September 12, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Momentum is everything in volleyball, really. Streaks and stretches back and forth are as much a part of every set as they are of the sport’s so-called Long Game, measured by the season. Just as coaches seek to keep their athletes firing consistently through 25-point sets, avoiding the lows and maximizing the highs, they want their teams to ride steady in district, patiently going about their business yet with drive and ambition. And as for seasons, every coach hopes that the vestiges (or more) of the way they ended the previous season – if indeed it was a quality run – will be present when the new season dawns.
Which brings us out east, where the Lady Jaguars are cranking out a promising campaign so far, in the wake of the program’s breakthrough last year to the postseason, the first such success in nearly a decade.
The latest step along the repeat path came at home Tuesday against a San Perlita squad that brought all sorts of interesting facets to town. The team bus has a message emblazoned for all to see: “It’s Just Better Out Here.” Located out in Willacy County – always the least remembered of the four Valley counties, for whatever reason – the Trojans have been a small school power for years, especially in boys’ basketball. They come from a town with a population of about 600, or roughly the number of people standing, all irritated, in the line at Stripes, waiting for a Q Taco on any given morning. But the roster of 10 included three six-footers, somehow.
It was a spirited session between the non-district foes, Econ carving out a 4-set victory to win for the 11th time in 2023, as the league season’s start date of Sept. 23 arrives with all the speed of a distracted and ancient turtle.
The Lady Jags started the night with a distressing sight, powerful frontliner Nayeli Mendez hobbling around on crutches after a knee injury had felled her in a recent contest. Though everyone was suitably bummed out over this turn of events, Coach Christina Soto noted that despite the setback, her team continues to battle.
“We’ve been fighting through it, it is definitely a blow,” said Soto, now in her 10th season at the helm. “The good thing is, the girls haven’t stopped working, they’re finding a way to keep playing without her.”
Then Soto added the key to the season, beyond the injury to the dynamic senior Mendez.
“The way we finished last year has something to do with it,” she noted. “Getting into the playoffs last season was big for us, and we wanted to see some carry-over effect this season. So far, it’s been there, they’re playing with more confidence; some of the girls were with us last year and that helps, they know how to win games.”
Without the strapping Mendez, Econ still cuts a pretty impressive physical presence out there, as the remaining blockers have some size, the hitters too. The future was on display right away Tuesday as Alessey Rodriguez, a freshman with spring and pop, slipped over a deft lefthanded tip to start the match. Rodriguez has the potential to develop into a top player, and she had stretches of real impact against San Perlita.
Then it was a veteran, multi-sport star Joselin Maldonado, toeing the service line in the first set and delivering low lasers into the San Perlita defense. Her ace up high into the grill of a Lady Trojan made it 6-3. Ensuing was a smash from softball standout Cassandra Vega, fashioned via a pass from setter and captain Aissa Garcia. This had been set up by a solid dig from sophomore Gaby Maldonado. The mesh was there in the early going as the sturdy junior hustler Garcia was putting them where they could be smacked, her teammates working together to gain the upper hand.
Garcia soon gave a highlight, belying her 5-foot height to rise at the net and defeat a much larger San Perlita girl with a clever tip. This play sent the Lady Jags on to a streak of domination that yielded 10 points in a row – J. Maldonado serving – and a 22-10 advantage. During the portion of playoff-quality volleyball, Vega turned in another kill, after a sharp dig by freshman Angela Cano, and Rodriguez whistled a ringing shot for point. One of the kids stepping up to help make up for the loss of Mendez is senior Joselyn Rosas, who killed to the backline late in the set. When the freshman Rodriguez scored an emphatic ace from the startline, Econ was sailing, eventually clinching the first set, 25-13.
Having closed the opener with a 15-4 run, Econ was slightly flat to start the second, as SP established a 6-2 lead with some service success until Rosas feathered down a tip and then rose to defend at net, forcing an errant hit with a brave and perfect leap to distract the Lady Trojan hitter. It was soon tied at 12 after a swat from Vega and a clever side-winded clip at the twines from junior Patty Garcia, a returner from last season’s postseason club who is the roster’s tallest girl, round about 6-0.
San Perlita came back with a run of its own, leading 15-12 before the Orange knotted the second set at 15 following a rejection by Rosas and a return score by senior Kiana Urias. On this year’s list, the Lady Jags have five seniors, three juniors, three freshmen, and a sophomore.
There was no heading the SP charge now, though, as the visitor ripped off a 10-3 spurt to tie the match, a couple of wicked serves from J. Maldonado notwithstanding.
THE KEY JUNCTURE
As Soto integrates new kids with the old, she is working on consistency, and here was a chance for the Lady Jags to regain their composure and continue the march. With Rodriguez and Rosas teaming up to block effectively, Econ took flight, a long spike off a tip hitting home for Rodriguez and a tap score by Rosas fueling the rush. It was 12-5 with Maldonado again serving splendidly, Rodriguez killing well and adding an ace at the service line. Rosas was hot now, contributing a scoring hit and adding a second as the Lady Jags assumed a 16-10 lead. Rosas is quick in a short space and can pound it when she gets it. Garcia was excellent down the stretch of set three and her twin scores, of the crosscourt variety, gave the team a 22-13 lead.
San Perlita, which gave a crisp account of itself for the most part against a way bigger school, then went bananas to try and steal the set, outscoring Econ 8-1 to come close. The Lady Trojans lost a contested point, though, the officials deciding in Orange favor on a very close call, and from there, Soto’s warriors closed it out, the signature blow coming off a huge smash from Vega (G. Maldonado made it possible with a diving dig), and a dagger from Rosas that caromed every which way after touching down, sealing a 25-21 result.
They have played 25 matches now, with Weslaco to come before the 31-6A opener. This one on Tuesday was just another prep game, against a worthy opponent that never backed down and gave the Lady Jags yet more practice on managing a match, coming back from low points, and maximizing their quickness in lieu of the intimidating presence of the injured Mendez. Soto has been told by more than one opposing coach this season that the Lady Jags are fast and quick, and it is so. Garcia is surely a dynamo as setter, motoring around making plays and leading by example. That girl wants to win!
In set four, San Perlita got busy once again, using its size to climb the ladder to a 5-1 lead. The regroup for Econ began with Rodriguez elevating from the left to power one home, and soon it was Urias with an elusive service point; this team exhibited deadly accuracy at the line Tuesday. Rosas and Vega rose together to reject a Lady Trojan hit and when Rosas registered a kill for point, Econ was down 3. Freshman Miranda Aguirre turned in a fine serve to tie it at 12 but the Lady Trojans, determined to stick around a while longer, cruised into the lead again, into the 20s. Promising newcomer Rodriguez, whose lower body strength is impressive, aced the foe with a dirty slider followed by a tip from Vega, who flew in to tap it left to right, flat along the net. Having withstood a fierce San Perlita run, the Lady Jags now led, 20-19, and after another dazzler from Aguirre – her serve went through two opponents and right past another – it was 22-20.
This was an excellent stretch from both sides as San Perlita clawed into ties at 22, 23, and 24 despite a resounding hammer from Vega which caromed off block and into the stands. Vega, a shortstop who clobbers the ball at the plate, is a welcome addition to the volley unit, especially with the loss of Mendez, and she worked with confidence Tuesday. In a relatively error-light match, the Lady Trojans faltered when it counted with a pair of unforced errors, and Soto’s group took advantage, tucking away a 26-24 victory to win the match, three sets to one.
The coach relayed that because San Perlita is far off the beaten path, both geographically and in terms of who plays whom, Tuesday was slightly tricky.
“We didn’t have anything on them, nada, hadn’t seen them,” Soto said, of the Class A squad from out northeast way. “But we just had to keep working and pushing. I think we did a good job of seeing what they had and adjusting it to what we were trying to do. Sometimes it’s that way, if you’re playing a team you don’t see at tournaments or in non-district.”
The coach also reiterated that last season, memorable indeed, has set the table for this one.
“The way we finished up is carrying over, as we hoped,” she commented. “And the new girls know what we accomplished, and they want to be a part of it. They want this team to do the same, and so far, we are getting there, playing with confidence, teamwork. We don’t get down after we get behind, and that mentality will be important for us as we get into district.”