August 23, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
It’s been intermittent, this intimation, increasing at times, lessening at others, and eventually the die will be cast one way or the other. They’ll do it or go down fighting tooth and nail, satisfied with the journey. Or not.
For the first time in a few volleyball moons, the Lady Jags believe that this – this, after several seasons of struggle, of coming close, of fading down the stretch – could be their year.
Watching the warmup before Tuesday’s home game against Juarez-Lincoln gave a prescient indication of where Econ is at. In the smaller gym adjacent to the main one, the Orange contingent went through a rollicking drill at one end of the court, their eastern Hidalgo County opponent swatching from the far end, eyes widening.
The city girls were in a circle, per the norm for all such magical rituals. They jogged in place slowly, counting from 1 to 10, their voices steady and somewhat low, tapping numbers. Soon, their pace quickened, the noise rising as the counts got swifter, the patter of sneakers following suit. Like an old-fashioned dance contest from the 1930s, it was a competition, to see who could keep count and make sure their feet matched speed. Increasing now, the 1 to 10 took scarcely two, three seconds tops, until they lost it and flamed out, collapsing into raucous giggles. Everyone won and no one really lost, although sparkplug Dana Serna was the leader, a whirling dervish as she gaily marked the final “10” with a dramatic stomp.
Serna, long a program notable with her energy and ability, brought the drill to an end with a flourish, and the Lady Jags took a collective breath, the Lady Huskies for their part looking away and shaking their heads, body language saying: What was that all about?
It’s about creative fun, and about belief, and as the Lady Jags make their way through the non-district schedule, waiting for the real fun to begin in District 31-6A, they have fast feet and frequent dreams about the coming days.
Bumping along near .500 in 2022, having scored some solid victories and come near some fine upsets, Coach Christina Soto’s netters think they are about to spring some wow’s on the rest of the league. Their subsequent straight-sets triumph over
Lincoln Tuesday showed that this year, Econ is determined to succeed.
Since making five consecutive playoff appearances starting in the mid-2000s, the program has gradually flattened out; it’s not that the teams haven’t worked hard, or haven’t been coached well, and there has been no shortage of enthusiasm under Soto. Still, technically, Econ has not had a “winner” for some time, but measured in effort, enjoyment, etc., the program has done well. Always fired up, never giving in. Game. But still lacking that little something to vault them over the top.
Now, though, the vibe is not just about improvement, or moral victories, anymore. It’s about playoffs, period.
“I have been telling them that this should be it, we have to get in, we have the talent,” said Soto, after the elastic Serna and jumping jack Sidni Alvarez – with a prominent assist from exciting newcomer Nayelis Mendez – had paced a terrific home showing. “You want a banner on the ceiling? It’s there for you … playoffs … it’s up to you to go get it.”
Serna, who has all the tricks now as she competes in her fourth season as a starter, was sharp throughout on Tuesday, setting the nimble and powerful Alvarez. The role players were also steady in their work, as this year’s version is heavily sprinkled with basketball kids, including versatile Jaylene Corona, deceptive Britzia Mancilla, and gutty Bianca Coronado. Serna was second leading scorer for Mari Campos’ hoops unit last year, and one wonders how many rebounds the high-flying Alvarez would get if she were to decide to play basketball. Bet lots.
The wild card for this contender in the making is Mendez, a strapping 5-10 redhead who transferred in from points beyond (Harlingen and Massachusetts, interestingly) and has impressed onlookers and coaches alike with her power, spring, and pep. In the warmups before the Lincoln match, Mendez was popping the ball with purpose, rising with windmill strokes to flatten the ball consistently. Ouch!
With Mancilla set as a defensive-minded frontliner and Alvarez attacking relentlessly from the outside, the offense looks formidable. Mendez, a gift from above for the patient but impatient Soto, could be the missing link that can transform the club from a maybe into a yeah. Sure looks like a possibility.
“They were having fun tonight, you could tell,” Soto said after her girls dispatched a rebuilding Lady Husky group with alacrity. “Tonight, for the first time, finally, they got it all together, played like a unified team. I think they are starting to figure it out, that they can be winners, and once district starts, I hope we are going to be a surprise team.”
Soto joked that district will only begin after 1,000 games, a crack about the fact that as part of a 6-team league, the Lady Jags are going through an interminable pre-loop string of games, a string which continues at the Sharyland Tournament this weekend, before 31-6A action kicks off Sept. 24 at P-SJ-A. There are only 10 league matches total; four of the six schools will get into the playoffs. Window of opportunity.
“We have some time to keep working on the mesh,” she commented. “We’ve beaten some teams and played well against Los Fresnos and the Bears, and we only let up late in those games, hanging in there until like 19 or 20 … we are close to getting there, and it’s exciting to see them realize what they can accomplish. Now we have to do it: this has to be our year.”
DAY AT THE RACES
Truthfully, this was an opponent the Lady Jags had to be looking forward to seeing, because Lincoln has never been remotely considered a powerhouse. Still, when a team is learning to win, to believe, it doesn’t matter who the other school is, really. It’s all about Econ, consistency in performance, unflagging commitment, attention to detail on every sequence. And Tuesday, the girls were clear-eyed from the outset, tilting the court on the visitor with pinpoint sets and smashing hits, zooming hustle plays and no little noise after satisfactory plays.
Lincoln assumed a brief lead at 4-3 but a tap winner by Corona, after a sizzling jump serve from Alvarez, tied things at 5. Mancilla scored off a feed from Jackie Maldonado, the soccer star, and on came the rush. The Lady Huskies hung tough with decent backline effort until Mendez hammered one followed by a leaping spike from Alvarez. The latter kid then dominated for three points in a row, terrorizing the foe until it was 17-15, home side.
In a well-played opening set, Econ battled to the decision thanks to a Coronado ace and a scoring pop from Corona, who shook her head as her offering fluttered past a defender. She had mishit the try but gotten the break, and this kind of luck might be what the club needs to get momentum going, By any means, necessary.
Corona killed for the key blow, aided by an over-the-shoulder dig near the backline by the speedy Serna. Econ clinched it, 25-22 when Alvarez whistled a pea to the left corner, it remaining untouched by enemy hands.
One of the elements that identifies a winning outfit comes at the start of a set, after a win. Getting out of the box quickly is the goal, versus seeing the steam filter out amid errors and hesitancy. Mission accomplished, as Soto’s crew leapt out to a 7-2 second set advantage, aggressive Lady Jag play putting Lincoln on its hind legs.
Mendez made a tremendous save on the sideline, one of several such moments she turned in. She and Serna seem to have become fast friends, jitterbugging in timeout huddles, bouncing with abandon, and laughing like lifelong pals. At least three times during the match, the two athletes nearly collided when going for a loose ball, and their will to keep plays alive seemed infectious. Adia De Los Reyes would hit the deck a few times Tuesday in search of the ball, as would teammates Alissa Garza and Jazmin Cavazos. If such lesser knowns keep coming through like that, it will help immensely.
It got out to 11-2 as the backline parried and passed without nervousness, and then Mendez flew to her right, rising on one strong leg, whipping her right arm over like a lever to find space on the other side. She is a force to be reckoned with.
Mendez then produced a vicious service ace and Alvarez soon heated up again for a pair of swats, folded around her line-drive serves following side out.
Lincoln showed a disturbing (for them) penchant for failing at the service stripe, Econ taking ample advantage, and when Serna set the table for the leaping Mendez, it was 20-13, Orange. No worries, as Alvarez levitated for a pound and Serna clevered up and over with a second-ball winner, fooling the Lincolns with a plop that went heedlessly past.
The 25-15 victory set the stage for a sweep, something the Lady Jags have not provided in ample supplies in recent times. Back in the ancient era, when the lefty slugger Morgan Brown prowled the court and graceful Shay Hernandez floated in the thin air, the program made a habit of such whitewashings, all the way to the finish line during that sweet run of playoff appearances. Now, the newest challenger to that legacy can know what it feels like to blank an opposing squad. And it feels pretty boss, right?
Some nostalgia maven managed to get Young MC’s “Bust a Move” playing on the loudspeaker during the interim leading to the third set, even though none of the girls had yet been in existence in 1989, when the British rapper’s album “Stone Cold Rhymin’” hit the charts with gusto. What’s an album, anyway? Ah. They dig the groove, though.
Serna started the telltale set with an ace and Mendez clobbered one into a flagging Lincoln defense. Mancilla tipped one to the good after Serna and Mendez ended up in the same spot for a collective save. Then Mendez spiked so hard that it bounded off an opposing player and onto the ceiling, a feat she pulled off twice in the final set. The next time, her rocket off a Lady Husky almost smacked one of the speakers way up in the rafters, pure leverage.
Alvarez then came forth with two strong winners, carving Swiss cheese out of the block to make it 13-3, Next she elevated above the rest to track down a soft Serna set. Her next kill went very deep, and only the flashing swish of the flag by the linesman told the story. Down! Alvarez had crammed the ball so fast that nobody could really see what had happened. What a dynamo, Alvarez on parade; next she served a slicing ace.
Then came the first slack moment of an otherwise devastating performance, Lincoln running off five points out of six to climb back in. But with excellent team play (mesh) and patience, the Lady Jags soon righted the ship and sailed on (Commodores, or Christopher Cross), or maybe they sailed away (Styx, this is getting fun with the oldies, viejo).
Mendez and Serna then raced off the court again in pursuit of a late-set Lincoln offering, and after they rushed back on, save made, Mendez ended the sequence with a smash that trundled along the net on the enemy side, a beautiful diagonal shot that the Lincoln girls just watched, helpless to deflect.
The final count, 25-18, sweep in hand and with it, the program’s fifth win in 12 matches. The Lady Jags will take on many contenders in the coming weeks as their resurrection campaign continues, leading up to the long-awaited start to district, almost a month away still.
As they work, the kids can look up near the ceiling to see the banners, wondering what it would be like to hoist their own. With power to burn, hustle in droves, and a coach who is nurturing belief in all things wise and wonderful, they know that at the end of the day, it’s about performance, and finally, results. It’s been a while for Econ, and they know it. This is the chance for them to prove a point, that they can win, and can advance to the Second Season.
“You want it, it’s yours,” Soto repeated after the victory. “That’s what we are saying to them, over and over … Now go for it, and make it happen!”