October 15, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Later in the afternoon, after so many interesting moments during the day – some about the volleyball, some not – they put it away. Sam Villalobos elevated to launch a mortar shell into the teeth of the Lady Raiders, emphasizing the point with a clenched fist. A play earlier, when Vela had scored to harness the juice it would need to finish the sweep, the entire oncourt group had done a team spin-around … in relative sync.
There it was at a glance, a Senior Day that was a microcosm of the season; plenty of thrills, ample spirit, some high points, and yet it has not quite been the season everyone had had in mind back in late summer. That the Lady SaberCats went into the match against Pharr North with the same fire they have showed throughout 2022 shouldn’t be surprising. Because Coach Celi Ortega says that despite a difficult time down in 5A among the trees, her girls have competed, taken their shot, and have nothing to regret. She knows that the team will probably miss the playoffs, and that is just not a usual occurrence at Vela.
But Ortega also knows that this, in memory, will be one of her favorite squads. From Emma Lucio’s infectious personality – that’s a herkie, bro, who knew? – to the steady leadership of fellow senior Villalobos, the Vela campaign has been characterized by hard work, good times, unrivaled fellowship, and battles against the odds.
“They are showing growth week by week; the hard part for us was getting to realize what it would take to compete in such a strong district,” Ortega said after the Senior Day festivities had concluded. “But these kids have been great, they push each other in practice, the seniors have been good leaders, and the thing is, they really enjoy being around each other. You don’t always get that with every team, but we have it.”
The straight-sets win against the Lady Raiders, in the grand scheme of things, is not meaningful past what it was. The big dogs in 15-5A are high and mighty in the standings while Vela and Pharr North have had to hustle to keep the pace. But Saturday was not just a win or loss; it was more a celebration of sorts.
It started in the pregame, when each of the girls who have put in the years got their chance for honor before the home crowd. Always interesting to see kids and their parents. “Wow, she looks just like her mom,” sort of thing. Fey Vazquez’ mom, que chiquita, 14 height comes from the other genetic line. Everyone seemed to be happy, regardless of the standings, and some teams cannot pull that off, poise under adversity, the ability to get the most out of the experience, one way or another.
Then, in warmups, Lucio was fooling around, trying to bump the ball into the basketball net, of course, with teammate Lauren Hanson assisting. Hanson scored one first, for the archives, but the girls laughed, joked, and did not feel an iota of pressure. Savor the moment, because it doesn’t last forever.
During the match, more lighthearted horseplay, enough to elicit giggles and smiles but not enough to influence the course of the action itself. You like your team to be loose, confident, without being silly or complacent, and Ortega’s crew has achieved that balance. They’ve fought the wars with pride. And shared many smiles.
“And we have had so many close games, like Rowe recently,” Ortega admitted. “We have a tendency to start slow, then pick it up. But sometimes we haven’t finished like we should, and in close games against the best, you have to start, keep it going, and finish. We’ve shown that at times, but again, in our district, take one play off and you’re going to pay for it.”
Still, despite the obstacles of 2022, Ortega knows that her kids have given 110 percent, and she hopes the lessons the seniors learned along the way will pay off for them down the line. She also thinks that the returning girls for 2023 will benefit from having been part of a program that takes its volley seriously, and always comes to win. The seniors have wanted the W’s just as badly as the coaches; it just hasn’t always gone their way. Lesson: never give in, keep working. Defeat, temporary.
TIME FOR A WIN
Villalobos, who has as much experience and as many accomplishments as anyone around, started the home match well with a smash off a Lady Raider and then another. PN was hanging tough, and is in a similar boat, adrift in a district sea full of battleships from McAllen and Mission. Vela was up 14-10 when a terrific sequence got the fans going. Sophomore Ava Tovar, one of the kids Ortega will count on for next season, rolled twice to deftly dig despite difficulty, and Villalobos combined with underclassmen Danika Verdooren for a block score.
It was a bit hard to tell what was happening at first Saturday, as both teams came out in black; the Lady Raiders donned black kneepads while Vela wore white, and that helped, thanks. But it was easy to identify Lucio out there because nobody in attendance was quite the athlete she is. Lucio made it 21-12 with a patented move. Rising up with force – to hit – she then paused in midair (somehow), waiting for the exact instant, and clipped a soft and sure tip for the point. Body control. Suckahs!
As Ortega suggested they have done, Vela had come on midway into the set, only to have trouble ending it, as North went on an 8-3 run to get close. But a hit from senior Dayanne Ramos – herself a fantastic athlete – got the job done, and at 25-20, Vela was up 1-0. Vazquez and Villalobos would each sneak over to the back row a few times Saturday, and had a blast switching up the usuals and getting a new look at the flow.
North was as North is, scrappy, and the Lady Raiders were intent on coming back after the first set. But with Lucio killing (from Abby Zamora, another of the returners who will be vital in ’23) and Ramos tallying again, the Lady Sabes were in shape. Still, it was a narrow margin, the home siders slapping hands with zest – each pair of girls has its own hand jive routine – and urging each other on. Ramos provided a highlight when she ran out of bounds and thrust an arm upward as she twisted, sending the ball back past her and right into hitting position (!).
Up 4, Vela rolled through, with Vazquez scoring and adding a quick boogie off one leg. Verdooren, the centerpiece of next year’s frontline, banged one to the right corner off a fab backset from Hanson to make it 22-15. The Blue and Black finished up in order, 25-15, Villalobos pounding a couple of winners, the second from the tallish Hanson.
You have to watch closely with some teams for signs of enthusiasm or hijinx, but to Vela, it comes easy. Lucio, as expected, is the ringleader, a Special One with enormous energy and a playfulness that comes wrapped around a bona fide mean streak. She would’ve made a great cheerleader, one bets, and against Pharr North she was doing cheer stuff every now and then, cracking everyone up, including herself. Fellow senior Alexa Trevino too; she actually must have been a cheerleader at some point, because she has all the movements down pat.
In the huddle before set three, a trio of seniors stood and listened to Ortega. Emily Gonzalez, Villalobos, and Vazquez, and they knew. They knew this was one of the last home matches of their life. They knew that some day they would really miss all this, despite many great things to come in their futures. How many times has this group done same, huddle up, regroup, get back at it. Fight. Seems like it will never be over. But it will.
Gonzalez commenced the clincher with a vicious slam via Lucio, but North was prideful under coach Lisa Lancaster, whose famous parents were in the house to watch the former EHS slugger at work. The Blackshirts (from North) clipped out to a decent lead of five points until Vela got busy again. Lucio’s tricky floater was a catalyst with Gonzalez zinging her line-drive serves into a rattled backline. When Ramos popped one deep and Vazquez followed with a lithe two-handed putdown at net, Vela was ahead. But the visitor climbed back into the ad, 15-14, on a competitive day of volleyball all told. Villalobos tied it with a heavy drill but the Lady Sabes were down 18-15, soon after.
Microcosm of a season. Finish this. And they did, as Lucio hung around again, airborne, while the defense finished its rotation move, got soft, and found itself out of step with the tip. Maddening, unless you’re Lucio’s Vela. Villalobos pawed one down with venom for a 22-18 advantage and after a nasty smack from Vazquez, Vela had wrapped it up.
So this was not quite the season they had in mind, true. It’s been harder than expected to stay alive in a league full of club-rich programs that almost always make the grade in style. Vela has taken care of the lesser grebes in district but has not been able to get over the higher hump of upsets against the leaders. But the seniors have left it all out there, done their best to learn, improve, and their coaches are most satisfied with the effort.
After the match, Villalobos echoed many of Ortega’s words, and added some of her own.
“We have had some really close games, it’s true,” she said. “We knew it was going to be tough, but we’re giving it our best. Today, and from here on, we just want to enjoy the experience. We’ve only got a few games left. I think it’s really important for us to enjoy being together and competing as a team. We know we have fought for every game this season and we’re proud of what we have been able to do.”