November 1, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

In the playoffs, it happens fast, for better or other. You dig in and you fight, knowing that every squad that makes it this far can deal death. Sometimes you are that squad, that rolls over on an opponent, advancing on in the bracket. And sometimes, not. The suddenness can be surprising, the pressure of win or go home cannot be simulated in practice, no matter how innovative the coaching and training. When you’re in it, it’s like a vivid, fast-moving dream, and it seems … well, you wake up … it’s over.

For bi-district, the Lady SaberCats got the benefit of some home cooking and prepared to welcome Brownsville Rivera, the No. 2 seed out of District 32-6A. And at first, they were downright inhospitable to the Lady Raiders Monday, popping to a first set win with some spirited hustle and a roaring 13-1 finish, turning a 12-12 tie into a superb 25-13 victory. Sam Villalobos was hot out of the gate up top, Fey Vasquez buoyed the group midway through, and freshman Abby Zamora toed the line for a searing series of serves. Villalobos again was excellent during the closing rush, but that was going to be the high point of the evening.

Rivera, with a slightly unlikely looking bunch, executed its gameplan well after the first set loss, refused to let anything hit the ground, and took it to Vela for three straight wins, and will now move on to area. The Lady Sabes, who were a solid third in 31-6A this season, faltered at the service line and at times in the back, getting hammered by a Rivera sextet that moved well, found the open spaces, and never let the home side get back onto the offensive after its initial successes.

Every time Coach Celi Ortega’s bunch attempted to re-enter the match, the Lady Raiders were just a little better, while the Lady Sabes committed a splash of unforced errors at the wrong times to fall deeper and deeper into trouble. As stated, postseason volleyball is ruthless; every team is sound and can bury you in a hurry. And this is more or less the way it went down.

“It just got away from us,” Ortega said after the 3-1 defeat. “We were on the defensive so much, they moved it around on us and no matter what we did, we couldn’t get back on offense very often.”

In front of a loud and proud home crowd, it looked like Vela was in good shape after one set, but Rivera got its mojo going and could not be denied.

“We kept thinking, OK, now, now, we would say before every set, now is the time find a way back in,” said Ortega, who returned her program to the playoffs after missing out in the COVID mess of 2020; she will bring back most of the cast for next season, minus two key seniors. “When we started, we were able to take away what they wanted to do, but as it happened, we just made too many errors. I think the kids who will be coming back, hopefully they learned what this atmosphere is like, the playoffs, and they can use it to start building for next year.”


There was something weird about the visitor, as they brought a bag full of volleyballs … black ones, no doubt specially purchased to reflect the school colors, red and black. They looked like medicine balls or something and the Vela girls palmed them and wrinkled up their noses when the strange things came their way during warmups. And then there was the fact that the Lady Raiders do not have much real height to speak of, with one big kid, Kenya Ibarra, and a bunch of mid-sizers filling out the cast. Not impressive in the athlete eye test. But no mistake: that’s a well-coached squad that makes up for seeming physical mediocrity with equal parts hustle and skill. After falling down 1-0, the Lady Raiders clicked into machine-precise gear, never missing a beat as they gradually got on top of Vela and wouldn’t relent.

But again, the first set was a different story, as there were five ties to the 12-point mark until the Lady Sabes ascended. Along with Villalobos and Vasquez, junior Emma Lucio made some big plays, and it was striking to see how she has emerged as a leader on the roster in just a half-season. Some kids just have the It Factor, and she is one, her intensity having been a boon to program fortunes since she arrived from Pharr North. Complete beast will compete.

As Zamora dipped her darting deliveries over the net, one after another, Rivera was struggling to receive. On one memorable sequence, Lucio and Villalobos rose to block in tandem twice in a row, establishing a 17-12 lead. From there, Zamora made a killer backset for a Lucio bomb and then Lucio again tallied from Zamora, whereupon the rangy junior transfer raged with passion, leaving the floor with both feet in a screaming vault. When she came down, her teammates were around her, waving the point into being. Great moment. Emily Gonzalez contributed a push winner and soon it was 1-0, homies, as Vasquez – stymied on a first hit attempt – recovered when the ball came her way seconds later, putting it down with ease.

Now it was time to keep the jam going, but while Villalobos (from Ab Zam) scored, Lucio whistled a kill past a defender’s ear, and Vazquez exploded a serious bomb, Rivera was coming on. The Lady Raiders cruised out to a 10-8 lead and were up 12-11, with the looming Ibarra starting to find the range. They then on a 9-2 run, aided by some service aces and some Vela position/comm mistakes. The Lady Sabes would book just one more point as Rivera raced to the tape and the 1-1 tie.

In set three, Villalobos was quick off the mark once more with a block and kill, and Lucio hit and then alertly put down for a winner on the play when her smash came back at her. Vela misfired at the service line and Rivera took advantage, rising to an 8-4 bulge until sophomore Danika Verdooren came on for a hit after a fine save from Lucio; Villalobos and Lucio reprised their dual block routine, but the Lady Raiders were pulling away.

Several times the Blue and Black bumbled around the back and allowed Rivera shots to fall while on the other side, the enemy was acting as if the floor were off limits; they just wouldn’t let anything fall.

Still, Ortega’s girls surged against the odds, as Vasquez tipped one free and junior Dayanne Ramos went body down to keep one alive. Then Ramos and Vazquez won at net to get Vela to within 3 at 19-16. But even with a smash from Vasquez (Lucio providing) and a Verdooren point off block, Ibarra was not going to be stopped, and she led her school to the win, 25-20 with a massive kill and then a deft tip that befuddled the Lady Sabes at the end.

At this stage, Rivera was acting, Vela reacting, and only the superior athleticism of the home team was keeping it interesting. That said, the Lady Raiders showed that a team can look like a pedestrian outfit but achieve quite well with timing, smarts, and belief. It’s like in football, when a team gets off the bus looking like a bunch of monsters, sometimes they don’t play like it. Conversely, another squad might look skimpy and shrimpy, but end up being piranhas who won’t take no for an answer.

Anyway, set four and an ace from Zamora and a Gonzalez point off block started it well enough for Vela. Vasquez chipped in a block score and a putdown and it was 8-6, Rivera. Time enough for some of the heroic comeback magic that has been circulating around town like pixie dust in 2021. Vasquez got dug on a kill but she recovered to come to net and record point through a defensive block, showing her quickness.

But now the fatal blow, as a poor serve and an illegal pass stopped the Lady Sabes in their tracks; Rivera jumped on the gimmes and soon led, 18-12 with a faulty dig by the home side helping. The last seven Rivera points came via six Vela mistakes, as it seemed that the girls had fired their remaining powder and shot. It finished 25-14, and for each set Monday, one team or the other managed to go bananas down the stretch to claim the result. Three times out of four in bi-district, it was Rivera and the Brownsville crew left the gym with a ticket to the area round, fair and square.

As its coach suggested, the Lady Sabes will bring back the majority of the girls for another go next season, and the playoff experience should be on their minds for some time. It happens in an instant: the door of opportunity will open with a golden flourish, and close just as abruptly, harshly bringing to a completion the season of memories and dreams.

They took their shot; it didn’t work out. No shame there, though in the postseason: hesitate once, and there are no second acts.

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