October 5, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
At this stage of the season, they know each other all too well and there are few surprises, the denouement boiling down to which team executes better, which keeps mistakes to a minimum, and which is able to enforce its will on the familiar foe.
Which, Tuesday was Vela.
Facing the Lady Cougars for the third time in 2021, Coach Celi Ortega’s bunch got it done in style, sweeping at home to climb to 9-1 in District 31-6A. The victory keeps the Lady SaberCats tied in the loss column with P-SJ-A, the only sextet to defeat them so far, and drops North to 8-3 in league play and into fourth place for the time being.
Ortega got terrific matches from a number of her girls, especially rangy junior Emily Gonzalez, who was on fire from the onset, splashing kills all over the court and contributing in many other ways. Classmate Sam Villalobos was also excellent in the sweep with some punishing shots into the teeth of the tottering North backline and in the back, Ol’ Reliable, senior Maria Sanchez, was again the dynamo who rocked, rolled, and ruled with indomitable will.
In all, a slightly easier result than expected against a Lady Coog group that has exhibited championship bona fides at times this season – they are the only team to upend the Lady Bears so far – but suffered through a relatively sluggish night all around.
It’s no secret that North presents a formidable frontline on a nightly basis, and Vela was going to have to move the ball around and find space. Ortega said that her kids came up to scratch in responding to that challenge.
“They have an excellent heavy block on the right side, we knew that,” she said after the match. “They are strong in their block, so we had to work to get away, find some angles to exploit. I thought Emily did a great job of that tonight, she’s versatile and can come at you in different ways. The other thing is, we didn’t make too many errors, and that is something you have to be able to do against the best teams.”
The coach also lauded the performance from Villalobos, noting that she and junior Fey Vasquez have helped each other immensely in workouts.
“They push each other big time, they really battle in practice,” Ortega commented. “I think Sam has started to come up big for us in the big games, with Bears, Bobcats and North; she’s feeling confident right now and it shows in her play. She is reading very well out there, she’s not one-dimensional either: just hit-hit-hit. She knows the defense is going to be there in the front and she’s getting better at picking her spots.”
The other bright rays in the Tuesday triumph were new faces; one not so new now and the other, well, almost brand new. Danika Verdooren continues to improve in all aspects of the game, while Pharr North transfer Emma Lucio – also a superb basketball player – has gained eligibility just in time for the stretch run. Her athletic ability and palpable intensity have been a boon to the program already.
Ortega says the 6-foot soph Verdooren is an open book on the court, often smiling during positive stretches and making knowing glances to the side.
“I can see her sometimes, looking over at us, like ‘I got it!’ and she is just so willing to work and get better,” the coach noted approvingly. “And she is able to do a lot of things, not just block or hit. She’ll say, I want to set, and sometimes in the games, she does that, and does well. She has really improved since the start of the season.”
And that goes for the entire team itself, truly.
THE RIVALS APPROACH
Based on the records and the talent levels, this one promised to be a long night, back and forth and offering plenty of thrills amid a season that has given more than the average share of drama to local netizens. And though each set was competitive, up to a point, overall Vela was sharper and quicker, getting key input from every kid that hit the wood.
Still, North was able to carve out the early momentum, leading 8-7 after senior Jade Guerra balled a fist and alertly popped one over. The lead advanced to 11-7 after junior Abri Cubriel beat her mark at the net with a tip.
But after a timeout, the Lady Sabes came back rejuvenated, getting a flying tip from junior Dayanne Ramos and a huge hammer blow from Villalobos, soon tying it at 11. Stephany Kotzur of North came up with a brave dig but Gonzalez was on the spot for a subsequent slam, giving Vela the edge, 12-11. Ortega’s gals came on to surge into a 16-13 seat after Villalobos blocked for a point, and went ahead 18-15 when Vasquez rose to put down an errant dig.
Lucio and Vasquez then worked a smooth move that hoops coach (and girls’ athletic coordinator) Lottie Zarate no doubt watched with interest. Following that, Verdooren snaked one into and over the net for a 7-point bulge. It finished 25-19 on a strong spike from Vasquez.
Vela seemed ascendant now, but the Lady Coogs had other plans, racing to a 6-1 second set advantage behind expert service (of course) from Shayla Gaytan and a scoring hit from Cubriel.
Another timeout, and back came the Blue and Black as Lucio scored and Vela then won a very key point. After a marathon sequence that saw tremendous hustle from Kotzur and senior Alexis Espinoza of the Old Gold, Vela managed the point to get to within two; when a team is successful at the end of a pell mell scrum of about 15 licks from each side, it often means Uncle Mo is hovering in their corner.
And this was the case as Vasquez went skyward for an amazing left-handed tip down to the right and Ramos turned in a point at net. Guerra rallied North with a slide step kill she is perfecting these days and then tallied again for a tie at 10. However, Vasquez leapt for a hit against the marvelous Kaylee O’Bryan, both girls so high in the air it seemed they would stay up there for the whole semester. A Villalobos ace continued the home side rush and aided by unforced North errors, Vela pulled ahead, 21-17 with Gonzalez – a leaper in her own right – tipping for a winner.
The Lady Coogs stayed close, behind a ringing shot from sophomore Etsel Ramirez and a deep shot from Maya Espinoza, and then came a Cubriel score through block and a line violation from their rival. Just 21-19 now but Verdooren then made a vital statement, slapping a steaming blast from the right side back to the left. Then the red-headed youngster next came up with a neat block for a point and grinned broadly. That was the gas they needed to finish up a 25-19 win, though North had shown all sorts of moxie in hanging tough and coming near to the tying result. The main drawback Tuesday was that the Lady Coogs could not sustain enough consistent offensive leverage to get their hitters into a groove.
With all the nutty comebacks unfolding this season, no one was ready to write North out. It seems that the city units of 2021 have not just skill to burn, but a real resilience to fight through difficulty, to remain standing. And indeed, set three was a skirmish of the first order, Vela running first with energy, exemplified by an early sequence on which Sanchez did the splits to dig a bomb and then hopped up to be ready for the next ball, which was another smash from O’Bryan that the Vela libero parried with skill and direction. Really, Maria?! Utterly fabulous.
It was a strangely subdued crowd for some reason Tuesday; not that they didn’t seem to enjoy the match. But at one stage, a lone voice from the Vela student section whispered out the program’s signature “Why So Quiiiiet!?” call, but even that was pretty low octane. School night …
Nevertheless, the action on the court spoke loudly enough as Vela was in command at 7-3 after a tip and then a dashing save from Gonzalez, who left the building like Elvis (alright, just the court) to save one and pop it back into play. She really had a memorable game, that kid.
North got its surge on now, thanks to the high-wire prowess of Ramirez, who was to put on a third set show with three quick kills and get her team right back in. Vasquez answered with a kill off a gazelle-like leap and the Fey/Danika combo slammed the door at the twines with an emphatic block.
North coach Raul McCallum saw his charges rally once more, though, as O’Bryan absolutely murdered one and for about the first time Tuesday, a couple of boo-boos stopped the Vela momentum. O’Bryan continued the march with a score at the net and it was a 1-point affair, Lady Sabes up, 13-12. Then Gonzalez again was the linchpin, getting a powerful cannon shot down following a flawless dig from former Lady Raider Lucio.
Sensing the opportunity, Vela advanced with a dig from Sanchez, a slam from Villalobos, and a Gonzalez winner from the rafters. Ramirez of North kept on keeping on, though, and after a few more Vela mistakes it was anyone’s match at 19-16, Lady Sabes.
Here, Vasquez provided the ultimate boost with her blistering tomahawk off a Lucio set, clobbering that poor ball from way on top, a bit of Little Bunny Foo Foo, for you! Another quality Rivalry rally ended with Verdooren posting the point and Sanchez turning side-saddle to dig a hard offering from Guerra; the score was now 22-17 but still time for North to stave off the sweep and go down the comeback trail.
Villalobos, having one of her best nights ever, made it 23-18 with a screaming shot that no one could see; they just heard it hit. But soon, with the elusive Gaytan at the service helm, North crept back in.
Lucio’s perfect pass led to a kill making it 24-21, but the Lady Cougars inched to within 2. On the final action of the night, the point was up for grabs and the officials had a hard time, eventually awarding a somewhat controversial winning digit to the Lady Sabes.
But this last moment should not obscure the fact that Vela did what its coach had asked, showing versatility, finding a way through the dangerous North trees, and keeping the errors to a dull roar (first two sets, anyway). They earned this W.
Looking at the rest of the slate in the 9-team district: both contenders will have ample chances to hack out their share of the playoff rock. Vela still has EHS (9-2) and the Bears (9-1) to combat while North has the same two frontrunners on its docket. This means that both units need to take care of business against the rest of the pack and then gird for the money matches.
Honestly, this playoff race has been a 4-team brawl for quite some time now, so the last thing either bunch wants to do is slip against a series of beatable foes. Seedings hang in the balance along with the trophy.