October 9, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It’s something that those on the periphery might not have known during the run-up to the most important match of the season, Vela at EHS, explosion at noon. The Lady Bobcats have of late been contending for a title in District 31-6A with some of the coaching done virtually. Long-time mentor Deanna Dominguez had been out with COVID – missing the team’s Tuesday win over Mission – but would be cleared for the all-consuming grudge match versus visiting Vela Saturday.
In her stead, assistant Mona Guerra took the reins, with a heavy consulting gig assigned to Dominguez, who came up positive during a random testing but never experienced any negative symptoms. A valued and known quantity as a soccer assistant for many seasons, Guerra employed all sorts of technology to keep the leader in the loop, including having D on the laptop during practice. And by the time Dominguez returned, Guerra had the Lady ‘Cats in position for a major victory.
In yet another mammoth masterpiece of competition, EHS was able to subdue the Lady SaberCats in a 5-set marathon Saturday, coming from behind twice before capping the thrilling afternoon with a 15-9 result in the clincher. This means that both schools have two losses now as they attempt to run 1-loss P-SJ-A down from behind as the last quarter of the 31-6A campaign comes into focus. North stands fourth with three defeats and the race is not even close to decided yet. Both EHS and Vela will get shots at the Lady Bears, the Lady Sabes Tuesday and the Lady ‘Cats at the end of the slate. North, too, has yet to battle the frontrunner in round two, after becoming the only sextet to defeat them, Sept. 21.
The Lady Bobcats got it done Saturday – avenging a similar 5-set loss suffered to Vela the first time these two met – to keep their trophy hopes alive. And true to form, Dominguez was all smiles and plaudits.
“I cannot take credit for any of it, really, it’s Coach Guerra who has prepared us for this,” she said, after the emotionally draining W was in the books. “She stepped up when she needed to, and I am really proud of her and the girls. They did a great job today.”
For her part Guerra seemed equal parts elated and relieved at the recent turn of events.
“What a week!” she laughed amid the postgame din. “We connected through Google Classroom and I made sure Coach was always involved in that way. Dina has been wonderful about this, she trusted me and the other assistants to do what we had to do, but when we heard that she would be able to be here, to come back, we were all pretty happy.”
There had been some iffy moments Tuesday versus Mission, and when the going got a little tricky, Guerra looked around in the huddle.
“I had to look for our seniors, Jazmin and Arianna, among others,” she recalled. “I knew they would have to find a way to get us playing the way we had to. This team knows what it has to do, but sometimes the veterans have to help us get the push. I knew we could do it, even though it has been very difficult with Coach out.”
One such seasoned hand on deck during the trials and tribulations was senior libero Arianna Guerra, who contributed to the pair of triumphs in a huge week for the program.
“It was weird for sure,” she said of the COVID absence of her head coach. “Super hectic, we all had to adjust big time. Coach Guerra was wonderful the whole time, she really took control and did great. We found out Coach D was going to be able to come back, and that was awesome. Bottom line we had to play very well, every pass, every set, every hit, it all had to be there for us to win. Now we are tied with Vela and we still have our goal, which is to win the district championship!”
WHAT A DAY, TOO
In this most competitive and narrow of seasons, when three of four teams in town are in the middle of a zany net slugfest, the latest EHS-Vela set-to figured to be a doozy. The Lady Sabes have been improving with every week and the addition of some new talent has certainly helped. Coach Celi Ortega noted before the tip that in Rivalry Games, with so much at stake and so little separating the combatants, it comes down to execution, but also to emotions.
“Absolutely yes, you can tell when a group is ready to play,” she said, when asked if she can intuit from interpersonal communication whether her kids will be on their game. “The way they talk or not, their body language, how they are doing, you get a sense of where they’re at. And with high school kids, it can change in a heartbeat.”
Ortega was cool with the collective vibe heading into the clash and Vela was sharp in taking the opening set on the road, 25-19. Leading the charge were Sam Villalobos – who has been peaking high the past few weeks – and Fey Vasquez, the jumping jack whose task Saturday was to stay up, literally, with EHS wonder kid Jazmin Cuellar. Villalobos went up for a killer block point on the first action of the day, eliciting a mighty roar from the Blue and Black side of the crowd, and then smashed home a kill. If Vela had served better it could have opened up a sizeable lead, but three offerings went astray, the Lady Bobcats taking advantage to jump into the driver’s seat at 8-4. But newcomer Emma Lucio served up a few winners to stop the bleeding, and also assisted on a Vasquez spike and soon it was 11-8, visitor after a 7-0 run.
Villalobos yanked down a tip and then scored on a floater and when Lucio unwound like a cobra to clobber a kill off a feed from freshman Abby Ramirez, Ortega’s crew led 18-12. EHS would pull to within two late in the set on a poor Vela pass. Vasquez scored off a block and then served a point making it a 3-point lead, but for EHS, Mia Dominguez located a poor pass with a sweeping adjustment in air, pounding the winner back right from left. The key plays at the wire were a combo block from Vasquez and Hailey Vega, followed by a Villalobos net win that iced it.
Yep, no doubt, this had 5 sets written all over it, and those who had fancied getting a gander at the Red River Rivalry football game between OU and Texas, well they either resigned themselves to impossibility, or flashed into multi-task scheme with smartphone assistance. We gon’ be here awhile.
Perhaps the startling thing about the first set was the relatively mild action from the pogo stick that is Cuellar. She has gotten used to the fact that opposing teams are game-planning for her now on a regular basis, trying to make anyone but No. 7 beat them; it’s the ultimate mark of success, validation of skill, to know the enemy is nervous about you and programs accordingly.
It also means that on those days when the cards are stacked against you, it will take some help to get the deck back to normal. And fortunately for EHS, the other swatters were ready, willing, and able to step in and compete.
KEEP IT COMING
Jaz got some shots down to start the second set but it wasn’t easy, because at this stage of the season there are no surprises, and everyone knows the attack goes through the superstar, who might be the top candidate for area MVP right now, notwithstanding the superb crop of well-advertised kids playing the game in nearby McAllen.
Emily Carranco, the Silent Killer, was first to stand up and deliver, and her deft work at the cords enabled EHS to hang tough. Emily Gonzalez of Vela had started the Lady Sabe effort with an elegant smash on which she elevated, leaned back for leverage, and flattened a pea down and dirty to the other side. Later she aced the Lady ‘Cats to wood but it was just 7-6, visitor. Carranco’s efforts led to a 10-8 Lady ‘Cat lead and then Cuellar and Villalobos traded emphatic rejections.
Truth: great match, high energy throughout and high quality consistently, playoff atmosphere. OU-Texas what?
When they needed a boost midway through to notch a tie, the Lady Bobcats counted on softball sensation Sam Saenz, who served swerving selections as EHS went on a 9-1 run that lifted it to victory. Vega, whose older sister Hannah surprised the fam with a weekend visit from up at Howard Payne, whipped a would-be set over the net to fool Vela and Natalie Hernandez came up with a tip off a set from Guerra. One by one, the Lady ‘Cats signed in, in aid to Cuellar as she battled droves of determined defenders. Just as they had all pitched in with their coach sidelined, the girls now found ways to score and defend, taking some burden off their gifted court leader.
At the close of the set Saenz was masterful, digging Vela kills twice and setting up a dagger from Hernandez, which made it 25-14, one set apiece, on a 12-2 finishing run from the home chicks.
THE KEY JUNCTURE?
They used to say that the third set is the key, as often the team that can reclaim the lead after 1-1 goes on to take the cheese in four. But in 2021, anyone trying to spout that axiom will end up with egg on their face; it’s just been too wild and unpredictable to try and … um, predict. But it sure looked like Vela was intent on taking the ancient advice and giving it refurbished life, as Ortega’s blackclads got a net score and serve from Villalobos, a diving dig from Amaris Cruz, and a handful of EHS miscues to assume head spot at 8-3. A timeout followed that 7-point run (on a day of runs) and the Lady ‘Cats gathered, Dominguez squatting in the middle of the huddle, Guerra doing her bit at eye level. EHS listened to remonstration, and then tried to do something about affairs.
Problem was, Vela was feeling it now, tearing into a tentative Red and Blue crew for multiple points. The Lady Sabes kept the ball in play with slick execution and the foe was not able to keep pace, suffering through some timing issues to fall behind 20-12, Cruz of Vela at the line dishing out success. Gonzalez powdered a big-time slam, Vasquez outdueled Cuellar on the tip, and lanky yet strong Lucio again rose up and unlimbered a lethal left arm, smacking the set into the annals, 25-17.
Flat, lacking confidence, and starting to falter, EHS was up against it. After all the Sturm and Drang concerning the coaching absence and return, this group needed to reach down deep and find it, or face the prospect of a third loss, surely detrimental in the extreme vis a vis title aspirations.
ANSWERING THE CALL
On cue, Cuellar found her way through the Vela storm for a kill to begin set four and Hernandez also registered. Vela’s Vasquez continued to condor her way through Saturday with some terrific leaps, Cuellar answering with a pop of her own. This was one cool battle among many, these two slender yet seriously strong town faves going at it, tooth and nail. Which reminds one: of all Cuellar’s amazing exploits this season, one that goes unnoticed is the way she can pulverize ball after ball and never so much as bother any of the long and shiny fingernails at the end of her ever so valuable hands. Now that’s amazing, really.
Carranco, whose go-to move these days is a tight bomb down the left sideline, from left outside, worked well for a 9-6 lead and it grew to 14-8 with Guerra the player diving for a few wayward volleyballs and Vela now making errors at a distressing rate. Their biorhythms might have been sound for the day, but no team can play all five sets at expert’s pace and precision. Sooner or later, even the greatest units are going to blink and recede – usually not for long – and the opposite crew has to seize that moment and run with it. These Rivals had each experienced slack times and taken advantage when the opening was presented the other way. EHS had to seal this deal and was up 16-10.
But Vela was just starting to throw its various hands in this massive and entertaining showcase. Maria Sanchez served her bunch back into motion and Vasquez took a save from Villalobos and clattered the Lady ‘Cats with it.
It was a 3-point game when the Lady ‘Cats stone detonated, Cuellar schooling the Lady Sabes up front and taking sending duties with relish. Youthful Ava Tovar of Vela was in now and made some sharp diving digs in the back, but EHS would not be denied as first Hernandez hit deep for a winner and then Dominguez fired home a rocket. EHS ran through the tape with ease, 25-16, setting up what everyone knew had been coming all day.
The final countdown was punctuated beforehand, as during a lull in the fourth set action (ref … ref?) with dueling student sections, a festival which one has come to expect and enjoy. In football the two groups of leather lungs are so far apart, they can barely hear one another. However, indoors the space is way more cramped and the barbs and catcalls can fly to and fro as quickly as the ball in a madcap rally on court.
“Let’s Go Bobcats!!” the EHS kids roared, their fists raised, eyes glued on the rival contingent. Rivalry, animosity? … these two schools? … nah man. Yeah right.
Less than 15 seconds later came the rejoinder from the Blue and Black.
“Sound off SaberCats!!” and of course there were boos from the Red and Blue rooters. Heck, even the parents were psyched, although as of yet they have not come forth with their own organized and trademarked slogan cheers. Yet … lolololol.
So off we went down to destiny’s door, and at first EHS had the tune, getting a desperate Saenz dig that caromed over the net and down, to a thunderous eruption from her fans. It got to 3-0 and anyone who watches the sport much knows that in the fifth set, a quick start can lead to a bum rush. The other side has to recover and fast, because 15 arrives infinitely more swiftly than 25.
Villalobos, as if she knew, rose to hack one down for a point and Lucio scored on a slick left-handed push over, only to be whistled for the carry. RVHS boos. Gonzalez administered a massive crank for a point, though and then she hit deep to keep EHS to a 5-4 lead. It was a championship moment that followed as Cruz of the Lady Sabes went full jack-in-the-box with no fewer than three straight diving digs on the same sequence, only to see the Lady ‘Cats pull out the point on a vital dig from Vega. This was the Rivalry at its finest, every kid out there straining to stay alive and do something good.
The latter, they all did. The former, only EHS managed.
But first, each side gave away two points on unforced mistakes, and this too will be the case when the chips are on the table and the girls are amped to the gills. The group that is able to ride the wave of emotion and settle back down, this will be the winner.
Vela got down to stop the wind-milling Cuellar twice on kill attempts, but once again EHS survived the setback to win point, this time despite Tovar’s all-out dive that rescued a ball from hitting the floor. Her fingers became the new floor, as it turned out, and the fresh-faced freshman was sensational on the play. But EHS ended up scoring a few seconds later.
After having come so close to taking the lead, only to have the rival sneak the points into its column, Vela seemed deflated, and now gifted a pair of error points for a 12-9 home bulge. The Lady ‘Cats reached 12 with a wicked missile from Dominguez the player, a kid who didn’t budge under the pressurized bright lights much at all. She scored through a block for 14, her teammates zipped it down with a 15-9 result, and the EHS students levitated into the stratosphere.
The talented Percy Mayfield penned it, back in 1960, and the sublime Ray Charles made it a mega hit shortly thereafter. There may have been a handful of cats in the stands Saturday who were buying records (!records!) 60 years ago when “Hit the Road Jack” blasted onto the charts with its added refrain of “and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more.”
But Lady ‘Cat fans one and all thoroughly celebrated the rendering of that classic tune at the end of the rollercoaster afternoon. They had come back not once but twice, and actually thrice considering the difficult coaching dance that had been done in the prior days. It wasn’t that Vela did not play exceedingly well, because honest observers cannot even argue that. It’s just that EHS had an emotional card up the sleeve and played it to the hilt when the high money deals came up.
Razor thin was the margin all day long and despite the music at the end, Vela will be back some more, count on that. Both these fine squads are going to get their chance to make some playoff racket in the coming weeks and this type of white-knuckle, breakneck pressure match should stand them both in significant stead as the other powers of the Valley come marching over the postseason horizon.
Tremendous show once again, ladies!