Celi Ortega says her Vela girls have grown up a ton during the arduous volleyball season. Deanna Dominguez notes that she likes her group of Lady Bobcats, a bunch of “good soldiers,” as she calls them.

Saturday, the Lady SaberCats showed their maturity with a steady performance against a gutty EHS squad that welcomed the battle, as its coach predicted. In the end, Vela swept ever closer to an undisputed District 31-6A title by beating the Lady ‘Cats in four sets, but it was a bona fide brawl all the way.

Vela (10-1) rode the perennial exploits of Glenys Maldonado to the victory, overcoming a terrific afternoon from EHS (8-3), which rallied back from deficits consistently and made the Lady Sabes work for every point on a riveting afternoon of net action.

“It’s always hard,” Ortega grinned after the Lady Sabes got out to a 2-0 edge, lost the third, and finished off the win in set four, 25-21 on three straight bombs from Maldonado. “It was always going to be a battle, we knew that. Who was going to make fewer errors, and who was going to give more when the real points were on the line?”

That team was Vela, barely, as EHS refused to die on the vine or give up a 5-game winning streak without a fight. Every time the visitor appeared to be in the clear, up came Kristen Salinas with a dive or set, or on came Bryhane Salinas with a hot hit. Dominguez says that all the girls have contributed at some point in the campaign and that’s one of the reasons the team has been able to compete for the title this season despite losing their best player to transfer weeks before it all began.

But Vela did indeed earn this one, a share of the crown for now, illustrating that it has the best team in town, although the Lady Sabes still have to take care of business, Tuesday against Weslaco East at home. That’s because North (9-2) still has designs on taking a share of the crown. The Lady Cougars are at Weslaco Tuesday to finish and are the only crew to defeat Vela in league play.

“We lost at the end last year, ended up tied, and I think the girls didn’t want that to happen again,” Ortega commented.

 

GETTING IT ON

It was typical Rivalry Game atmosphere Saturday, with a loud crowd and some fired up kids; this is the type of game they all dream about playing in.

Vela lived the dream best early, rocketing out to an 11-4 lead before EHS got its sea legs underneath. Bryhane Salinas was on her game to bring the home side back and the Lady ‘Cats closed to within three on an ace from Julissah Santa Maria.

However, the Lady Sabes surged again, running out to another 7-point advantage after a couple of tips from Hannah Larsen. It was still seven at 22-15 when Salinas killed one and young Arianna Guerra aced from the service line. The Lady ‘Cats climbed close at 23-22, Vela, before Maldonado knuckled a winner for the 25-22 count.

For set two Vela cruised fast, going up 11-4 again as Maldonado provided three straight aces at the line, swerving curves that arched down hard, right to left. But back came EHS with Zarina Rodriguez slapping a series of winners. She and Salinas each killed effectively and it was just, 13-11, Vela. But from there Vela showed the poise Ortega has been talking about, displaying not panic but fortitude in the clutch. The Lady Sabes maintained a 4-to-5-point cushion the rest of the way until EHS made its final move. Freshman Natalie Hernandez shot one for a point and then hit another, and it was 24-22, Lady Sabes. Hernandez owned the match at this stage and soon tied it at 24, only to see Gaby Avila set up Maldonado for a pounder, and soon it was 2-0, visitor, at 26-24.

Faced with elimination, the Lady ‘Cats responded with a solid start, Rodriguez tipping two winners, Hannah Vega serving expertly, and Hernandez doing what most do not: rejecting the high-flying Maldonado at net.

It got to 12-6, EHS but Maldonado spurred a furious rally with five kills in no time, the last making it 14-12, home girls. Here, another fabulous freshman made her presence felt; Sam Villalobos joined the Vela roster a few weeks back and there is little doubt that the 5-10 newcomer is going to be something. She clobbered through block to tie it at 15, and the Lady Bobcats were going to need some heroics. They came from Celeste del Villar, who now tallied twice to get her team the mojo back. With Vega again serving to good result, EHS assumed command and finished off a 25-21 win for set three with Kristen Salinas hitting the deck three times and Bryhane Salinas ending it with a good smack.

It was a heckuva match to watch, for sure, and now Vela went at it to try and conclude a 4-set win. They led most of the beginning stretch with Maldonado percolating and Villalobos again scoring with a nasty swat. It was 9-5, Vela before EHS rallied into a 10-9 advantage aided by a terrific dig by Guerra and some nice defensive work at net.

But Maldonado, always so vital, rebounded to bring her mates onward and her vicious kill made it 14-13, Blue and Black. As the crowd (and the players) high-stepped to ”Footloose” during a break, the prize was hanging in the air. Freshman Fey Vasquez danced to a big strike to make it 21-20, Vela but Hernandez kept the Lady ‘Cats alive with an equally strong move.

Then came Maldonado’s closing valedictory address, one from left to right and another from right to left. Her third straight kill ended the day with Vela now just a single victory away from the solo championship that was so elusive a year ago.