August 16, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
So what kind of season will it be? Now that the volleyballers are off and running, the questions are in line for answering, little by little.
Will it be like last year, when three city squads got into the playoffs but none was able to advance to area? Or might it end up looking more like 2015, when three schools made the grade, each claiming a tough playoff victory before expiring?
At EHS, the answers have traditionally been of the positive variety, as Coach Deanna Sanchez heads into the 2022 campaign running a top-shelf program that has made 12 consecutive postseason appearances; in fact, the Lady Bobcats have been Second Season combatants for 20 of the past 22 seasons, and this latest edition appears more than ready to extend and enhance the resume.
Sanchez and her experienced crew won a pair at home Tuesday, beating Mission Vets and Rio Grande City, though not at the same time. The former (earlier) opponent, one of the area’s most storied, found out Tuesday that the ’22 Lady ‘Cats are talented, seasoned, and resilient, this after a 5-set classic that featured so many crazy highlights, it’s tough to list them all on one sheet of scratch paper. If people even use scratch paper anymore …
Now 7-2 overall, EHS will negotiate the rest of the lengthy non-district schedule in preparation for the 31-6A opener Sept. 24 at Mission, secure in the knowledge that a stirring triumph over a difficult entry shows what the potential of the club really might be.
“They are so capable,” said the coach after an Instant Classic marathon against the hard-hitting Lady Patriots. “We have been able to see how we can do against the big dogs, and it’s encouraging. We’re working on the chemistry right now, learning to trust one another; it’s always a process at the beginning.”
Sanchez has returning starters all around the court, though the only major graduation casualty, swatting star Jazmin Cuellar, was enormous. But rather than lament loss, the coach prefers to chase the gain. Her pattern.
“The preseason is about situations during a match,” she explained. “It’s about keeping the ball alive, making a play, and not letting the other team have easy balls, easy chances they can put away. I think we did a good job of that today, against a very good volleyball team. With these big dogs, they’ll shove it down your throat if you give them the opportunity.”
The twin killing Tuesday follows a creditable performance at the Donna Tournament, where the Red and Blue glided through the silver bracket with a flourish, running second to none other than Vets.
“I think there’s a message there, and today, about how good we can be if we keep working and everything goes well,” Sanchez offered. “But it all depends on how we keep progressing and improving. We take nothing for granted.”
The rousing workout with Vets was made even more dicey considering the fact that the Lady Pats have, in Rylie Barnett, a truly special player who has to be ranked among the strongest hitters in recent memory. At times, one was seeing incarnations of bouncy Kassy Larios (Harlingen South legend) or closer to home, graceful condor Victoria Rogers, one of the greatest North athletes to ever toe the line. Barnett, 5-10 and rock hard – quick as a cat and blessed with wicked confidence – was pulverizing the ball so completely Tuesday, she summoned forth daydreams of the ineffable Lady Jag icon, Leigha Brown, sort of.
Nobody is that. Next.
Still, EHS was able to craft the glorious victory with a fifth-set rally, and though the girls didn’t shriek, rend their garments, or speak in tongues after the accomplishment – it being preseason and all – they were obviously pleased with a major step forward against one of the Gold Standard squads. How could they not be stoked? This win meant something, in the grand scheme of things.
One by one, the Lady Bobcats exhibited their wares in this brilliant home match, starting with senior setter Hailey Vega, who started with a sharp pass to teammate Emily Carranco: she dragged a kill diagonally for an early lead in the first set. Carranco, though hampered slightly by a recent injury, showed that she has lost nothing after a great 2021, gained much. She will be one of the keys to the drive ahead, as will Vega, the explosive dolphin whose agility on sets and all-around moxie/smarts make her one of the Valley’s best.
But Vets is Vets, and even though this is not the tallest or most physically imposing version, the Lady Pats were able to carve out a lead of 13-9 thanks to fabulous libero play and the exploits of the devastating Barnett. The lead stretched to 7 before Sanchez’ girls rallied, and one of the coming linchpins to the effort was front and center during the re-push. Mia Dominguez, sophomore daughter of the coach, started to jam midway through the first set, on her way to a dazzling performance, 22 kills. Hitting at the apex and seldom misfiring, Dominguez displayed the talent set that Sanchez hopes will help put her team over the top in the district race. While Carranco uses timing and guile – sometimes force – at net to succeed, Dominguez is more raw power, leaping ability, and explosion.
Despite some troubles in serve-and-receive, EHS hung close in set one, getting to within 3 at 22-19 when Dominguez vaulted up and smashed through a block. Libero Ariella Ramirez raced back to the end line for a fantastic overhead dig, and when Dominguez again punctured the Vets block, it was 22-all.
Against the big dogs, in situations, this is where EHS had to gain experience, take its shot.
“Come on, it’s Zero-Zero!” one of the coaches shouted from the bench, meaning the outcome was on the line. Alas, an ill-timed communication breakdown in the back doomed the team to defeat, 25-23. What do they always say? Make a mistake, learn from it, and be ready to correct when the same situation presents itself. A process.
Set two was spinning along at 5-5 after another Dominguez kill, but the visitor stormed onward, opening up a 13-7 advantage after a strong 8-2 run. It wasn’t that the Lady ‘Cats were playing poorly, per se, just that Vets was feeling it, big time. When a team rises on its own merits, unaided by mistakes from the opponent, you just have to accept it. Vets is Vets.
However, EHS is EHS, and was not about to just pack it in. With senior Natalie Hernandez offering a fine push shot and Carranco cranking two winners, the Lady Bobcats renewed, getting a terrific combo save from Ramirez and sophomore Melanie Perez, leading to a winner that cut the margin to 2 at 14-12. Perez was consistently outstanding in service Tuesday while Ramirez is steadily learning the ropes as libero.
When Carranco and junior Ashley Garcia worked together on a smart block up front, the stage was set for a takeover, which Vega helped along via a ringing ace, making it 15-14, EHS. She did it again for a point, and the home girls soon surged to an 18-15 lead until Vets’ stars, the libero and hitter, keyed a rush into a 21-19 edge. Pong.
One of the reasons the Lady ‘Cats did not succumb is down to a new face in the crowd. She comes from a historically prolific family, does freshman Makayla Olvera, and showed her chops at this juncture. Olvera, 5-6 perhaps and due to grow – her father is a strapping 6-5; her mother a rangy and versatile 6-footer from the day – killed and then blocked to give her squad life. She has ample upside and her coach says she is looking forward to seeing Olvera grow and achieve for the next four seasons. With Olvera and Dominguez on the march, the Family atmosphere around EHS volleyball these days is a compelling storyline, to say the least. There are also a number of cousins on the roster, which never hurts in terms of connection and communication.
The program hopes to leverage the kinship angle, among other atttributes, into wins and wins; from 2012 to 2016, EHS collected bi-district titles each season. How many banners you got, a lot. The pennants in the gym – with its newly lain parquet floor, by the way, shades of the old Boston Garden – start at 2001 and point to a legacy of achievement this year’s group hopes to emulate. The new names will do their best to make up for the loss of the magical Cuellar and are off to a tremendous start on that count.
It was Dominguez who tallied the key blow, killing into two distressed Vets blockers for a 23-22 lead, and then Olvera, who converted from a Vega feed. Carranco the veteran (fly, time!) finished the muster with a set-winning score off block, 25-23. Who big dog?
CAN THEY DO IT?
Most of the time, against the McAllens and Mission Veterans, etc., you can win a set, maybe two, but it becomes exceedingly hard to complete the task, such is the talent level involved. It seems that every one of the kids on the star squads can play all around, hit and pass, dig and frankly, whatever you ask. And Vets was no slouch here; it was obvious that the Lady Pats were vexed and annoyed after having let the set slip, and they would be loaded for bear, or bobcat, from that point hence.
Set three. Memories in the making.
With Barnett slamming and cramming, swinging with extreme malice like a modern-day Victoria Handy (wham, your face!) the visitor again assumed the catbird seat, though a Carranco floater (for a big, strong kid, she sometimes emits real finesse and delicacy out there, Luka Doncic) and a backhand winner from the reliable Hernandez (who’s played more minutes than her?) tied matters at 8. Hernandez sizzled a sinking ace to add juice and Dominguez hammered one down to give Sanchez’ gang a 15-13 lead. At this stage, the Vets girls were not fazed, but one sensed they knew that this would be no walkover.
It was a close and testy affair, as the total of 12 ties would indicate, Vets riding the tightly wound Barnett and EHS countering with textbook team play. The Lady Pats took the lead after a series of boo-boos by the upstart but rather than yield, the Lady ‘Cats dusted themselves off for the stretch run. Garcia and Carranco again denied at the cords, Ramirez hit the deck to save one (keep the ball alive, Coach’s orders), and EHS had scrambled out of a hole to lead 20-18.
Down the road, Dominguez again dominated with a pair of powerful bangers, and if she can continue the ascent to the summit of her potential, it could well be a banner year ahead. No pressure, just promise. A third successive success from the sophomore stud-in-waiting seemed to be enough to clinch the set, but this is Vets, man. The enemy phoenixed its way back in, Barnett otherworldly, until Vega, cool as you like, lofted a softball to Dominguez, who did the rest. Down 26-25 at the time, the Lady ‘Cats used this superb moment to race to the finish line, a bomb from Carranco putting the score at 28-26, over.
Thrilling set, absolutely exquisite volleyball from both sides, RGV Sports Hall of Fame official Mario Reyna approvingly surveying from the high work chair as he has done for decades.
Not to get too carried away, but that was phat!
THE PRESSURE BUILDS
The all-important fourth set arrived, the Lady ‘Cats steaming along and Vets bent on reversing the recent turn of events. The Lady Pats did so well enough, sprinting to a 10-5 lead; their opponent could not maintain the mojo it had parlayed into the huge third-set W. But while Vets cracked away, the EHS girls were slowly starting to locate Barnett, and came up with two solid digs of the comet, auguring well for the coming sequences.
Dominguez led a rally with a pair of potent pops and Hernandez braved up in the face of a Barnett bombardment. Then Perez sliced in a serve that would have made former Dodger lefty Fernando Valenzuela smile; a screwball of sorts, the service started straight and then veered down and to the right, the opposite of a curve or slider from a righthander; no chance in the Vets back … plunk, POINT, ball roll away, girl go get it, roll it back to EHS4. Kid tricky dealin’!
Perez mystifying with her deliveries, EHS crawled back to within 3, but off went the Lady Pats again, to a 6-point lead late. EHS did not help its cause with some eh moments in the clutch and a 2-point set became a 25-20 Vets result, the clincher coming on a mythic blast from Barnett that seemed to scream out of the gym and bound halfway to Stripes. Player a Slayer.
Before the match Sanchez had known this was coming, the gallant charge by a generally supreme program. But she also knew that her girls were up to the task of standing in, taking shots, coming back hard with their own ammunition. And here it was, the chance.
With Vets up 6-2 in the fifth and final set, the Lady Bobcats pounced once and for all. When Carranco was rejected at the net, she did not pout; she just re-jumped for the second try and came good. Dominguez also reacted quickly when a teammate’s shot was thwarted, tallying a huge point. Olvera and Garcia stood fast in the teeth of the formidable Vets attack for a block point, followed by a serving ace from the vital cog Carranco. What’s that? Oh, tied, got it.
But to beat Vets, one cannot rest on temporary laurels and right on cue, the dynasty sniffed, scoffed, and responded, a late dash putting it on top, 11-7. Would this be an almost for EHS, a could-have-been … or a W?
First a leaping stab by Dominguez, courtesy of table-setting from Vega, and then a win at net with Olvera – if she was nervous, nobody knew it but Mom – manning the mission. Hernandez came through with a diagonal winner after a sublime crosscourt pass, and after Ramirez saved one with a racing romp, Barnett rose to the rafters for Vets … and hit OUT.
Uh oh. Wait, what …
The Lady Bobcats smelled blood in the water now, and to prove it, Perez the soph got down and parried a vicious and blistering Barnett blast, right into a sharp pass for a Hernandez kill. This is how you do it. Clutch plays, execution, the refusal to let intimidation prod you into self-doubt. Belief. And production when it matters most.
Two Vets errors followed, and after a 7-point home run had saved the bacon, EHS finished off the wounded warriors, 15-13, capping a dynamic series of battles with a tried and tested adversary.
“Would you like to make a statement?”