The tone was set from the beginning, as the teams pounded each other from the opening tip amid a hothouse atmosphere at EHS Friday night.

As always, the Lady Bobcats took their cue from junior leader Jayla Santa Maria, rising from an early deficit and a trying first half to humble visiting North, 57-30. Now 5-0 in 31-6A, the Lady ‘Cats surged behind the all-around excellence of Santa Maria, who finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Though she had struggled somewhat the past few games, Santa Maria never batted an eye heading into the Rivalry Game.

“I didn’t play very well at all against Memorial,” she said, in reference to a recent win over a pesky P-SJ-A Memorial squad. “I couldn’t really find my way that night. But the past is the past, that’s the way I look at it. I just come back and try it again and it usually works out.”

EHS, facing a determined North crew, fell behind as Tilly Villarreal sank a three-pointer and the Lady Coogs’ pressure defense forced the foe into some miscues with the ball. With Mercedes Hernandez in foul trouble early, things were looking iffy for Coach J.D. Salinas’ girls.

But with Natalie Roxburgh in Beast Mode (13 rebounds, a very sound defensive game) and Jenessah Santa Maria scoring five in the second, the Lady Bobcats got their bearings. By the time Jayla knocked in a buzzer-beating three (it was thus ruled, though many felt it was late) it was 24-18, EHS at the half.

From there, Jayla helped Rox rule the boards (EHS plus-11 in rebounds), and the home side rolled to a 21-point margin in the second half. The final count of 57-30 belies the struggles that EHS had to go through against a North team that was ready rock and sock Friday.

The Lady Coogs, averaging 56 ppg through the first four ball games, had trouble making shots, and part of that had to do with defense from EHS, which has yielded just 36 ppg so far in 31-6A. Roxburgh and fellow senior Emily Acosta noted that though the team might go through stretches of problematic play, it always seems to come up to snuff when necessary.

Salinas agreed, saying that with the experience EHS has, he expects the girls to help coach themselves, in-game.

“They know, they always know when they’re not playing well,” said Salinas, whose club now has 21 overall wins. “They don’t have to be told, so we just try and light a fire under them and they take it from there. Tonight they responded to an early challenge.”

The seniors suggest that this is because they stay positive.

“We always try to talk each other up, keep our spirits high,” said Roxburgh, a peppery whirling dervish who obviously takes great joy from the physicality of the game. “Because when we need to turn it on, we have to stay together to make that happen.”

North held its own in the physicality department as Fernie Olvera banged for eight rebounds, while senior Tiff Chapa tossed in a dozen points, a few days after having set a career high with 31 points against Econ. Freshman Leslie Martinez canned a pair of threes in the third period but those were the only points her team managed in the eight-minute span after the half.

By then, Jayla was dominating at both ends, scoring 16 with seven boards after the break. Hernandez returned to favor with 11 of her 14 points after intermission. Earlier, 6-2 freshman Bri Sanchez had shown her upside with four boards and a block.

Neither team shot well from the line, with North going 4 for 15 and EHS 15 for 33. But the 33 attempts by the home side shows the aggression with which the Lady ‘Cats played. Acosta chipped in with seven rebounds and a flawless floor game, and her defense helped kept the North backcourt off balance for the duration.

It was a real war with tempers flaring and a huge crowd firing on all cylinders, heating up a night when the temperature plummeted to the high 30s, a bitter wind slicing through the air outside.