowing that at certain junctures, they were right in there. It will take ample and steady work to string longer stretches of quality play together, but one imagines that Soto and her group will be heard from before it’s all said and done.

North was able to avoid the Trap Game well enough, giving away too many points but girding up with sound moves when the going got tougher. McCallum’s crew should be in the running for the loop trophy in 2021, no doubt about it.

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