August 9, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
Wonder of wonders, the road to North has been refurbished, as Closner sports a fresh coat of paint over a re-do in asphalt. The long-awaited construction, making a once bumpy ride into a smoother proposition, goes in tandem with the annual arrival of cotton to a prominent field to the east of the thoroughfare, about a mile south of school. You know: it used to be seasonal onions back in the day, the strong scent of organic production recognizing no such barrier as a car window.
Anyway, the themes of renewal and road were on display Tuesday night as Vela traveled over to North to begin, kicking off the latest volleyball season in earnest. And for the rivals confronting one another for the lid-lifter, rivals who will not be in the same district for the next two seasons – more on that later – there were some annual augurs, a la the cotton and onions, along with some new elements, akin to the Closner remodeling. As the Lady Cougars and Lady SaberCats launch into the campaign, they are each hopeful that a blend of the new and the usual will fuel a successful process toward a playoff spot, or more.
For Vela, Coach Araceli Ortega returns the bulk of the squad that went 12-3 in district last season but will now ply its trade in the Murderer’s Row of 5A, competing against perennial powers from out McAllen and Sharyland way. The only missing Vela piece of note is the powerpack libero Maria Sanchez, whose energy and will helped guide the Lady Sabes to a dynamic showing in 2021.
For North, again manned by the dogged Raul McCallum, graduation losses were much more severe, as the Old Gold said goodbye to three prominent frontline players, including the estimable and talented Kaylee O’Bryan after four star-studded seasons. McCallum spoke to this situation before the match Tuesday, noting that with eight kids dressed and a couple on the sidelines recovering from injury or awaiting transfer OK, the number in rotation for the newest edition will be smaller, giving both pros and cons.
“Fewer girls means more playing time for most of them,” he suggested. “But is also means that for the non-district season, we have a ton of games and for some of the youngsters, it’s going to make them have to step up sooner than later. The good thing is, most of them played together this summer, and so they have some experience.
“But the varsity, district, those are a lot different than summer league, so there will be an adjustment there. I think we have the team to compete, it will just take us time to get the young players ready for district.”
As for Vela and the loss of Sanchez, Ortega noted that she has some replacement parts on hand to aid in the reconstruction drill in the back.
“We will definitely miss Maria and the way she was,” said the coach, of her fiery leader who usually sprang through games, all jackrabbit, raising the bar and spirits of her teammates. “I think we have some girls who are going to help us there, they are working to complement each other, fill in what we need, etc. We have some youngsters with a lot of energy, who want to come in and play, so we’ll see how it goes.”
As mentioned, one of the themes to this season’s run is the latest UIL realignment. Some folks might find the prospect daunting: to replace Lincoln, La Joya and Mission on the schedule, for example, with Memorial, Mac High, Rowe, and Sharyland. Power programs, baby!
Ortega doesn’t mind it.
“If I were going to go into what most people consider a way tougher district, this is the team I would take,” she said, ticking off the experienced returning starters who will man the barricades for 2022. “We’re excited and we should be. This is a major challenge and the goal for us is to embrace it, to accept the challenge and rise to the occasion. Yes, it’s a powerhouse district, but the girls need to not worry about it, just play the games and keep improving.”
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
Another theme bounces us back to North, where the Lady Cougars are now in a 6-team league consisting of city rivals Econ and EHS along with Mission, La Joya, and P-SJ-A. McCallum admits that the non-district schedule will be voluminous, with the 6A sked not starting until late September. But he plans on using the time for games that do not “count” to his advantage. Adjustments, part of life.
“Even down to the way we practice, that will change too,” he advised. “Sometimes we will have to give them some rest to recover, whereas in the past, we have flat gotten after it in every practice. The 2011 team, we would just get out the balls and sit down and watch. ‘Alright, scrimmage!’ and they would battle each other the whole time. This season, we will have some time to work on our game, go to some more tournaments, and gradually get into district.
“In reality, it changes things some, the smaller district, but I guess it really boils down to performance in district, no matter when it starts. We have a good nucleus ready to work.”
And the final trope as the campaign begins. The past two sporting seasons, especially 2020, were defined in great measure by the COVID pandemic, with very little preparation time beforehand, abbreviated training opportunity for long stretches, and just a general mess.
But now, the latest net squads are back to normal, having spent the summer in earnest preps, and first blush at North Tuesday reflected this well enough. Almost every one of the kids on each team sheet had the lean look of a dedicated athlete who has toiled long hours to get in shape for the task. Whereas in the past two seasons the coaches had to work around the dearth of pre-training chances, building endurance and fitness on the fly (in-season), it was obvious to even the most callow observer that these teams have done the work, have spent the time grinding through conditioning action, and are more than ready, physically, anyway, to jump on the wagon and ride.
In the end, how smooth the road will be for them will come down to technique, avoiding injuries, and consistent performance under pressure. But shape-wise, bravo to the girls en masse, for they have done due diligence. A pleasant change from the recent past, when having to churn from behind vis a vis basic fitness was unavoidable due to the circumstances.
AH, THE ACTUAL GAME
The match itself was competitive, as one would expect from city rivals. Vela, with its fairly imposing frontline and wealth of athleticism, was able to carve out a 4-set victory, though North had its moments of brightness and certainly did not go quietly into the night, fashioning a handful of rallies when it looked like curtains might be falling.
The match the rivals played tells us what all matches tell us, so early in the season, which is some stuff, not even close to the sum stuff. Long slog ahead. But glimpses of the future, we always get a hint of, at journey’s outset.
McCallum’s gals went out to an early 5-2 lead in the first set until Ortega’s Lady Sabes started percolating. To cap a marathon sequence that unfolded with midseason-type precision, Vela’s Emma Lucio came up with a sharp kill, after North program star Etsel Ramirez and teammate Abrie Cubrel had double-blocked with power. Cubriel, younger sister of North standout Aleena (soccer and volleyball) is a key figure in this year’s Lady Coog enterprise, as she seeks to make up for the loss of O’Bryan, Alexis Espinoza, and Jade Guerra, all lengthy North competitors who have played their last. Ramirez, who was serious beast this summer according to McCallum, traveling here and there for club and also piloting the summer contingent, would end with 26 kills against Vela, and appears set to contend for Valley volley honors in her junior season, after a fantastic sophomore debut in 2021.
She will have plenty of help this time around, as Maya Espinoza, sister of Alexis, is slim and trim for her sophomore season, and stands a full 6-feet to boot. Another sister, Itati, related to Ramirez, is an incoming freshman expected to jump in and play some, right away. She was out for the opener but should be ready soon.
And … action! After Lucio’s score, Vela took off well, establishing a lead behind the exploits of senior Fey Vasquez, one of the Blue and Black bigs who has a resume filled with experience and quality. She and Sam Villalobos, who came on like a storm as the night wore on, manned the net as Ortega and Co. wait for the rangy youngster Danika Verdooren to return from injury. Now a junior, the 6-1 Verdooren should be a vital piece of the puzzle as the squad goes to war with the Murderer’s Row schools, who always have size; the bigs from McAllen and Sharyland have long been noted for their athleticism as well as their height.
Espinoza the Younger keyed a mid-set rush for North, as the home side crept closer. Ramirez the Elder came on with a sweet slap from left down right and followed that with a drooping tap that met no resistance from a surprised Vela crew, and all of a sudden, it was tied at 16.
From there, the Lady Coogs rolled more, getting a nasty Ramirez kill and a terrific sideline save from Maddy Guerra that set up a winner, installing North ahead at 19-18. Guerra also served well in the period and when Cubriel hit through a porous Vela middle, the home lead was 2 at 21-19.
Down the stretch came the key moment which clinched the set for North. First, Ramirez dug out a hard Lady Sabe spike while Cubriel added a block and a subsequent block point to make it 22-20. Vela’s Laura Guizar, familiar to the Lady Coogs from her sojourn at the school before returning to Vela, had made a nice save to keep the thing alive, but the everlasting sequence went North’s direction. After Ramirez swatted large from the middle/back of the court she then ended the set, 25-21, with another dazzling winner.
School starts Monday but already, a week prior, the girls were at times in midseason form, making the opening set fine entertainment.
THE SECOND SET-TO
Determined to make amends, Vela came out and vaulted into a quick lead with sophomore Abby Zamora setting up Lucio for a flying tip that looked kind of like a layup in traffic, which makes sense. Zamora was a godsend last season for the squad, helping fill the setter role and generally playing un-freshman-like volleyball. Now she is firmly ensconced in the rotation again, and so is Lucio, the lefty basketball phenom who can also play some tight nets. She snaps the ball on serves, her arm a bullwhip punishing, and Lucio is expert at the unorthodox; she can elevate and get shots off at odd angles, i.e., backhanded, as her coordination and quickness on the hoops court can be seen in volley as well. Baller. Whatever ball.
The second set was all Vela then, with Emily Gonzalez pounding winners and Lucio arching her back in midair to adjust to a poor pass, scoring deftly against the odds to make it 11-3, Lady Sabes. Gonzalez has plenty of chops as a starter and Ortega is looking for the senior to provide moments of excellence; the coach mentioned program legend Glenys Maldonado as the role model there, a kid who came up massive in the clutch and always had the timing to do great things when they were most necessary.
It got out to 22-9 as Villalobos rose up and began clobbering heavy shots that were difficult for the North girls to handle. Zamora turned in back-to-back hustle plays to keep the drive alive, and she is again a versatile performer who is prized by her coach for ability, yes, but even more so for a tremendous attitude. In some ways, she may be the heir apparent to the departed Sanchez, who might be in a league of her own, charisma-wise, it is admitted.
But here the Lady Coogs oozed resilience, getting Ramirez going again and riding some service from libero Gaby Rodriguez back into contention. North’s play-starter has always been a hustler, but McCallum notes that she is in superb shape ahead of her final campaign, and he expects her to continue to lead by word and deed.
After Rodriguez offered an unhittable ace it was 22-15, Vela, home side cranking with Ramirez scoring three times in rapid fashion. But despite a block point and deep kill from Cubriel, the comeback hit the skids when the visitor girded up. Lucio snakebit a ball with a lightning flash of a left swat, and North mishit a serve, allowing Ortega’s gang to pull ahead and finish, 25-20, tying the match.
You cannot beat the practice the teams obtained on Tuesday, as the girls pounded away with fierce relish, and Vela got the better of the momentum in set three, as North hit out a number of times while Gaby Gracia toed the service line for Vela. The coaches love her consistency and work ethic as she steps into the libero role, and she put in a solid night of work in the opener in attempting to do so.
After a Zamora ace and another slicing score from the effervescent Lucio, Vela was up by 5, an enormous rejection by Vasquez punctuating the roar.
Yet again, however, North did not relent, taking advantage of a rash of errors from the visitor to get to within 3 at 20-17. Guizar was slick with a nice diagonal hit for point, and Vela regained its composure. Vasquez and newcomer Lauren Hanson combined for a dominant block – as Vasquez and Lucio were to do six times Tuesday – and it was unfettered sailing, Villalobos cracking a big winner leading to the final count of 25-20. Young Espinoza had been sound with a pair of late scores, but the Lady Sabes were too much at this stage, and took the 2-1 match advantage into what would be the finale.
The denouement set was more of the same, as Vela’s size and skill came to the fore, opposed by dogged efforts from the Lady Coogs, including the usual flawless action from veteran Stephany Kotzur, the sturdy little workhorse from the glorious Edinburg family there named.
But with Villalobos hammering away confidently and Zamora finding Gonzalez and others with picture-perfect sets (one on the full run), it was 9-4 in a hurry. Newcomer Mia De la Garza got down for a dig on a titanic try from North’s Ramirez, as each of the kids seeking to break through into the rotation got their chance to shine. Switching gears from power to finesse, Villalobos feathered one free to upend a slight North surge; she might be the most important cog in the Vela machine for 2022, Villalobos. When she’s on, better put on a crash helmet out there for defensive purposes.
Still, North showed how much it savored another comeback when Rodriguez crunched into and over a teammate in search of a dig, which she completed well. But it was a 5-point hole her team had to dig out of, just too steep to master. With Vasquez high-flying and Villalobos heavy-handing, the Lady Sabes cruised to the tape, 25-17, though the excellent Ramirez tallied two more magnificent scoring spikes.
Afterward, McCallum lauded the way his girls fought for every point, saying that instead of thinking, ‘Don’t hit it to me,’ his newcomers were bloodied but unbowed, bouncing up for more time and again. Ortega was happy with the result, and with the pepper and grit her New Cats displayed.
As the rivals go their respective and isolated corners for the duration (saving the negative rant about realignment and the Split for a later date), each of the squads will be fired up after a spirited brawl with a familiar foe. McCallum will wend his team’s way through an endless non-district road and then concentrate on how to fend off Bobcats and Bears, among others, while the Vela mentor will continue to work the psychology angle with her seasoned and eager crew: say what you want about the new district, the cream of the Valley volley crop, yada, blah, yada, it’s whatevers, bro.
The Lady Sabes know what lies ahead and they want it; they aren’t going to give an inch. To anyone, from McAllen or Sharyland or anywhere in between.
Bam! Bring it!