You could see it in their eyes – bright and burning with intensity – at times during the night: they believed they could win. Against the predictions, the Lady Jags appeared on the verge of a major breakthrough at home against Vela Tuesday.
Led by some long-suffering seniors who have gone through blood, sweat, and tears to try and resurrect the fortunes of a struggling volleyball program, Econ battled like warriors. Monica Molina and Isabel Arguello led the charge, and for stretches of each set, they were able to give the underdog hope for change.
It didn’t happen, as at the end of the day the Lady SaberCats handed Econ another loss, in straight sets. But the home side held leads in the first and third sets, following a promising but unsuccessful match against Weslaco Sept. 14 in the league opener.
The final 3-0 count in favor of Vela does not tell the tale of effort or reflect the chances the Lady Jags had to grab some glory. It was a contested deal the whole way, as the veterans were able to regroup and keep on hustling. They kept a large crowd on its feet and yelling, showing quality in certain areas, flagging in others. This was not just another loss; it was exciting and entertaining, and for a while there, things looked alright.
“We’re ready to win, but when we got going good, some little thing would happen to bring us down,” said Molina, the gutty setter who is also a catcher in softball. “Little errors here and there. We’re slowly getting there, we just have to stay hungry and humble … today I thought we were going to do it, because I know we can win. It just didn’t happen.”
Vela, expected to compete for the 31-6A title once again, was most likely expecting a walkover, because that has been the pattern in recent seasons against the Lady Jags. It turned out to be a slugfest as Arguello started out active at the net. She and Marixa Zamora would spend the evening trying to slow down the Lady Sabe attack paced by Glenys Maldonado, while Molina’s job was to keep the action going in the right direction in tandem with libero Lori Martinez in back.
This crew did well enough in set one, and a Molina-to-Arguello winner kept the Lady Jags close as the set wore on. Molina toed the service line for a fecund streak and a killer block from Arguello tied it at 20. Then Econ lost a point on a call reversal, and that sort of little thing can be a huge momentum changer for a team fighting to find the winning groove.
Nonetheless, Arguello came through again up top and Martinez hurled herself to the wood to save one. When Vela hit long it was 23-all, game so on. During the late going Econ was a ball of energy, sliding here and jumping there, desperate to win the moment. At the 23-all tie, Azia Rodriguez and Arguello crouched near the net, eyes ablaze with focus. But Maldonado saved the day by scoring after a block of her first try, and Vela had survived, 25-23.
Having earned a reprieve from the upset, Vela came back and played well in the second set, getting Maldonado cranking and also having success with youthful Fey Vazquez at middle blocker. Zamora helped the Lady Jags with some fierce play on the twines but the Lady Sabes launched out to a 19-13 lead. They clinched a 25-17 decision and headed for the sweep.
Coach Christina Soto noted before the match that her Econ team has fought for the duration in a narrow loss to Weslaco, including a great effort in a 28-26 setback for one of the sets.
“We’re close, I think, and in this district the teams are all evenly matched for the most part,” she said. “We just have to find the belief and make the plays.”
For what would be the last set, Econ took advantage of some Vela mistakes to settle in; when senior Andrea Rodriguez came up with a block for point it was 10-10 and the crowd was back into the deal, making noise and hoping that happy times were on the horizon. Econ led 12-10 and achieved a 13-all tie soon after.
But keeping Maldonado down is an errand fraught with great peril and sure enough the powerful senior now started to bang away at the tiring Orange line.
Vela went up 17-13 until Soto’s kids sucked it up for one last valiant run. Again it was Zamora with the positive note as she rose to block, bringing the Lady Jags to within 2. Martinez was serving at this stage and it got to 19-18, Vela.
A measure of how well the underdog played Tuesday was the fact that Vela was coerced into calling three timeouts during the match. Usually it’s Econ forced into the breather, but Tuesday the Lady Sabes needed to stop the action a few times to retool and try and stave off the Orange momentum.
Alas for the East Side, its rival finished off the set, 25-18, roaring to the final six points. Match over, another sweep.
And yet, this one felt different. For the first time in some time, Econ had a real shot, and the girls understood what had transpired.
“We had some confidence today, you could tell,” said a weary Molina afterward. “It’s hard, man, when you know you have some talent, that your team can probably win if it just gets over the hump, stays hungry. Really what we are trying to do is show people that we can do it … that this year is different. We’re gonna keep at it, I’m telling you that.”