August 8, 2023

By Greg Selber

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The striking thing about the start of the latest volleyball season was not the fact that suddenly summer seems to have catapulted through its annual paces at warp speed, for it has, indeed, and welcome to getting older. The more interesting snapshot of North-Vela Tuesday night was how generally solid the play was. Competitive, relatively error-free, the rivals looking in quasi-crisp midseason form for stretches of the opening contest. This said, it was obvious that the girls in question have not been hanging around the house chomping Takis while watching make-up tutorials for the past three months. They been workin’ and it showed.

As for the talents of the two squads, and their potential to make some noise in their respective races in 2023, much may be said. The Lady Cougars, with their tall and imposing frontline, will definitely be a threat in 31-6A this time around, led by the marvelous and ubiquitous Etsel Ramirez, now a senior if one can believe it. Time passes, inexorably. With 6-footer Maya Espinoza back for her swan song campaign as well, Coach Raul McCallum knows that he has the horses at the net to do some damage over the long haul. The Lady Coogs have been a playoff perennial for decades, and this season promises more of the same, most probably. As the team rounds into form the areas of concentration might be on the outside and in the back.

For the Lady SaberCats meanwhile, at first glance the roster seems a tad bare after the graduation of five prominent cogs from last season. However if Tuesday’s performance, a brisk 3-0 sweep of North, is any harbinger of what will eventually be what, expect Coach Celi Ortega’s bunch to be right in the thick of things in the Murderer’s Row which is District 31-5A. While the departed stars – such as Fey Vasquez, Emma Lucio, Emily Gonzalez, to name a few – will be missed, the latest edition of the Blue and Black should be alright. Especially given the fact that Abby Zamora, now a junior, is back in her accustomed hitter role on the wing and appears to be ready to make a substantial impact. Her work as a setter last campaign was very valuable, and now Abby gets a chance to step up and hit.

One key to the team success may be a setter who has grown no fewer than two inches taller since last season, maybe more: Lauren Hanson. She was one of the best kids on the court Tuesday, with sure sets on the run, turns taken outside, and overall, a very significant performance indeed. Up front, 6-1 Danika Verdooren was at times dominant against North, moving gracefully and battling Espinoza consistently to a standstill. Serious war up there. Those Vela vets, plus a gaggle of promising newcomers with some size, will seek to help the program weather the McAllen-Sharyland storm well enough to compete for a playoff spot. Vela missed the playoffs last season despite a 9-9 league mark, a blip on the screen that sports eight postseason trips in 11 seasons.

As stated, the match was sharp, sharper than many past lid-lifters, with the rivals churning through a trio of entertaining sets that were close all the way. That Vela ended up on top is down to its consistency as a group, while North was mercurial, fantastic at times yet given to skeins of service woes at the wrong juncture, such as late in the opening set. Nonetheless, the aggregate on Tuesday was two more than credible squads beginning the trek toward what will come. To borrow a current and trendy weather term regarding the stifling Valley heat: it may have been the first game of the slate, but for all intent and purposes, it “felt like” a November match, such was the quality of the effort from ship to stern.

So summer’s over, sadly, and the games have begun. Fair enough, let’s hit it.


An early salvo from Vela illustrated what Ortega and staff have in mind for 2023, as Verdooren swooped to the net to tip down a pass from Hanson, the latter a part-timer last year who will assuredly be on the hardwood for the duration now. North countered with the strapping Espinoza, who boldly won the net for a point. She and Verdooren promise to be at the fore of their teams’ charge this season as does Zamora, who crashed one deep for a 7-4 Vela lead in set one and then added another strike, this off a sweet set from Hanson, who served it up while on the scoot. She is newly long, sneaky quick, and unerringly accurate.

Came the midsection of the set, Zamora this time assisting to Hanson for a 12-9 advantage. Itati Ramirez of the Lady Coogs then leapt from her mid slot to make a strong block at the net and when Espinoza hammered one to the backline, not even a valiant diving attempt from hustler Ava Tovar of the home side could stop the score. North followed with two faulty serves and Vela took the cue, rising to a 16-12 lead. One note from the opener: not sure what happened, but the teams were dressed in almost identical dark uniforms, making it difficult to sort things out from time to time.

Soon, Berenice Elizondo of North led a Lady Coog rally that made it just 18-17, Vela, until Lady Sabe veteran Gaby Garcia marshaled the rock from the startline with a couple of wavy serves leading to points. Ortega’s girls clinched it, 25-21 as Hanson served with effect and the Lady Sabes withstood a pair of late boo-boos to win the set.

Thus far, North had not quite gotten the elastic E. Ramirez off the mark, but as always, she would come on as the affair ripened. Her sister, Itati, sparked the second set with a clever pop over the net, sidewinder, and then Etsel blistered a punishing spike to get McCallum’s side rolling. At this stage, sophomore Rubi Free was sound with movement, plus precision from the service spot, and North led 9-7. A fine sequence by both sides followed, Verdooren scoring after a spate of taut back-and-forth play, and when Laura Guizar tallied, Vela was in front, 14-12. This season’s libero for North, junior Maddy Guerra, was the next athlete to show what she did last summer, turning in a handful of plays that helped the Lady Cogs hang tough.

It wouldn’t be volleyball without some fun little something every now and again, and the moment arrived late in set two. Both teams imagined that the ball was dead after three hits on one side, but it was not so. As one by one the kids realized that the ball, hanging almost weightlessly in the air, was still in play, they scrambled like splashing ducks on the pond to try and smack it one last time. Whimsical.

The Lady Coogs were to go under, 25-22, thanks to a super diagonal strike, left to right, from Hanson, who again has made great strides in quality as the season begins. But the sets were hotly contested on Tuesday, as we have come to expect from Rivalry Matches, early or later in the calendar.

North was up against it but still, Jesslyn Mora, a sophomore, gave the Old Gold a boost to start set three, serving well, and E. Ramirez, after having given a fiery pep talk in the pre-pop huddle, was fired up and firing for an early North lead. The rivals then exchanged some very smooth moments again, working with alacrity against the foe, in concert with mates. It is well to see such synchronicity so early in the year. When Hanson bravely dug Etsel (as the Lady Sabes did relatively well, considering the considerable talents of the North No. 8), the Lady Coog star reloaded to eventually end a marathon point to the good. The Action!

Now it was time for another newcomer, Ameryss Gonzalez, Vela’s new option on the outside, and she contributed several solid shots in the waning set, showing ample strength. Vela led 9-5 until soph Natalie Avendano of North found the range with a couple of sturdy pops. Later, when Vela faltered in execution, North took advantage to tie matters at 10. Faced with elimination, McCallum’s crew rode a mammoth series of winning blows by Espinoza into a lead at 13-12 until once again, troubles in service cost the visitor.

Gonzalez came up with another heavy hit as Vela surged ahead, E. Ramirez keeping her gang in it with an absolute slay of a perfect pass, 15-15 tie. Down the stretch, though, Zamora provided a dime of great worth, a platter piece that Verdooren crunched through the defense, making it 21-18, home girls. The final blast of the 25-18 winner was made by Savana Rivera of Vela, who along with Sophia Rosales gives the Lady Sabes a pair of lengthy youngsters who may in time develop into steady rotation gals.

Nothing but positives from Tuesday night, as both rivals appear to have the nucleus intact with which to make a serious run for the roses in 2023. Perhaps they will eventually be league partners once again, with UIL realignment still to come, in the spring. Perhaps not. One way or the other, may they continue to schedule each other for years to come, considering the entertainment value, and the worth of preparation, not to mention the familiarity factor.


  1. Derek Rodriguez on Vela SABERCAT team is spelled Derek — not Derrick — but if team is doing well it’s ok !!

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