October 19, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

Whenever they get together, a little extra something is on the line, whether it’s softball, volleyball, football, or marbles. EHS-North, the original Cat Fight in town, always has drama in store.

Three days before the schools would meet on the gridiron, the net units collided at North Tuesday, with playoff implications on the line. With a victory against the Lady Bobcats, the Lady Cougars could keep their chances alive of moving up the District 31-6A charts and potentially setting up a wild logjam at the top of the standings.

Both rivals still have P-SJ-A to go on the schedule, and the Lady Bears came into the stretch run atop the heap with just one loss, to North. EHS is still dreaming of a title; it would take a win on the road against this ancient foe and an equally difficult triumph the following Tuesday against P-SJ-A … and a little help from a friend.

After this one was complete, only the EHS scenario still had legs, as Coach Deanna Dominguez’ crew dropped the first set but then stormed to a convincing result, 3-1 over a North group that did not do its usual excellent job at the service line and went slack for stretches with its normally formidable blocking contingent. Those lapses allowed the Lady ‘Cats to gain momentum as the match wore on, and they withstood some fierce moments of comeback from the home side to sweep the season series. EHS can claim a share of the crown now or more, Tuesday’s brawl with the Lady Bears taking on ultimate importance. A North win against P-SJ-A Saturday is a must set-up for the Lady ‘Cats, though.

At the outset Tuesday, Raul McCallum’s sextet was looking good, and took advantage of multiple EHS errors to assume an 11-5 lead, a pair of aces from senior Arianna Gonzalez keying the surge. The Lady Coogs weathered a stretch of improved play from their rival, thanks to several scores from junior Abrie Cubriel, a putdown by senior Kaylee O’Bryan, and a service gem from junior Stephany Kotsur. They were up 20-11 before a spirited home crowd after junior Gaby Rodriguez made two great digs on the same sequence, and Cubriel saved one off the ceiling to keep the rally alive.

Yet EHS was not out of it, as Emily Carranco helped bring her squad to within 3 late with some pounding serves, and senior Jazmin Cuellar stuffed a North gal at the net and then tipped for a point off a Hailey Vega feed. Cuellar looked like she was going to unleash a bomb but at the last second reverted to clever mode for the tap down. Just as EHS looked to sneak past, O’Bryan came up with a resounding smack. It was a 2-point game when junior Zoey Gaytan of North went down for a massive dig of Cuellar, leading to a tip winner from sophomore Etsel Ramirez. North win, 25-20 final.

As they had done in set one, the Lady Coogs got off to a 5-1 advantage in the second bout with O’Bryan and Ramirez scoring, and it got out to 8-4 after excellent net play from the Espinozas, Maya and Alexis. EHS rallied with a vicious Cuellar kill, this despite an equally effective diving dig from Lady Coog Laura Guizar. Slowly, the Lady ‘Cats came with it, as junior Nat Hernandez killed and classmate Sam Saenz slapped a score off a block. At that stage someone hammered the ball up into the rafters and it stayed there, all 12 girls looking up at the ceiling, poised to strike … nothing … how many lonely balls are up there, one wonders. At least one.

Saenz again provided EHS a lift but North held the lead until a series of ties ensued. It was good action Tuesday, not quite championship caliber but brisk and competitive. Both of these units will have to be better once the postseason arrives, and they know it, part of the peaking drill.

At any rate, it was 12-12 after EHS senior Arianna Guerra – who was a coiled spring all night back there – hit the deck to save one, but her opposite No. 14, Jade Guerra of North, ripped a monstrous smash to the corner a second later.

Saenz put the Red and Blue up 1 with a clever tip but back came Cubriel with a scoring shot off the net; she has progressed well in the latter stages of the campaign. North went in front 14-13 with Shayla Gaytan selling out to save one, O’Bryan eventually scoring, but EHS pinballed back in command as service issues did the Lady Coogs wrong.

McCallum’s team managed a 17-all tie after a super block up front from Maya Espinoza, but from there it was all Lady ‘Cats. Guerra again met the floor with an athletic dig and sophomore Mia Dominguez was the beneficiary, soaring high to the left and hitting back right, which is not easy to do.

The final was 25-18 as Vega launched a long crosscourt set to a leaping Dominguez for the penultimate point. North was beginning to face the annoying prospect of being swept by both EHS and Vela in 2021.

O’Bryan was obviously dead set against such a possibility, and she tallied twice in quick succession to start the third set. But again the gutty little vet Guerra was money for the Lady ‘Cats, gunning a midrow smash for a winner. Z. Gaytan again got down to deny Cuellar, but the EHS slammer recovered on the same sequence to hit for point. At this juncture, four straight North errors installed the visitor in the driver’s seat, 10-7 but once again O’Bryan leapt to score and stop the bleeding. This time it was a run of poor execution from EHS, and the Lady Coogs accepted with aplomb, easing to a 16-13 lead after a flying tip from O’Bryan.

Now it was Carranco’s turn to show her skills, and she clobbered a deep one and then served an ace to get EHS back on track. Cuellar killed with malice off a block and then rose to put down a wayward North ball, twice in a row. D. Dominguez’ crew retook the lead at 19-18 but North stayed in it after Ari Guerra’s incredible rolling dig went for naught after a ferocious Jade Guerra hammer. Late in the set, EHS’s Miranda Reyes got into the limelight with a pair of superb hustle plays – she and junior Ariella Ramirez both made their minutes count Tuesday – and at the close, the Lady Coogs suffered through more errors to hand over the set, 25-22.

After slow starts in all three sets, EHS finally raced out well to begin the fourth, Carranco beating the vaunted North block and M. Dominguez same. S. Gaytan had managed to stop a bomb from Carranco but the hitters from Wisconsin were finding the mark now. They ambled out to an 8-2 bulge with a block point and ace from Cuellar, and the lead just ballooned from there, reaching 17-9 after a Vega-to-Carranco connection.

At one point, a very neat thing: O’Bryan on one side and Cuellar on the other. They swept to the net and soared above it, each arriving on the ball at the same time; for an instant, a still picture of grace and power as the ball seemed to just hang there, waiting for its punishment.

North was not going to give in as libero Rodriguez got a good dig and Ramirez and then Maya Espinoza captured net encounters to bring the Lady Coogs to within 5. Rodriguez again battled with the hot hitters from EHS and scooped one up, leading to a score from Espinoza.

But this one was trending Red and Blue, as Carranco tipped deep after a Cuellar save, and then hammered a kill. It ended 25-18, relegating North (four losses) to a probable fourth seed from 31-6A and elevating the Lady ‘Cats into a possible co-title. And potential title too, because if they beat the Lady Bears and North beats the Lady Bears, break out the party hats! If P-SJ-A defeats EHS, the Lady Bobcats would find themselves in a probable tie for second with Vela, and these two have been slugging back and forth for the edge all season. The Lady SaberCats are likely to finish with three defeats in district.

Regardless, it has been one of the most competitive and exciting seasons in recent memory, with tons of five-set marathons, a handful of athletes who will assuredly fill the all-district and honor teams quite well, and some memorable battles between kids who have known each other forever and will be rooting for one another when the postseason arrives in November.

More or less, anyway.

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