September 17, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
After five grueling sets one can easily look back at each of them, in hindsight and clarity, and say, if this or that, we might have done X or Y. Perfectly normal thing to do. Sometimes there are moments during each 25-point battle that will determine the eventual outcome of the war. But every now and then, all square, and the fifth and final set comes down to a second or two, when the die is cast in finality, one way or the other. All of it, right now. Or none.
The hard part is that in those crucial junctures, proud high school athletes scrapping desperately with each other, so much on the line and so little margin for error, the difference between a win and loss, well, it is miniscule, microscopic. One moment, you’re in, the next moment, out.
This is what makes sporting competition so compelling, for all parties involved, and yet, to be on the short end of such drama, to have faltered ever so slightly, but enough, to see the result slip from a resolute grasp; it can be devastating. They say the same thing about actual war and combat, where many battles are incredibly close-run and narrow, meaning that in some cases, i.e., Agincourt, Waterloo, Passchendaele, other classic historical encounters, the outcome is difficult to figure, up for grabs, even as the action reaches a fever pitch in denouement. Did we win? Yay, we did. Or not. And silence.
Saturday was one such occasion for Vela, as the Lady SaberCats were loaded for Bulldog, attempting to start some district momentum against a perennial and intimidating power. Coach Celi Ortega’s group of hustlers was in the fight all the way against a Mac High team with tons of youth, a few key injuries, and one of the most vocal fan groups out there. And it could have, as the old military saw goes, gone either way, the schools grappling, jockeying, and firing all cylinders for five grinding sets.
At the end, as the fog of war lifted to reveal its oracular pronouncement, it did indeed come down to the last few plays. And despite having made a fantastic effort, hanging right with the Lady Bulldogs for two and a half hours, Vela was clipped, losing a 12-9 last-set lead and eventually, the match, as Mac High roared back to score six of the last seven points for a marathon victory that had looked quite dicey for the visitor at various times during the longest day.
A Mac service ace here, an untaken Vela opportunity there, and the Lady Sabes had missed the chance for a signature victory against a notable foe. But despite dropping to 3-4 in District 15-5A as the first half rolls along, the Lady Sabes can be assured that their performance was potent, determined, and at times dynamite. They were able to show that they belong in the conversation in this exceedingly crowded field of would-be playoff combatants, by giving glimpses of their potential, scaring the daylights out of the Lady Bulldogs and their leather-lunged parents, and coming to within an eyelash of an enormous victory.
However, in the end, as the window opened with a flash of possible glory, it closed, curtain-like, abruptly, and harshly, leaving them on the outside looking in. How Vela responds to this crushing defeat, from a physical but also a psychological standpoint, will be the final takeaway from this pressure-packed afternoon. The comeback starts Tuesday at Pioneer, versus another of the league units that has dreams of greatness in its sights. And there is still plenty of time left for Vela to get on a winning streak and start to bypass some of the contenders on the road to a postseason berth.
But frankly, this one will hurt for a while, as all narrow-run battles tend to do. It was that close. Inches. Seconds. Character test ahead.
Playing against a team like Mac High is always a thrill, in a way, because it proffers the chance to take on a real winner, a program ranked among the very best through the ages. Like playing Harlingen in football, or girls’ basketball, or like running in a track meet against the Weslaco girls. Mac High soccer girls. And it sometimes brings out your best. As it should.
To begin this memorable day, the Lady Sabes found that though they may be struggling a bit in such a fine district of stud teams, the Lady Bulldogs too have not been without challenges in 2022. Sharyland has charged into the lead so far, and not by much, with Memorial and Rowe, Pioneer, also kicking it with abandon. Vela, for its part, had not managed a W over one of the big dogs yet, but this was the shot, as the Mac came to town with a series of freshmen in key roles, a top defender out by injury. Mac had beaten Rowe but lost to Memorial and Pioneer, amid a transition season that has made the Lady Bulldogs seem slightly vulnerable for a change.
With Emily Gonzalez on her game, the Lady Sabes battled well enough in the opener, as there were six ties in rapid succession to 10-10, senior Fey Vazquez signaling her appreciation of the importance of the day with a pair of scoring licks. Vela charged ahead with a Gonzalez block point and then her wicked sideline kill and a second block score from Vazquez. When Abby Zamora dug a mammoth Mac effort it led to a leaping two-handed putdown at the net by Emma Lucio, and an 18-14 lead.
With Mac having problems on the serve (six oops shots in the opening set), Ortega’s kids made the grade. Gonzalez served well and Lucio hung in the air to outlast the defensive front and slam past for a 20-15 advantage. Late in the set, sub Marissa Santos was money with a save near the net, Mac served into cords, and gutty sophomore Ava Tovar jumpstarted the final point with an alert lefty stab of a fast-moving rocket; she redirected the ball back up toward the net, where a teammate finished the 25-20 result with a stout smack.
KEEP IT GOING
So far, so good, the Lady Sabes had executed, taken full advantage of errors from the favored visitor, and seized the early momentum edge.
But against a formidable powerhouse like Mac High, it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself up against it. Set two began with a 7-3 Lady ‘Dog run, whereupon Vela rallied with heavy hits from Sam Villalobos, some sweet sets from young Lauren Hanson, and then two more perfect passes from Zamora, who brought her group to within one with a clever flip over for point, in lieu of the expected set. Looking like former EHS superstar Myranda Hinojosa – who made the deceptive “second ball over” into a specialty – Zamora had helped shepherd her team near the summit.
If there was a concerning spot about Saturday’s early business, it was in returns. When the Lady ‘Dogs did start finding accuracy from the service line, the back row for Vela was all of a sudden in the middle of a storm. Mac used the uncertainty to carve out a 16-11 lead peppered by aces galore, and some other miscues from the home side allowed the foe to surge into control once again. When Villalobos smashed left to right, diagonal, the deficit was just 3 at 21-18, and the senior slugger connected again soon after, off a Zamora feed. But the set went to Mac, 25-21, tying the match.
THE KEY THIRD SET
At such a juncture, it was time to regroup, use the break between sets to breathe, remember overall tactics, and get ready to fight again. Though there might have been as many (more?) purple and gold fans in the house, the home side was feeling perky.
When Vazquez hammered a kill deep into the McAllen back line and followed that up with a leaping crunch from a Lucio offering, the third set was tied, 7-7. Mac got into sync, moving ahead briefly until Tovar swerved a nasty ace, Gonzalez rose to swat a winner, and Tovar again – what a competitor! – dug one out, starting a play that ended with a hit to score by the athletic Lucio.
At one point, it was 18-15, Vela after Vazquez gracefully elevated for a one-handed putdown rejection of a Lady Bulldog try. Fey was jamming Saturday, she was.
Just now the service woes returned for McAllen, and the Blue and Black, determined not to miss the boat, pounced, Vazquez once again dominating the net and Zamora tipping one to safety while avoiding a collision with a bustling teammate. Workin’ hard. When a team makes plays like this, the mojo builds, and the girls start doing clutch things they were not sure they could actually do. A coach can see her squad grow up in such moments, in real time as it were.
It was Gonzalez, all angles and windmills, who clinched it, 25-20, popping down a set from Santos, as Vela got excellent bench contributions during the day, including some diving efforts from tough little senior Alexa Trevino.
At this stage the Mac fans, never without a comment or cheer, were shockingly subdued, looking around nervously as if to say, Um, hey, what’s up?
SLAM IT SHUT
Vela’s job was to launch its way into the heart of darkness, keep on bringing it, and send these people home for the duration. Could they do it? Or would Mac High’s tradition come to the center now, aiding the flagging side in a comeback effort against one of the outsiders, so-called, looking to horn in on the spoils?
Mac showed what it was about now, commanding the fourth set stem to stern with three quick points, a 5-mark lead at 11-6, benefiting from a poor overall set by the home side. Again, service was sharp from the Lady Bulldogs, parries and returns not quick enough from Vela, and the tide started turning in purple favor. Down 10 late, the Lady Sabes got unlimbered for five in a row, but it was too late, Mac won 25-19, and now the real pressure.
Athletes will say they love to be in the key situations, and maybe many do. But there is always a trace of doubt in such instances, no matter the player or team. So now it was all about who’s going to execute when the crowd is loud, the opponent raging in your face, and the ultimate result resting in precarious balance. Many a contender has wavered under the fog of war’s burden, during the close-run and breathless key engagements that tell the tale.
Probably too early for a “must-win” match, given the length of the district schedule in 2022, but high time to put a meaningful W on the ledger.
Mac started well at 3-0, Vela jittery back on its heels, but the Lady ‘Dogs obliged with two unforced errors followed by a kill from Gonzalez, who Saturday contributed consistently like a veteran has to. When Zamora fooled ‘em again with trick-flick, it was 4-4, and Gonzalez’ ace, plus a boffo combined block by Lucio and Vazquez, gave the surging home girls a 6-4 bulge.
But as quickly as it had seemed promising, it morphed threatening after a series of Mac High shots caught the return crew napping in back. Five straight points from the traditional juggernaut, and real trouble for the upstart.
After a timeout, Vazquez started to save the day, scoring high above, off Lucio’s assist, with Trevino again hitting the deck to keep the play alive. Same basketball combo next, Lucio to Vazquez, and when Vazquez flew skyward to reject a Lady Bulldog, match tied at 9-9. Four sets down, fifth almost done, and nothing to separate the two squads. At such a stage, one wrong move, or slice of delight, will seal it. Excruciating, exhilarating for one side, enervating for the other. Suspended in time was this moment, so much hard work and effort, tantalizing sum hanging in the eaves.
Another Vela kid launched onto the floor to knock a ball up and back into the mix, and McAllen blinked, failing to hit and soon falling behind, 12-9. Blue and Black on the attack, gym filled with raucous cheers and no little animosity, have to say. The usual champion on the ropes, contender coming on, throwing blows and fighting through fatigue. The signature success, there in their sights, wounded warrior looking wobbly across the net. Finish.
Some programs just have what it takes, having learned over the years how to seize the desperate times with mettle and clutch play. McAllen is one such, as the Lady ‘Dogs got back up one more time to race ahead in the marathon, getting a couple of Vela lapses and a couple of big-time hits to sail in, 15-11. On the final sequence, the Lady Sabes had started to celebrate a vital point, only to see one of the Lady ‘Dogs scramble well off the court, way back, to hit a what-the-heck, over-the-shoulder prayer that eventuated in the final tally. Hand it to Mac, that was the final nail, and it was a simply masterful hustle play. Sigh.
FATIGUE BUT FUTURE
Ortega was understandably downbeat but also buoyant and defiant after the grueling match, knowing that her kids had given all they had, shown they belong, and almost pulled off a fabulous result.
She told her sagging gals that they now know what they are capable of, and what they need to do to get ready for the next stretch of matches. They did not cry or pout, just bit a collective lip, clinched a collective fist, and started to figure out how to process this drama/trauma, and advance forward.
“Every time we play, we are getting better at something, I can see that,” said the coach, who now turns her attention to the Lady D-Backs of Pioneer. “We’re past the whole ‘new district’ thing, the new kid mentality. We’re set in our positions and rotation, we know what we have to do, and now we just have to keep fighting, and be able to do it.”
The identity of the team, the culture, they’re crystallizing now as the district slate continues, and Ortega wants to see even more continued progress, day by day.
“We’re headed in the right direction, I think we showed that today,” she insisted. For a moment, she sighed loudly, eyes closing, head slightly bowed. She knows, they all know, how close they came, and how superb it would have been – in the standings, yes, but also in the psyche – to have tucked this one away. Against Mac High.
“This match should give us confidence, we battled a really top program all the way and we had them, we really did,” she intoned. “It comes down, after this, to confidence. I want the girls not to be upset or disappointed, because this shows them who they are, what they are capable of.”
Ortega smiled wearily. As a standout athlete in her day, a brilliant point guard for the killer Edcouch-Elsa teams of the early 1990s, she enjoyed her share of such pivotal and emotional games, pro and con. She knows, she’s been there. And she knows the character of her kids; they will not quit, and they will “use it,” as they say in volley, to their advantage down the road. Lessons. Scars. Strength
“But yeah … a tough loss … real tough.”