October 26, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It was a classic Knucklehead Moment, the kind one sees from time to time at high school sporting events, and it was equal parts hilarious and borderline inappropriate. But somehow it encapsulated the night, the rabid fanship on both sides, and the fact that this showdown for the district title was about more than just volleyball.
During the first two sets, a relatively aged (respect) chap had bolstered the spirits of the visiting P-SJ-A rooters by running up and down the aisle in front of the bleachers, waving a towel, blanket, I-don’t-know-what as he hustled back and forth, inducing that hackneyed favorite, The Wave, from the boisterous Lady Bear contingent. And this was, shall we say, interesting, given the local media reports earlier in the week, which recounted the P-SJ-A camp suggesting that the loud noise they had experienced in prior trips to BobcatLand was an unnecessary obstacle, and – as some might have interpreted the comments in the paper – a bit much. The truth of the matter is, both fan bases are crazy and neither gym is easy to play in; saying as much to the media seemed, um … a bit much.
Before the third set began, with the Lady Bobcats at this point surging like a tsunami and gunning for a share of the 31-6A crown, it happened that one of the EHS student section crazies had gotten ahold of the red/pink talisman the viejo had previously employed, and was now mimicking his act by racing to and fro, waving it in front of his clan. Of course, a minor incident ensued, with admins and police on the scene to apprehend the youngster and return the whatever-it-was to the visiting side. Grumbles from the Lady Bears, giggles (and more) from the EHS side.
The moment illustrated that in the heat of battle, folks will do some awful silly things to show pride for their school, and it might be excused as a prank, nothing more. But it also was an indication that the home side had its moxie up, it could feel the trophy coming to its side, and was doing its dead-level best to fire up the Lady Bobcats in their quest to knock P-SJ-A from the top of the heap, a position this very excellent team had held since way early in the season.
As if the Red and Blue needed any more motivation or momentum. As if.
Bouncing back from a 1-0 deficit, when they were rattled at the wrong time and got outplayed down the stretch of the first set, the Lady ‘Cats performed like the co-champions they would become, sweeping the talented enemy away in three straight sets to finish 14-2 in league play, tied with the Lady Bears.
Using vital contributions from all quarters, the Lady ‘Cats got into their hitting game well after the first set, removed the jitters from their get along, and simply showed that they wanted this one more. From the clever plays by junior Sam Saenz to rushes of smashing success from senior superstar Jasmin Cuellar, EHS dominated the match, even though the ensuing sets were close, which one would expect in a battle between the two leading lights in the loop. The agile middle, Emily Carranco, was a real fulcrum for success in the later sets.
After they had done what some naysayers suggested couldn’t be done, the girls rallied around Cuellar, who held the hardware in her willowy, dangerous arms, and at that point, no one was worried about what would come next. A coin flip, a playoff, whatever it would be, that could wait. For now, coach Deanna Dominguez and her charges were ready to party!
The coach expressed surprise at the ease at which her team was able to clinch the final set, 25-15, after two and three were fabulous give-and-take brawls captured by EHS, 25-21 and 25-20.
“They really came after us in the first one; it kind of reminded me of the loss to Vela when we played a little rattled,” Dominguez admitted. “But we have really gotten a lot of use out of our open date last weekend. We have watched a ton of film and I went to see the Bears play North Saturday, so we felt very prepared.”
One thing the Lady ‘Cats did to get ready for the challenge involved a drill called 20-20. Coaches know that all aspects being equal, how teams compete for the final five points of a match is going to tell the tale.
“We try to simulate situations like that, get the kids used to how to think and act in clutch times,” she said. “After the first set I thought we did a good job in the final stages of each of the other sets. And that’s a great team over there, P-SJ-A, so we had to be at our best.”
Dominguez knew that sooner or later the squad would manage to get straight with service-receive and get the ball to Cuellar. It wasn’t easy, but after the distressing initial action, the Lady ‘Cats tilted the court on the Lady Bears and started to fire away: Nat Hernandez had some great hitting stretches and so did Mia Dominguez, Cuellar coming through when needed as expected.
As for Saenz, who along with libero Arianna Guerra was a bolt of energy the whole night, racing around saving everything in sight, Dominguez praised her experience as well as her ability.
“Sam’s a softball kid and she’s been in a ton of big games, so she knows how to concentrate and execute,” she said. “She’s our silent killer, we always seem to have one, every year. Sam does a little of everything, she is great on defense, gets the ball to the right place and she is very valuable in several ways.”
Having had a few days of rest and strategizing, the Lady Bobcats proved that they are a title team and now can start preparing for the playoffs ahead. The prep is one of the coach’s strong suits, history opines.
“I told the girls that we had a long list of things to work on heading into this game,” Dominguez commented. “And we were going to go through all of them, don’t worry. We had to be prepared and the coaches would help them, but when it came time to play, the girls knew they were going to have to perform, bring it, and push through. And that’s what they did tonight.”
And as for the momentary lunacy involving the theft of a symbol, Dominguez smiled and shook her head. She didn’t condone the antics, but instead put them into perspective.
“That’s what it comes down to, the pride at this school, in all sports, girls and boys,” she explained. “The kids support us, the students, but also the parents and fans too. The student-athletes come to root for one another, make noise, and it has always been that way at Edinburg High. I mean, we had the National Honor Society out here selling fan shirts, come on; you see what I mean?”
SECOND SEASON SET-UP
Comes the postseason, with three town units in the hunt.
Monday the coin read: Bears, and so EHS has been assigned a difficult bi-district challenge against Los Fresnos, on the road no less. That Tuesday bout could be epic, while P-SJ-A is granted the let-off into a relatively easy task against Lower Valley – never “East” Valley as some rookies in the news business have been erroneously repeating on a daily basis lately – No. 4 Harlingen South. The Lady Hawks were once the absolute class of the Valley (went to state, 2003) but now have a notably average program by most standards of assessment.
Los Fresnos, on the other hand, is anything but average in 2021, or lately for that matter. At 11-3 in 32-6A, the Lady Falcons came third in that solid group, losing twice to Harlingen the champ, splitting with Brownsville Rivera, and more about those latter contenders in a moment. Los Fresnos defeated P-SJ-A and Brownsville Vets in non-district, along with Brownsville Pace and league foe Harlingen South. They could not handle Sharyland or McAllen High, losing five times to those two, and also dropped matches against McAllen outfits Rowe and Memorial, no shame there. The Lady Falcons are 23-14 overall and the clash coming up against EHS should be about even-Steven for the betting types out there, the slight edge perhaps going to LF by virtue of site.
This is actually a rematch of the first round of 2020, when the Lady Bobcats beat Los Fresnos. Prior to that, this program had glided along as one of the Valley’s pacesetters for seven seasons. From 2013 to 2019, Los Fresnos won 237 games, losing just 66, and advanced out of the first stage every year. In 2013, the Lady Falcs won two playoff games, three in 2014, two the next season, and one in 2016. Talk about McAllen powers all you want, with good reason, but Los Fresnos, recent vintage, has been every bit as talented and successful.
They did, however, stumble in bi-district 2017, again against Edinburg High, meaning that the city girls have at least a historical advantage, if that means anything. Bottom line, the postseason is here and the Lady Bobcats, with that 14-2 league mark (23-10 overall) and the buzz from Tuesday’s gem, will have to be primed and ready to undertake a serious road test. Because here it is.
Other first round matchups: The Vela sextet will take on Brownsville Rivera at home Monday night, and it will be a dicey match for sure. Like Los Fresnos, the Lady Raiders have been a consistent force in the Lower (Lower!) Valley and are now extending a terrific stretch from 2016-20 during which they went 122-55 and won a bi-district try each time. Included in this run were playoff wins over North (2017 and 2018) and EHS (2019). Back in 2013, Rivera notched three tremendous wins in the playoffs before being knocked out at the regional round by SA Reagan.
In 2021, the Lady Raiders are 32-10 and finished with a sparkling 12-2 record in District 32-6A, losing early to Harlingen and Los Fresnos before running the rest of the table. Second to Harlingen in the league, they have a formidable cast of stars that led the team to non-district results against P-SJ-A, Rowe, Sharyland, and Mission Vets. They had trouble with Brownsville Vets (0-2) and McAllen High (0-3) and also dropped matches against Pioneer and McAllen Memorial. Only heavyweights there.
Vela meanwhile has come on strong as the season has unfolded, earning a strong third-place finish in its district at 13-3, splitting with EHS, losing twice to P-SJ-A, sweeping North. The key to the Lady SaberCats’ fine showing has been excellent frontline size and athleticism, a top-shelf libero, and some new faces in the lineup, all mixed with a will to win that has made them an obstinate opponent.
The fourth-place finisher from 31-6A is North, which will now take on a Harlingen team that is the champ from 32-6A, having compiled a 13-1 record, 26-6 overall. The Lady Cardinals split a pair of pre-district matches with the Lady Coogs this season, and also lost to Pioneer twice, Rowe once, and to district foe Rivera Oct. 5, in five sets. Harlingen has beaten Vela and EHS in 2021, also recording smiles over Sharyland and Mission Vets.
This is by far the best Harlingen team in many years; from 2008 to 2020, the program made just one playoff trip, losing to North in bi-district 2014. The Lady Cards were in the Dance from 2005-07, winning once (against North) in 2005, and then taking three victories the next season, eventually losing to Austin Westlake at the regional stage. In the early years of Valley net play, Harlingen made four straight postseason appearances (1991-94), scoring two wins in 1991 and one in 1993.
The Lady Coogs may have been fourth in district, but they have had their moments of brilliance, including a triumph over P-SJ-A. They were swept by EHS and North but most of those matches were close and competitive, meaning that though they might be the underdog coming into bi-district, the Lady Coogs have shown in past seasons that they can get the job done when push comes to shove. The game will be played Tuesday in Harlingen.
THE HISTORY LESSON
Since the city girls started playing volleyball back in the 1990s, they have compiled a decent record of success. EHS will head into its 20th postseason appearance with seven wins to its credit; the greatest streak happened from 2012 to 2016 when the Lady Bobcats got past bi-district five years in a row.
North has claimed five postseason victories as it prepares for its 17th trip beyond the regular season; the Lady Coogs posted their most glittering performance in 2011, beating Brownsville Hanna and McAllen Memorial before succumbing to Laredo Alexander, the only time a town squad has advanced past the area round. That excellent crew was paced by leaper Jessica Martinez, steadying force Aleena Cubriel, and cat-quick libero Vanessa Salazar. Memories!
Econ and Vela have four postseason W’s apiece, with the Lady Jags turning the trick in 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2010 under current Vela coach Celi Ortega. Ortega’s Lady SaberCats copped bi-district titles in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2019. Vela is making its seventh appearance in the playoffs, matching the number of trips achieved by Econ.
Since 2010, there have been eight seasons when three city teams of four made the grade, including 2021. The top cumulative performance came in 2015, when Vela, EHS, and North each advanced to the area round.
To remind and re-set for the rematches: last season the Lady Bobcats defeated Los Fresnos in the first round before expiring against SA O’Connor, while the Lady Coogs went out in bi-district against Harlingen. Vela missed out in 2020 but won the first round in 2019 over Brownsville Hanna before getting eliminated by McAllen Memorial. And so, additions to local volleyball history are waiting in the wings.