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ONCE UPON A TIME, IT WAS COLOSSAL: VELA-EHS ENGAGE IN STRUGGLE FOR AGES, LADY SABES VAULT OFF VOLLEY MAT FOR 5-SET COMEBACK

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September 7, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

To understand this instant classic, one might start at the end, when it took way more time than it normally does for the throng of cars to leave the parking lot at Vela. Hurry up and wait, that was the drill, but after what the fans had been through, it’s a wonder they could even see straight to drive. Because the house had been mega rockin’ Tuesday night for one of the most thrilling volleyball matches anyone has probably ever witnessed, EHS and Vela locking horns in a simply gargantuan struggle.

Pure drama from start to finish, with the student sections going bananas against each other, the cheerleaders engaging in mano-a-mano flip competitions, and the coaches working overtime to get the most out of their energized girls. That, plus domination by one sextet leading to a massive comeback by the other, made it a memorable evening all around.

After getting plainly pulverized by Jazmin Cuellar and the Lady Bobcats for two sets, the Lady SaberCats were on their hind legs and sagging toward for oblivion. They had managed a great comeback from 2-1 down at North in their latest outing, Saturday, but this time it seemed that EHS, coming in at 3-0 in District 31-6A just like Vela, was unstoppable. But somehow, Coach Celi Ortega’s kids decided that no, this wasn’t going to be the end of it, and they then girded up for a comeback of epic proportions, taking the third set and then the fourth, cruising all the way home to complete another death-defying reprieve from the grave.

Getting contributions from all quarters, the Lady Sabes stunned EHS with hustle and determination, clinching the fifth and deciding set with a flourish, and sending their fans – so quiet during the early going and taking a razzing from the huge and boisterous Bobcat travelers – into a blissful celebration that echoed off the roof of the old (EHS) gym as the speechless visitors beat a hasty retreat into the night.

The night reminded one quite distinctly of the killer clashes between EHS and North back in the day, when there were fewer schools in town and the audience was always jammed in and jamming out. And given all that has gone on in the past 18 months, it was beautiful to see and hear, a real old-fashioned scramble between rivals, excitement building by the set, decided amid a din that one just hasn’t been hearing as much since the scourge of COVID laid waste to the land.

After the improbable comeback, libero Maria Sanchez, always in the thick of the fight, gazed up into the crowd and smiled at the madness. When asked what had just happened, she paused for a second, wiping sweat from a brow that had been furrowed fiercely all night long.

Then she exploded with happiness, as she is wont to do.

“It’s … WE WON!!!!!!!” she shouted near the top of her lungs, and then nearly doubled over with the sort of laugh that can only emanate from someone who has walked the tightrope of disaster, only to regain balance and continue along the warrior’s path.

Sanchez, who helped key the surge after the 0-2 deficit, explained how it came off.

“Every team can come back, we are proving that right now,” said the bespectacled play-starter. “We were a little down after two sets, I think we were pretty nervous, really. I know I was. We’re against our big rivals and we just had to settle down and start playing. In the end, we just took it to ‘em!”

While the team’s heartbeat noted that the girls started talking more, communicating better than they had in the early stretches, Ortega added another element that led to the surprise denouement.

“We couldn’t get into offensive mode very well,” said the coach, whose side lost 25-14 and 25-13 to put itself into a cavernous hole. “We had to break their serve so we could rally, we made some adjustments to find their hitters, taking away the lines.

“But what it really boiled down to is something we have been trying to teach these girls. When someone pushes, you have to push back, when they punch, punch back. It has to be that way. So really, it came down to, how bad do you really want this? I think our girls showed that even though they were down, they were going to push back, and show they really wanted to win this.”

NO THEY D’IN’T…

EHS was loaded for SaberCat from the start, as a large group of redclad rooters gathered in the parking lot beforehand to blow up balloons, put finishing touches on signs, and get set for battle. Lots of good-natured noise going on there. At the end of the national anthem the Bobcat fans even resurrected a ploy they have used countless times in the past, although for some reason it doesn’t happen very often anymore. For the final stanza, the exuberant crew substituted “BOBCATS!!!” when it came time to sing “Home of the ___.”

Boom, this thing is freakin’ ON!!

And the Lady ‘Cats came flying onto the court after that, seeming similarly amped and motivated.

Natalie Hernandez got Coach Deanna Dominguez’ s bunch off to a roar with a deep kill followed by a mid-row smash. Emily Carranco skied for a kill and later served an ace for an 11-8 EHS advantage. Vela has been a slow starter at times in 2021, and this was another such occasion. Cuellar came to work in mid-set, rejecting a Vela try at net and then tipping smartly on the next sequence. At one point the rangy senior showed her all-around ability by saving a ball right under the net to start a point win and EHS was up 6. Vela’s fab frosh, Abby Zamora, got her gang back in with an ace and soon it was 14-11, visitor.

From there, though, it was all Lady ‘Cats, as Cuellar showed why she is regarded as one of the Valley’s top players in 2021, slapping a quick one for a point, again tipping with masterful ease, and even enjoying a bit of luck when she mistimed a strike but saw it still manage to find Vela hardwood on the other side. In general, Hailey Vega was the provider for the night, flipping pass after pass into Cuellar’s sights, and the result was usually as expected, at least in the first two sets. Jammin’ Jaz bombed two more lasers, and Miranda Reyes (Maria’s sis) came on to deliver sure serves, producing a 25-14 result.

Dominguez stated before the match that it could certainly go either way, with two evenly matched teams in a huge early Rivalry test. She was concentrating on having her girls eliminate too many giveaways. Her counterpart noted that midway through the North match, the Lady Sabes had taken a deep breath, and the lightbulb of understanding suddenly appeared, with the resulting come-from-behind win. She wondered if Vela would have to go through the same trauma this time.

Answer, yes, it was going to be that way, as EHS rumbled out to a massive 11-0 lead in set two with simply fantastic all-around play: Cuellar levitating and hammering, Hernandez doing well at net, and the Lady Sabes having extreme difficulty playing uphill against a confident and talented opponent.

“Why so QUIET!?” the EHS crowd bellowed during one timeout, Crickets came the response. Cuellar then rose like a comet to flush another ill-fated Vela tip way above the net, and then she dug one into a set, advancing to the twines directly to receive and power home a winner. She was just in another universe right now, channeling all kinds of spirits of the past. Not quite yet Leigha Brown of Econ fame, but certainly in the Victoria Handy realm, and then some. She is springy, agile, and powerful, is Cuellar the North transfer, and when she’s getting it where she wants it, you can just write it down, gonna happen.

That second set was a heartbreak for the home side, ending 25-13 after the Lady ‘Cats had zoomed into a 14-point advantage. Everyone who had been banking on a five-set marathon was beginning to wonder what they had been thinking.

But as it turned out, magic was waiting in the wings.

THE TIDE TURNS

When EHS got out to a 3-0 lead on a Carranco deep-corner blow and a Cuellar-from-Vega connection, well, it seemed to be same old, same old. But that’s when the latest light bulb flashed on for the Blue and Black, and they started to get it together. A block point from Sam Villalobos started it but just then, Cuellar again. She made a block on the right side extended, ball staying on her side; then she raced over to the midsection to receive a subsequent pass and pop a winner hard and clean back to the right sideline. How many No. 7’s did you see on this play?

Danila Verdooren came to the fore for Vela with some nifty play at the front and it was see-saw, the sort of competitive back and forth folks had all come to see. Vega, arching into smooth, dolphin-like sets – transferring lower body strength into upper skillset – allowed Cuellar to hang in the air forever on two gorgeous kills. But the Lady Sabes were answering them all, hanging tough behind the cool-headed Zamora and the perpetual motion machine Sanchez. They were feeling, finding the game now.

At this stage, the Lady ‘Cats blinked, falling into the period of miscues their coach had spoken about before the first action, handing Vela numerous chances to leap into the lead at long last. With Dayanne Ramos, who was to come on like crazy down the stretch, and Fey Vasquez, the lanky hoopster, starting to score, it was happening. Again.

Vela grabbed a 13-12 lead on a tip from Emily Gonzalez, and then little Amaris Cruz hit the deck for a gutty dig, something she did often Tuesday. Another error by EHS and Vela was up, 15-12, heading into a timeout. During which, of course, the Sabe fans serenaded their rival section with their own rendition of “Why So Quiet!!?” This game was a hoot, all the way.

The Lady ‘Cats, however soon tied the affair at 15 when Sam Saenz made a slick one-handed dig after Hernandez had dived to dig down low. Vega ran all the way off the court to keep one in play, and now this was the sort of blow by blow everyone had been anticipating!

Ties ensued at 17 and 18, the key scenes coming from Cuellar on a pair of lacerating licks, but then Vela’s Verdooren rocked up for a block, leading to the latest edition of The Fey Show.

Vasquez can clobber them pretty well, thanks, and when she gets heated, yo, defense best stay seated. Vasquez sailed for a winning ping, rose to tip at net for the next point, and then made it 23-18 with a pair of peas pelted to the back line, real quick-like. She flat took over the set down the stretch and it culminated 25-19, Vela, Ramos leaping for a fine putdown at the cords to cinch.

Having staved off the sweep, Vela went to work on forging a tie, but not before the cheer contingents got into the act beforehand. Judge for yourself, but each school produced a phenomenal whirling dervish who catapulted all the way down the length of the basketball floor, inducing delirium and dizziness in the rowdy sections, members of which surely did not need any more gas.

Set four was the best of the night, Vela crunching out to a 4-1 lead with Vasquez still percolating and Gaby Gracia turning in some key moments. Sanchez plowed an ace up high and soon it was 6-3, home girls. Though EHS looked tentative still, it was Carranco who rescued the deal, coming good with several winning hits and blocks. Just like she did in hoops last year, the youngster exhibited good athleticism and poise, quietly going about the task of arresting the progress of the Lady Sabes with her timely performance. Underrated.

But Gonzalez for Vela was also going to make her mark on this unreal night, cranking death to the deepest depths of the backline and then scoring through block to install her pals in front at 12-10. Cuellar answered with a resounding rejection up high, and both teams were in the zone, throwing excellence against excellence. Cuellar pushed her squad to a 15-13 lead until Vasquez took flight again, ripping off three straight, including a play where she elevated over the net, rightside-ish, and pulled a rocket hard to the extreme left, down to wood. Bam! Don’t bother.

Mia Dominguez then tipped one home for the Lady ‘Cats, Hernandez bulled through block for a score, and Carranco tied it at 19 against a tiring Vela front. Would they be able to close this caper, at 3-1? Or would Vela find the juice somewhere within to keep on brawling? Doesn’t get any better, people.

Vasquez scored off a Zamora feed and then Gonzalez gave a vital winner that was set up by a dive from Ramos. But the Lady Bobcats immediately struck back via Carranco’s twin kills. Just amazing action, all one could ask for, and it got even crazier after Ramos again used her considerable athletic ability to save another ball. The Lady Sabes climbed ahead, 23-21 and their supporters broke out the old “We Can’t HEAR You!!” refrain.

After a timeout, Carranco continued her terrific set with a score off block, leading to the final moments. Here, Villalobos was on the Vela spot at the net, and her nice work finished it, 25-21. From the brink of despair, the slough of despond, here were the Comeback Kids again, in the process of saving the bacon for the second time in five days.

WHO WILL IT BE?

If this story seems to go on forever, that may be due to the marathon struggle it describes. Maybe. Once in a while a game is so pleasurable and fulfilling that one wishes it would never stop. School? Eh. Work? Eh. The Game, man, the Game!

Cuellar had been a bit quiet in the prior set as Vela moved into position, got the cover right, and went into offensive mode, trying to play downhill at EHS like the Lady ‘Cats had done to them earlier. But now the slammer from EHS launched a merciless dagger with Hernandez adding a push for point, Dominguez combining with Cuellar for a strong tandem block. Vela was right there as well, though, as Gonzalez raked one through the defense. It was 3-3, first one to 15 is it.

The visitor went up 5-3 with a perfect progression from Ariella Ramirez to Vega to Cuellar, who did the honors with a slam, thank you, ma’am.

But then occurred another of those Blue Periods the Lady ‘Cats had sought to avoid, and at the worst possible juncture. Errors on three consecutive plays gave Vela a running start at the tape, and after a great Gonzalez dig on Cuellar, Ramos was heroic with a push-shot winner. In the clutch, the Vela backline was superb in locating the stinging shots of the EHS hitters, making all the difference.

Still, EHS was not done, not even close, and Cuellar and Carranco willed their team to within one at 8-7. Zamora found her teammates where they needed to be, and Vela made one more surge. A dig from Gracia was enormous, while Ramos was incredibly clutch with a diving save and flying tip. The track star was doing a great volleyball stint at this stage, right when her unit needed it most.

Saenz rallied the Red and Blue with a score but Sanchez kept yet another ball alive for Vela, the score standing at 11-10, Vela, alas, time running out. EHS hit out next, but Hernandez salvaged a point. With a one-note advantage, the Lady Sabes held their nerve and the opponent failed to execute a tipping chance, going out of bounds. Putting the exclamation point on the return from the wilderness, Gonzalez hammered through a block, and then it was over, 15-11.

After this long march was complete, Vela 4-0 and EHS 3-1, Ortega commented on the comeback gem.

“When we made the run and got back into it, the Bobcats started to creep back in on us,” she said. “Great teams are always going to make that run. I told the girls, in the fourth set late, that they had to hold on. If they didn’t win there, it’s over. We had to stay ahead.”

They did.

At one stage, late in the nutty night, libero Sanchez was standing in the huddle for a timeout, listening to Ortega feverishly give her instructions. Then she turned her head toward the Vela student section, during a particularly raucous bit of yelling and telling. Sanchez smiled broadly, which she does quite often, and put a hand up in the air, pointing at someone in the sea of faces, laughing uproariously.

Then, remembering the task at hand, she whipped back into attention.

That is the spirit, really, of competition, the ability to take a second to smell the roses during a madcap and zany volleyball extravaganza. Rather than being too nervous, getting queasy in the lights, the veteran Sanchez was exemplifying, organically and without artifice, the joy of the hunt that we all hope our kids can take away from their sporting careers in high school. Because on a night like this, one everyone will recall for many, many moons, it was just great to be there, drinking in the atmosphere, grooving to the hard-fought struggle unfolding – both teams so locked in – and being very, very happy that we are all able to get together again, restrictions accepted, to do what we all love to do: Watch them play, see them work hard, be pleased that they’re learning their lessons of courage, commitment and unity, and … why lie … have some good old dang fun, too!

That’s what’s up, what it’s all about. Both teams, every girl. Pedal to the metal. The best.

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