September 24, 2022

By Greg Selber

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Many observers are thinking that EHS-North might be the big one in this year’s football race, Oct. 28, but many others suggest the same Rivalry Matchup might be the linchpin for the volleyball squads too. And still others note that with a much improved squad and a solid record in 2022, the Lady Jags of Econ might just have some rejoinder to that EHS-North focus.

Whatever happens, it is finally happening as the girls took to the court over the weekend to kick off the long-awaited District 31-6A campaign. North was a winner at home over La Joya while Econ showed a healthy load of fight before bowing out against P-SJ-A. EHS began the 10-game run in a six-team league with a slog of a win against Mission.

If any of the three opponents from outside town pose the sternest test, it’s probably the Lady Bears, who graduated some athleticism but have still carved out a credible record of 18-13 so far.

Another maybe, Mission (at 12-9), will test its resolve Tuesday at North, against a statuesque Lady Coog group that made short work of smaller, slower La Joya Saturday. Meanwhile, the Lady Bobcats will be at Econ Tuesday to renew acquaintances with their eastern neighbor.

North Coach Raul McCallum is definitely ready for the scrap, with a 17-8 club that is terrifying up front at times. Though the Lady Coogs played without sparkplug setter Stephany Kotzur (not injured, relax), they had no issues with the Lady Coyotes, swinging with ease, dominating each set, and starting league play with a W.

And as usual, an Espinoza was in the middle of the action. Her sister completed her career at North in the spring, and now Maya Espinoza is firmly entrenched as a steady contributor at the net. Having grown an inch or two since the summer, and leaned up like a hard-working athlete will, Espinoza is a prominent part of the Lady Coog charge. McCallum praised the effort the sophomore made in the offseason and noted that she is swinging pretty well these days.

During the La Joya match some of her family members cheered on their fave, yelling “Let’s go, Maya!” And then a minute later, some La Joya fans did the same chant, because apparently they had a Maya, too, but in red and white. North’s Maya had smiled slightly as she looked up into the crowd at her group, and it was a sweet moment.

Espinoza has some quality assistance with rugged Abri Cubriel knocking them down, and a new face, belonging to transfer Gaia Bensperi, has made a real difference since joining the roster earlier in the slate. Stout and quick with catlike footwork, the Italian senior has proven to be excellent in service as well, giving McCallum a real weapon to throw at 31-6A defenses.

“And the thing is, she is such a good kid,” McCallum said after the win against La Joya, in which Bensperi was flawless and dangerous. “She shows great respect, she’ll play wherever, and she is always encouraging her teammates. We’re very happy to have Gaia with us. You can just watch her for a minute and see she has great experience out there.”

[The key query, Which Serie A club does the newest Lady Coog support? Milan, perhaps?]

So you’ve got 10 (Bensperi) to look out for, and 12 (Espinoza) as well. But a North match would not be complete without the dazzling talents of 7, which is junior Etsel Ramirez, whose all-around ability can be seen on almost every sequence. She’s bombing a kill for point, or digging a difficult hit from the other side, or just elegantly sliding around the court making it easier for her pals to succeed. Ramirez has vaulted past the 300-kill mark already in 2022 and ranks second on the team in digs and assists. Other than that, not much! Yeah, right. Baller.

Now she’s got some company out there, family style, as freshman setter Itati Ramirez saw a large share of playing time against La Joya. Exhibiting good quickness in a short space and a strong base for sets, Ramirez the Younger can also run to the net and score; she went up on one leg to smack a few winners Saturday and will assuredly be in the rotation going forward. To put it into perspective, Etsel is probably the shortest kid of the four mentioned, and well, she ain’t that short.

McCallum likes the look of his talented trees, for sure.

“If we get to the ball to the right place at the right time, we’ve got a chance to put it down,” he commented. “We get it to the spot, and we can be deadly, we can win a lot of points.”

With Kotzur sure to be back in action Tuesday, the setter spot is A-OK, and then some, and a recent addition to the roster showed Saturday that she has designs on helping out in the back row.

Cassandra Pedraza is a little sophomore with a famous dad (Gabe Pedraza, hoops star and now coach at his alma mater) and she had some strong plays in the Saturday romp.

“We got her up with us now and she did well today,” McCallum said. “She knows what her job is, to pass it up, get the ball where it needs to be, cover the hitters, etc. I think she can help us, or she wouldn’t be up with us.”

In their non-league wars, the Lady Coogs proved to have a successful pattern, and as they started 31-6A, the coach had some sage advice for them, as he generally does.

“We’re telling them they have to get better at finishing games,” he said. “I think that’s a common problem for most teams, being able to take control when you have the chance. We try to think one play at a time, one set, one match at a time, because looking too far forward can cause problems. You never know, so make sure, every play. And these girls get it, they are doing well, and it’s always good to start district with a win, especially at home.”

All the coaches in this district know what a 10-game schedule means: you better bring it every night, because there aren’t too many chances for a do-over. Vela just finished its first half down in one of the 5A leagues, and will contest a gigantic number of matches, 18, before it’s over. The Lady Sabes have time to climb in the standings, but in 6A, a stumble or two can put you behind the 8-ball, with way less recovery time.

This makes Tuesday’s EHS-Econ clash a key one, and it also installs EHS-North, set for Tuesday, Oct. 4, as a huge night of volleyball. The Lady Bobcats, 19-8 overall, have some size of their own in tricky net-minder Emily Carranco, while Mia Dominguez and Nat Hernandez, though not quite as lengthy as the Lady Coog horses, can hold their own at the cords, the former with explosive spring and the latter with exquisite positioning and timing.

Before North takes on its ancient rival, though, it follows the Mission tilt with a battle against the Lady Bears, on the road Saturday, and there you go: three straight fights against programs with winning records, and before you know it, the 5-game first half will be in the books.

There’s nothing he won’t do for his kids, as Coach Mac has been that sort of dedicated, multi-sport mentor for eons at the school. He even zipped across the sideline between sets Saturday, to fetch a misplaced water bottle for one of the Lady Coogs. Just how he is. Tough, gruff love, emphasis on the last. And he imagines that some time down the road, his girls might return the favor with a district title.

It is a distinct possibility, but again, quick sprint ahead, featuring some contenders who are going to do their best to nose the rest out of the way and claim the trophy for themselves. Let’s go!

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