October 4, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Just before the fifth and final set, on a truly memorable evening of excellence and intensity, the crowd was insane, players too, coaches barking in the huddle and the denouement hanging in the eaves.
“We can’t HEAR you!!” screamed the North student section madly. Having spent parts of the previous four sets being serenaded/baited by the EHS kiddie corps, the Cougars were giving back, as it were.
Then the Old Gold throng broke into an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday,” answered by jeers and catcalls from the Bobcat horde. And as the noise reached epic proportions, a police officer visited the visitors, as she had done on more than one occasion Tuesday.
“You can’t stop us!!” the Cougars roared, and turns out, they were right. Midway through the final set, another masterpiece by two teams in their Zone and playing on desire and instinct, one of the North fans – six-foot-six, so it had to be either Eddie G. or Richard R., not sure which – sidled over to the EHS section and took a hilarious selfie (under duress) with his “friends.”
Back and forth, without hesitation, the two student sections hollered out the mantra of the day, at each other, aided by frenetic fist pumps, red-faced and hoarse bellowing, the works. What they said was “FTC,” or “For The City,” although one wonders over the mystery of double meanings, ponders a little subterfuge or smokescreen. Who knows, but it was classic. Spittin’.
That was the kind of scene it was, as EHS got together with North to reprise what was once the preeminent volleyball rivalry and threatens to become so again. Absolute mayhem from the start, incredible performances from the girls, and as should be patently obvious now, a real buzz in the crowd that made it seem like it was 2011 or 2015, or many other occasions in the past when the Lady Bobcats and Lady Cougars have locked horns like dire foes, swinging and clobbering, leaping and starring … one half expected to see cool Jenetta Sanchez trot out there for EHS, or dazzling Desi Marmolejo. Was that Jumpin’ Jessica Martinez or the catlike Victoria Rogers swinging from the rafters for North; was it the sleek Vanessa Salazar bossing the court for North, or was it the three-headed kill monster of Victoria Handy-Lisa Lancaster-Yadi Salinas, pounding away with Red and Blue malice?
No, it was the new crop of athletes, vying for a district title, and it must be said that all the participants in Tuesday’s Instant Classic made a fine account of themselves in hoisting the banner of a storied series, giving the fans a snapshot for a lifetime. North was able to squeeze past the Lady Bobcats, saving the bacon via a fourth set win, and then coming from behind in the clincher to power its way to a vital W.
After having dropped a tough one at P-SJ-A in their last outing, the Lady Coogs knew that failure to take this contest – they had beaten the Red and Blue in eight of the last 12 matches at North – would put them behind the 8-ball, because EHS had begun 31-6A play with three victories and nary a loss. In 25 matches dating back more than a decade, North had been slightly ascendant, with 14 triumphs, and a stat heading into Tuesday’s explosion was also pertinent: five times in the recent past the two squads had slammed to five sets before reaching a decision. It happened four times during the heyday of the rivalry, from 2012-15 and in all five marathon affairs, the home team eventually achieved the result.
There have also been streaks of quality, such as 2010-12 when a dominant North unit swept the Lady ‘Cats three times in a row, six wins in all. Then there was 2013-18, when EHS tasted the home fruits six times running.
This one was also for the ages, as Etsel Ramirez rallied her troops time and again, willing them to overcome and master the emotions of the moment. She had been beyond instrumental in the closing stages of the match, as had setter Stephany Kotzur and the hard-edged libero, Gaby Rodriguez. One by one, sometimes in pairs, the Lady Coogs found the way to solve this puzzle, and now, after the fact, Ramirez was being interviewed by local media. Everyone was breathless and spent. The way it should be.
Seconds after the final point, she had jumped five times in the air in quick succession, legs coming up like twin pistons on each leap, and Ramirez was now ready to brain it.
“We knew this was it, this was the game,” the junior star remarked. “We had to beat them and when we won the fourth set, we were thinking it was our game. We had the momentum but man … it was up, down, up, down, back and forth!”
Ramirez explained the factor that finally put her peeps over the top, against a talented EHS crew that performed so well in stretches, seeming to be about to pull ahead for good before a few desperate North rallies.
“I think it comes down mentality, how we approach the plays,” she said. “We had to find a way to get it. And to show you really want it, you gotta go make the plays. Like I said, we knew that we had to win, or it would be trouble.”
Sometimes it takes a while for a match to get on the boil, often really, but there was no such delay Tuesday as the rivals flew to the task and got stuck in from the initial ball. Mia Dominguez, destined to be a house afire early on, rejected a shot and teammate Hailey Vega dived to save another Lady Coog try, but Maya Espinoza of North ended the marathon first point with a slick tip. Lot of action after one serve!
Speaking of serves, some of the students in attendance decided to resurrect the old Mexican football chant for goal kicks, despite the fact that, well, you know … It lasted for about a third of the set until the admins were on the scene to settle that one down. Just that kind of crazy, Tuesday was.
With Dominguez levitating and punishing, the Lady ‘Cats led 8-5 after the athletic junior redirected a wayward set into scoring territory. When percolating, deadly.
Then it was the trusty soldier, Emily Carranco, taking the stage for a kill and a block, sending the visitor off on an 8-0 run that established an 18-7 advantage. Carranco figured in four other scoring ventures during the streak while North had trouble finding the hitting range and set one bouta slip away. Vega connected with Carranco on a quick-set winner that reminded some folks of Sanchez-to-Salinas back in the oughts. Such tales!
But from 18-7, Coach Raul McCallum’s girls got the pride engaged and began to jell. As EHS fell into mistakes and with Ramirez soaring and scoring, North got to within 5 points late. Then EHS’s Makayla Olvera provided some nice swats (”She’s a fresh-man!!”) to close the deal. We thought.
With smashes galore from Italian sensation Gaia Benesperi, the Lady Coogs played Thomas Hearns to the Marvin Hagler of EHS, rising from the canvas to deal some tremendous blows. Espinoza was front and center during the rally and at one stage it was just a 1-point lead. But when Vega flat-quicked to Carranco, the die was cast, 25-23. Still, this party was just getting started.
Each of the coaches had noted before the game that familiarity was not going to be an issue, that the teams knew each other, had prepped like crazy for the all-important showdown, and were just ready to get it on. Thing is, one never knows which of the kids will blossom under pressure, who will wilt. That’s what the biggies are all about: poise, execution, ignoring the madding crowd, and as Ramirez would/did say, finding the right mentality.
KEEP CALM AND PALM
As the second set started, EHS was inconsistent, seeming a bit rattled for some reason, which was odd given its smooth performance in the opener. North took full advantage to try and get back into the mix with Ramirez recovering from a block against her to push a return over and to the spot. Abri Cubriel, whose sister was a bad, bad bunny back in the day, went to net for a resounding block and later, when the Lady ’Cat backrow suffered a paucity of communication in serve-and-return, the Lady Coogs were up, 11-6.
But volleyball is all about momentum, we know that; mood swings and passion and here we go. North was now rattled, EHS coming on. After Benesperi provided twin pops, the Lady ‘Cats pounced, as Carranco was magisterial with four points in various ways: a hard hit; a smash off a North kid to the ceiling and down; a block; and a service ace. Yes, she is versatile, a stat-sheet stuffer.
Two-point North lead still, at 20-18 before Ramirez tipped trickily, right hand back down to the right and then another mammoth swarm at net from Cubriel, who’s taller than her sister and almost as intimidating. When Ramirez knuckleballed an impossible line-drive serve, the student sections going into orbit without a spacecraft. Not over, though.
Nat Hernandez, who has fought in so many of these wars over her four-year career for EHS, slapped to the deep corner but North led 24-22. The Lady Coogs faltered in service then, giving the enemy an opening; however EHS handed it right back with a poor offer of its own. It was done, 25-23, the Red and Blue having missed last call at the Last Chance Saloon for the set. That almost 2-0 lead was now a tie, 1-1, and it would come back to haunt them in the wee hours of the match.
JUST GETS BETTER
The chaos of the second set was monumental, with a packed house and two determined clubs duking it out. The third set would be just as berserk.
EHS gained the edge early with a Carranco burst of three scoring plays but there were eight ties to 13-all, Ramirez’ one-handed wing save a highlight among many. Ella Ramirez of EHS also stuck out a paw with a flash to corral one, but the Lady ‘Cats still saw themselves tied at 14. At this stage the refs entered the fray, inadvertently, as there would be a number of calls delayed, others changed, some not, lending even more fuel to a fire that definitely hadn’t needed any added gasolina. Such is the luck of the draw, each coach feeling rather hard done by the hesitation of the officials. You can tell you’re at a key tilt when the coaches are fussing. Means so much.
Having taken the initiative, the Lady Coogs led by 3 and then 2, and then 1 after they mistakenly thought a play was over, only to discover in horror the Lady ‘Cats scoring past them to make it 22-21. The rest of the set was textbook volleyball, with Dominguez giving a pair of nasty kills for a 25-25 tie. Overtime, so to say.
The visitor took the lead thanks to a save from Vega which no one ever saw, so fast did she use one hand to stop a bullet and re-focus it onward toward the net. Did she even see it? Athlete makes stellar play, crowd roars! As EHS had done to end set two, North now could not summon the juice to come back, hitting out a pair of times and ending the slog down, 28-26.
“FTC” they cried from the EHS side. This was one had five written all over it and had from the start. Dig in. Get a cough drop. Alright, do it!
It sure didn’t seem like a 5-set deal right off, as EHS ran out, 6-1, to begin the fourth, Olvera sliding a spike between two North defenders.
And this was it for the Old Gold. Either get back on the beam of face the prospect of suffering its second loss in league play. No single minute has been as important in 2022, as McCallum and his staff earnestly exhorted their kids, in the huddle. Breathe. Play. Don’t think. Just excel.
Excel … Etsel … Ramirez, as suspected, had the formula, with a ringing smash to get her team back to speed. Five successive points proved that the timeout had done its do, and the teams settled into the slugfest once again, Ramirez digging for EHS but an eh pass gumming the works a second later. But just when it seemed that the visitor would stumble, Coach Deanna Sanchez’ charges remembered themselves, going up 17-11 with all-around team quality.
The 8-2 spell now put North under pressure, and it was Etsel Time once again. She and Benesperi took turns hammering the Lady ‘Cat defense, and it got closer. Not close enough, as it was soon 20-15, EHS. Espinoza took on two at the net for a killing crash and then Cubriel peppered one down; prior to Cubriel’s point, Ramirez of the Lady ‘Cats had somehow managed to locate a ball that caromed off the ceiling and keep it in play, only to see North eventually win the point. This was the match in a sound byte: teams making plays, excellence all around, neither school wanting to lose. To THEM.
McCallum and Sanchez had each expressed the wish that their girls come into the showdown with fire in their eye, the way it used to be back when the Rivalry was pure madness. And they did that, hundo p, Tuesday; every kid that hit the court was possessed with the spirit, and though the manic crowd certainly helped that along, fact is, these gals were locked and loaded, laser-focused and straight crazy. Didn’t need no fans.
Nostalgia and intensity aside, the question now was simple: Could North force the final frontier of the fifth set? After another argued call (there were plenty), the Lady Coogs went off on a jag, clawing back in. Ramirez exited the court to palm one back to life and then she and Cubriel produced prodigious bombs. Hernandez of EHS came up with some miracles to try and stem the tide and all of a sudden, 22-all. Sheer delirium.
At this sort of key juncture, one false move can be terminal, and now EHS handed a freebie to its foe with a poor serve, and then, though the Lady ‘Cats thought they had retied the affair, the call on Hernandez’ deep corner blast was … well, what? In or out? … out. Match saved for North after EHS again hit out, the Old Gold completing a 13-4 rally and saving the day, for now anyway.
Then ensued the apex of the fan frolics, an event that gave one ample opportunity for laughter but never veered for long into the realm of the unpleasant or unacceptable. Just credit to ECISD personnel for their patient attempts to keep the fun happening per the framework and rules. Not easy sometimes, but job well done.
There is nothing like a fifth set. It just creates its own mythology as it unwinds. Especially with such high stakes. Ten-game season, any loss will hurt you big, and so there they were, tired North and tired EHS, tied, measuring each other across a tired net, waiting to muster their last salvo in this memorable masterclass. So many times had they collided in the past, and this would be another marathon clash, decided … right now.
Hernandez, having come on like gangbusters in the latter stretches of this one, got her team off the mark with a ringing kill and EHS would lead through the initial stages of the clincher. Carranco climbed the net to return a North shot back to sender, but Ramirez powdered a sick smash that slithered past the EHS stoppers with a sizzling sound. Rodriguez, who was on her own planet in the final moments, rolled over for a terrific save on Ramirez only to see Dominguez, who had pounded one toward her mom, the coach, in the pregame (Coach D called it “out,” btw), notch a huge marker.
This shot seemed to buoy the Lady ‘Cats, who soon led 7-3 with young yet mature Olvera (family wringing hands and hoarsely hollering, A.O.!) blocking expertly. Future.
But North hung tough, Ramirez slamming one off a light fixture and Rodriguez log-rolling with aplomb, parrying this shot and that. Old Gold not going down without some blows. Benesperi came good with a heavy winner, followed by a service point from Cubriel, and when North freshman Itati Ramirez was clutch with a push, the match was there for the taking. Kotzur, scurrying everywhere with her leg strength and smarts, aided the 5-0 run that got the Lady Coogs a lifeline, and her ace made it 11-9, home side.
EHS, not about to die, worked the triple combo for a sweetly executed score: Olvera to Vega to Hernandez, a kill to the dark spot just inside the corner line. No chance for North on that one. Tied at 11, and are you kidding me?
That’s when the Selfie went down and kudos to that brave soul. Homies risk it all for the post.
Four points, and success, all it takes, and Carranco inaugurated the final duel with a smart putdown to punish a bad pass by North. 12-11. But Espinoza stepped up and teed off for the tie, whereupon Espinoza located Carranco for block, only to see the next North hit fly out of bounds. Lady ‘Cats inching closer, up 13-12.
Absolute mayhem, did we say that already? Nuts. Bonkers. The essence of high school sports, right there, best.
Of course, North would come back to knot it again with a last-ditch save from Natalie Avendano leading to a wicked winner from Ramirez. 13s.
Rodriguez, still speaking in volleyball tongues, sliced an ace but EHS answered with a Carranco tip (from Vega), and when Carranco put one down rudely, EHS stood at the precipice, near the peak, up 15-14.
After the obligatory timeout, the weary girls returned. One way or the other, this march was about to conclude. One could have dropped a bowling ball in the bleachers and nobody would have heard it.
It has been said that North’s Ramirez is so versatile, she’s liable to pop up anywhere, doing effective. And now the junior gem provided a perfect pass for Cubriel, who advanced on the ball and flattened it, sending a screamer to the open corner. This was decisive, as the Lady Coogs then rode a vicious spike off double block to take the lead and finish with a final, poignant point. That was that, 17-15, North having come from the dead like a character in an Edgar Allan Poe story, rising high into the league race and dragging the Lady ‘Cats back a stride in the process.
Phenomenal match, both teams deserve all the props for their chops, and hops, for their pops and their, well, enough Seuss, Dr.
The veterans on the bench can tell endless and captivating stories about volleyball and its past here in town. McCallum laughed before the game remembering the way Belinda Delgado once served all 15 points of a match (back in the day, different scoring system; only on a serve, fewer points to a set) to beat San Benito … underhanded. Fooled ‘em. He swears that Shelley Duffey was one of the best he ever saw, back in the mid-1990s; she was such a great athlete that she could have won the starting second base job in baseball (yes), but her father balked. Sanchez of the Bobcats can conjure memories of her exes like a born storyteller, eyes gleaming as past greats perform in her mind once again.
They both knew that the hay was in the barn before Tuesday began; no more preparation, only to advance, into the front lines. They wanted their kids to come out with the energy, the desire, and fight-ya that the teams of old used to live off, the sort of extra-something that makes you want to smack one off the other team’s collective face. And again. Handy-style. Julissa Ramirez-style.
Let everyone who was there know that the 2022 version of the long-running scrape, EHS v. North, was contested with that affective element firmly intact. The girls hustled and worked, grinded and competed, they wanted, just as the figures in the record books had done when it was their turn to take their best back-in-the-day shot.
Yes, they turned back the clock at North on Tuesday, and it was simply glorious to see. Those kids earned their place in the pantheon, and some day coaches may be telling stories about them; who knows, maybe the same two amazing professionals who matched wits once again, Tuesday. Who knows either, how the race will eventuate, and hey, there’s always round two!!!