September 25, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

Sometimes, it’s just your day, when the light is brighter, the popcorn in the gym smells better, and the hits are harder, flatter. On a day like this, the points are adding up in bunches to your side of the scoreboard, and you re-engage with the feeling of being a winner once again.

Econ finished up the first half of the 31-6A volleyball slate Saturday at home, hosting La Joya, and Christina Soto’s girls rose to the occasion, literally and figuratively, sweeping the Lady Coyotes for their second league victory against six defeats.

Soto, getting flashy performances from several Orange athletes, wants them all to keep this momentum going for the return half of the slate.

“We’ve been close in a bunch of games, but we just haven’t been able to finish,” she said, after setter Dana Serna and hitter Sidni Alvarez paced the unit to a walkover of a win by combining for a number of brilliant set-slam pieces. “I know that they have it in them, we’ve been competitive against many teams, but we always seem to fall short. Hopefully today is the start of a run for us, because I definitely think we’re capable.”

Soto mentioned a prior loss to Pharr North that was particularly rankling.

“We got behind them, but we came back from 0-2, and then it was 15-11 at the end,” she recalled. “That is the type of match we could have won, should have, really. As we look at the second half, we see some teams we can beat and others we can compete against. We have to make it happen and I have faith that we will.”

Any season is always a grind, and now with bumps and bruises, fatigue threatening, Soto wants her kids to show what they are made of.

“Because of the pandemic, we didn’t have as many tournaments last year, but this season we were in more of them, and it takes its toll,” she explained. “Especially when you haven’t been used to playing so many games. So we need to be physically and mentally tough right now, get back at it and hang in there.”

If the Lady Jags are going to make some noise in the race in round two, Serna will surely be at the fore of the effort. The athletic junior – does anyone else think she kinda resembles former program great Leigha Brown in body type and agility? – was all over the court Saturday, ranging far and wide to find the ball and get it onto the right path. She has become adept at making sets while running with her back to the net, over the shoulder, and makes the easy set opportunity look super easy. And when she places the ball where it needs to be, the springy Alvarez will rise and pop with the best of them.

“When she’s on, she’s on, she can be one of the best hitters in the district,” said Soto of the junior swatter. “She was really pounding it today; it was good to see.”

Those two are the fulcrum through which the attack operates, with libero Bianca Coronado growing into the role as fire-starter. She is a hustler who never quits, as indicated against La Joya on a sequence where she dug to begin and later chased after a wayward ball, sliding on her knees and knee-padding across the floor to try and save it. Max effort.

Other contributors to the victory included senior Ari Reyna, who served like a champ, and classmate Ashley Cantu, whose clever play at the net helped subdue the Lady Coyotes.

“She’s smart out there, and she will find the ball somehow,” Soto said of the seasoned veteran Cantu, one of only four seniors on the roster in 2021. “If we need a tip, she can do it, she knows how to play the game.”

In the first set Saturday, Alvarez served notice that she was going to be registering with regularity, firing away against La Joya’s backline and helping the Lady Jags to a healthy lead. Neyda Garcia came with some crafty moments at the net, including a tap for a point after she had made a block earlier in the play.

It was clear that Econ felt like playing on the weekend, and when sophomore Adia De los Reyes and junior Lyzette Garza both hit the deck to keep the ball alive, Soto pumped her fist on the sideline.

To finish the set, Garcia elevated to block, leading to a long push shot to the corner by Serna. Then Serna toed the service line and aced the La Joya libero all up in her grill, Econ winning 25-11.

The Lady Jags swarmed to a 5-0 lead in set two with Cantu reaching craftily over the net to slap one down, a minute after she had been quick to stick out a palm and redirect one over. At this stage, Reyna took command with a bevy of serves to keep La Joya off balance and Serna again employed the over-the-shoulder move for a point. It was all going Econ’s way, as even when Alvarez slightly mishit on a kill, the ball dovetailed past a surprised Lady Coyote and onto the wood. Serna ran down a difficult loose ball with speed, got her base set wide on the run, and created something out of nothing, and again, her athleticism allows her to make plays that many kids would never even try. Body control.

After a 25-8 breeze to take the set, the home side set its sights on a sweep, a relatively rare occasion these days. The program enjoyed its salad days from 2002 to 2011, making the playoffs 10 times, winning a bi-district match twice. And Soto is intent on some day putting another banner up in the rafters.

“The thing is, I think we have the team to it,” she said. “We just have to do better at being more consistent, starting well but also finishing well.”

La Joya was strong to start what would be the concluding session, but after the visitor led 4-2, the Lady Jags surged. Reyna got the ball rolling with consecutive digs and Cantu scored after a dig from Coronado and a set from Serna, making it 5-4, Orange. Alvarez and Cantu then turned in saves with a wide wing, Alvarez slammed from Serna, and the group was off and running again.

Serna raced back to locate one, setting over her head to the net for Alvarez, and it was 10-6. Alvarez, feeling her oats now, popped two more winners, followed by a series of vicious kills that made it 19-12. Alvarez turned in six winners in no time, showing the promise and ability that Soto has been talking about.

Cantu, who was excellent Saturday, pushed one home for a point, rising from the right to strike back left and the Lady Jags withstood a late run from the visitor to wrap it up, 25-17.

It was a pleasing afternoon for a team that was hungry for success. The Lady Jags can start the second half with some momentum, and they will seek to bring this renewed energy and consistency to the gym as they tackle second half chores.

The only down note from the event was the knowledge that by early next week, the program will have seen the last of long-time trainer Claudia Gonzalez. Always front and center with graceful professionalism and talent, she will leave the school to pursue a doctoral degree in rehab counseling. Always upbeat and yet properly stern and focused, the marvelous Gonzalez has been a vital fixture on the athletics scene out east for well over a decade, and she will indeed be missed by all.

Soon, a doctor in the house!

NOTES: with the first half of the campaign complete, Vela and P-SJ-A are in front at 7-1, followed by EHS and North at 6-2. Anybody’s ball game as the march continues. Key nights will be Oct. 5 when Vela and North meet, as well as Oct. 9, when the Lady Sabes battle EHS, and Oct. 19, when the latest EHS-North bout takes place.

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