September 2, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

At first it seemed that it would be hard to get a read on the progress of her team, because Tuesday’s opponent came in having played very little volleyball the past 18 months. La Joya will struggle this season, no doubt, and the Lady SaberCats had almost zero resistance in romping to an easy sweep Tuesday.

But coach Celi Ortega wasn’t worried about the result really. She is more concerned with the Long Game right now, which begins in earnest soon (North Saturday) and continues next week (EHS). She’s seen promising recent developments with her squad, especially at some difficult tournaments, and so the La Joya match was just another chance for the kids to grow and the coach to get a better handle on what the season has in store.

“We’ve been challenged so far, no doubt, we’ve been in some good pools for the tournaments,” said Ortega, who is constructing a return to the playoffs after last season’s uncharacteristic absence. “We’ve seen the types of teams we’ll be playing if we get into the playoffs. Different tempos, different skills teams have, a lot of our girls are just now learning what it’s like to play those type of teams. And it’s great experience.”

On one hand the grueling tournament season can be a grind, but on the other, it toughens the girls up.

“It was draining, we had a ton of games and fatigue is always a factor,” Ortega agreed. “We’re still learning, which is the way it is when you have a lot of kids who haven’t played that much. Some of them missed last year entirely because of the pandemic, so they’re getting up to speed now. But we need to be ready, because district is here.”

Indeed, District 31-6A play began with La Joya and while the Lady Coyotes are going to have trouble staying out of the basement in 2021, they were the first obstacle for Vela.

One obstacle that does not hinder the Lady Sabes is the rocket rise of a potentially fabulous freshman. While Abby Zamora has had a knock or two in the early going, she was 100 percent healthy and prepared for the home league debut Tuesday, and served notice that if things go the way they seem to be heading, Ortega’s squad is set at the set, so to say, for the next four years.

Showing amazing poise for a newbie, Zamora served to excellent result, presented a perfect platform on her sets, and even rose at one point to hit hard on the apex. Which makes sense, given her track record in club volleyball (Flames).

“She’s been a hitter, you can tell, even though she’s not very tall,” said Ortega about the 5-4 Zamora, who proved absolutely unflappable against La Joya, performing with the ease of a true athlete, never rushing, being meticulous without the expenditure of superfluous effort. A natural. “She can really play anywhere, we saw that early on as the season got started. Being versatile, that helps a girl get on the court, somewhere, and she’s been great as a setter so far. Abby understands the game so well and I think that sets her apart from a lot of girls. She knows how the game works, whereas many kids just go out and play volleyball. The fact that she has the IQ, knows how to play, what the game looks like, when it changes, etc., makes her very valuable.”

And it was Zamora who staked her team to an early 8-0 lead, in one of those opening sequences that is a dream for one side, a nightmare for the other. It became immediately apparent that La Joya had prominent weakness in the back, and Zamora went to work like a surgeon, carving the back row up with scalpel serves, line drives with a twist. Her offerings just kept flummoxing the foe, which they would do 22 times in only three sets Tuesday.

Now, the problem with total domination in this manner is that it doesn’t require anyone else to do much else besides clap and stomp in the Rah-Rah Circle after every point. A team really needs to get into all aspects of the game for the exercise to have been worthwhile.

When the action did become back and forth, only occasionally, admittedly, the rest of the Lady Sabes showed that they are going to be primed for the City Rivalry ahead. Emily Gonzalez, coming around in terms of technique and execution, used her ample wingspan and spring to produce a deep slam to the corner and then duplicated it. If she continues her progression as a dangerous outside option, Vela will be hard to beat. She can count on spot-on sets from Zamora, often facilitated by libero Maria Sanchez, the pulse and heartbeat of the attack in her second season as a starter and team leader.

The pieces are beginning to assemble themselves organically in Ortega’s puzzle, and that includes Sam Villalobos in the middle. The emergence of Danika Verdooren will also help. The lanky redhead got some good pops in Tuesday, and several blocks. Ortega says that even though she is one of the many who suffered during the pandemic – not getting as much seasoning as she might’ve because the lower level teams were inactive – the sophomore is a player to watch, one who gets better every time out.

Verdooren gives the squad some length at net, to pair with the athletic Fey Vasquez, totally healthy now after some ankle issues in the past. And having those two six-footers up front is going to pay dividends as Vela faces some good-size teams down the road. North being one.

The Lady Sabes roared ahead in the first set, opening up an 18-5 lead with Sanchez launching nine straight winners from the service line and near the close, Laura Guizar toed the stripe holding aces high. After the Lady Coyotes scored their sixth point, Vasquez knuckled a few winners, completing the utter dominance in serve-and-return.

The second bout was more of the same with Zamora again befuddling the visitor with her serves; it got almost monotonous for a while, but of course, that’s competition: you either bring it or you don’t. No quarter. La Joya, rattled by the bum rush of the first set, just could not get off the canvas. With Guizar again piling up points, Vela breezed to a 25-6 walkover, Vasquez contributing a smart spike on one of the few occasions where actual side-to-side play resulted.

But one has to hand La Joya credit, because its girls made a game of it for the third set, leading most of the way and giving Vela the chance to encounter a little adversity, and work its way out of a jam. LJ was up by eight at one juncture, 17-9. Surprise, we got a game!

Gaby Gracia was one of the Blue and Black crew members that helped jumpstart the comeback with a couple of hustling digs; she and Guizar raced madly to keep a ball alive and soon a block score from Dayanne Ramos gave the unit some life. Verdooren elevated to record point through a block, and the Lady Sabes seemed to relish the opportunity, rushing onward to a solid finish.

It was still Lady Coyotes in the lead, but Verdooren and Vasquez – using their height to vital advantage against a smallish enemy front – keyed a surge, the latter serving up an ace, followed by a sharp connection from Ramos-to-Guizar-to Ramos for a smacking success: Vela was within one, late in the set.

Still, the underdog crept near the tape, leading 24-22, until a faulty serve and then a save from Sanchez led to a tie. Vela took the lead and then put it away, the freshman Zamora providing a tidy feed for the winning moment. It was a test, and they passed, withstanding the best shot the visitor had to offer and coming through unscathed.

“I wanted the girls to be aggressive; we’ve been working on that,” Ortega commented after the sweep was in the books. “Sometimes a game won’t be pretty. I told them that they need to stay focused on what we are doing and get set for some big games that are coming up. We’re getting there, the learning is paying off, steadily.”

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