October 18, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Tuesday’s home defeat against P-SJ-A was a tough one for the Lady Cougars, because they came out very strong in winning the first set, competed well in the second before losing, and had a 20-12 lead in the third before fading down the stretch, dropping that and the final set. The defeat means North will be 6-2 heading into Saturday’s showdown with EHS, which is also 6-2 after walloping La Joya Tuesday. The first match between these two produced a monumental struggle, one of a series of five-set marathons that the city girls have engaged in during the 2022 run. The Lady Bears, now 8-0, will have to get past EHS down the road but look set to claim the District 31-6A title, barring an unforeseen collapse.
Meanwhile, EHS and North will probably play for second, and this season, the difference between that and third is fairly significant. Third seed will get you a bi-district tilt with Brownsville Rivera, a solid unit but not one the locals haven’t beaten this season (2-2 in four tries). However, dropping to third in 31-6A will be real trouble; Harlingen or Los Fresnos will be the foe, and either will be a handful for the Upper Valley contestant. The Lady Cards beat Los Fresnos early but slipped up against Rivera, and the smart money is on the Lady Falcons to capture the upcoming rematch against Harlingen. Los Fresnos is ranked in the state top 25 and has been excellent for a decade or more, compiling a 78 percent winning percentage overall since 2013, with a magnificent 90 percent success rate in district over that span.
Both North and EHS are seasoned now after more than 30 matches. The Lady Bobcats, 24-10 overall, have won three in a row since consecutive losses to North and to P-SJ-A, both in five sets. The Lady Cougars 22-10 all told, also lost to the Lady Bears in the maximum minutes during the first round and saw a three-game win streak snapped in the rematch Tuesday; North had whipped Econ, La Joya, and Mission in preps for the showdown, and for a while, it looked like Coach Raul McCallum’s team would be tied for first place.
It was the tail end of the first chilly day in ages, and fans came attired in requisite Uggs, hoodies, and even a few in matching PJs (too cute!). All saw a hotly contested match that North seized ahold of off the bat with some truly powerful hitting. But gradually, P-SJ-A started to locate the trees, move around, keep almost every ball up and alive, and soon had its hitting game clicking as well. In the end, the Lady Bears and their raucous rooters, chanting “Let’s Go, Bears!” on many occasions, carried the day, leaving the Lady Coogs in a must-win situation on Saturday, at EHS. As parsed, winner will most likely be No. 2, in against No. 3 from 32-6A; the non-winner would be No. 3, and thus get the difficult No. 2 from the Lower Valley. EHS-Lady Bears on the season’s final day, Tuesday, will determine the whole bag of marbles for good
A PRESSURE-PACKED AFFAIR
In the beginning Tuesday, sophomore Maya Espinoza was on the mark, notching five scoring plays and leading North into a lead. But the visitor rallied back, taking a 16-15 advantage in the first set before junior Etsel Ramirez found some space for back to-back kills. Pharr did not bring the tallest crew to town, but it’s a springy and athletic bunch, and as stated, the unit quickness in back was outstanding.
Ramirez flipped one to the middle for an 18-18 tie and then freshman Natalie Avendano came up with a money dig, leading to a Ramirez pop off block, followed by another ringing point off the D from North’s heart and soul, Ramirez. When Espinoza’s hit curved down and away from the defense like a slider, McCallum’s girls were up, 22-20, and the finish was provided by senior Gaia Benesperi, who drove two stakes through the heart of the Lady Bear defense. When senior Abri Cubriel scored to end it, North was up, 1-0, after a 25-22 success.
KEEP THE BEAT
Ramirez was on a roll now, hitting one off the defense so hard that the ball caromed away, far off the court. But the Lady Bears were playing equally well, and soon led, 10-7. The visitor zoomed ahead until it was 19-13, North misfiring now – and getting blocked more than it had during the first set – in the wake of positional changes employed by the Lady Bears.
Though Benesperi authored a massive crash and added two more sharp scoring plays, P-SJ-A sailed onward until a late North surge. Cubriel yanked one down the line to cut the margin to 3 at 23-20 but then a costly net violation short-circuited the charge. North answered with a Ramirez rocket but another untimely cord violation ended it, 25-22, to tie the match.
Now the all-important third set, and off to the races ran the Lady Coogs, compiling six straight points to start it with sophomore Berenice Elizondo scoring and Ramirez showing she’s a second-chance kid at times: when the quicksilver Lady Bear libero dug one of her drives, Ramirez recovered during the sequence to hit again, this time for the floor. With a quick twist of her shoulders, Stephany Kotzur set Ramirez next, leading to a vicious right-to-left slam for the 6-0 lead.
However, the Lady Bears got their form back, exploiting the scrambling ENHS back row for several positive swats and cutting the edge to 2 at 10-8. Espinoza answered with a ping to the left corner and then smacked hard to score after sophomore Cassandra Pedraza’s nice saving wing. After Benesperi crushed one off the defense and the ball landed in the bleachers, North led by 6, and the ad would grow to 8 at 20-12 after a Ramirez dig set up an Espinoza missile, followed by two Benesperi pounds; that Italian stallion had some marvelous stretches of play Tuesday.
But at this vital stage the home side was unable to press the advantage, and saw the set slowly slip away. As P-SJ-A scored six in a row, only a single point came from a Lady Bear attack; the rest were down to lapses by the Lady Coogs. Nonetheless, McCallum’s crew kept fighting, and would extend the set to extras. From 22-18, North, the foe rushed forward to tie it at 22 and 23 and took advantage of two North miscues to lead, 25-24. Facing defeat, the Lady Coogs survived when Espinoza plopped a winner after a North hit had been rejected at net. When P-SJ-A went ahead, 26-25 it was Ramirez notching for the tie. Maybe the Key Juncture would see the Old Gold triumphant. But to finish a 16-6 advance, the Lady Bears tucked it away, 28-26, and a golden opportunity had vanished in the night.
The fourth and final set was anticlimax as the Osos rode their momentum to a 5-0 lead and were never headed, winning 25-14 to remain undefeated in league play. For North it was a bitter pill, as it had played well enough at times to win the match. What’s done is done, though, and now on to the Rematch with EHS, and this one will really count; neither school wants to drop to third place and face the prospect of a more difficult bi-district task. Although they’re all tough in the playoffs, essentially.
The first time EHS-North went down, it was an Instant Classic, and now the second awaits.