The race for the volleyball crown in District 31-5A is looking like the same one-horse race, as Harlingen South has been dominant all year, as usual. But the Econ Lady Jags made a big statement Tuesday at home, taking the Lady Hawks to the wire before losing in five sets.
It was the first time in over a month that South (2-0 after the win) had been extended, and with a top-shelf effort, Econ (1-1) showed it is going to be a force in the league. Junior Kayla Silva was the star of the night for the Lady Jags, scoring regularly and playing finely tuned ball; long the school’s best prospect in several sports, the smooth Silva is beginning to come on, with a vengeance.
So after the narrow loss Tuesday, in which the Lady Jags rallied from two sets down to win twice and force a clincher, it’s no wonder that she was despondent. After the 15-11 decision went South’s way on yet another killer slam down the stretch from superstar Joslynn Benavidez, Silva’s eyed filed with tears. She stood aside from the postgame team huddle until teammate Danielle Gaytan gently guided her into the circle. It was that tough a loss, a night where the Orange got off the mat and gave a terrific performance, only to come up empty against a bitter rival.
Coach Celi-Rios Ortega understood, saying that her junior comer was just upset after coming so close.
“We all are, we’re getting tired of being so close to beating that team,” said the coach, whose bunch was 11-5 overall with the loss. “But I am very proud of the girls, they gave it their best. We knew coming in that this was going to be difficult; we wanted to see what level we were at, against the best. Kayla is a competitor, and she wanted to win this game badly.”
Early on, with the Lady Hawks coming at them hard from all angles, the Lady Jags could not compete. Steve Lunsford’s team is deep and fluid, with multiple hitting options besides Benavidez, who was a wrecking crew unto herself with 25 kills. The Lady Jags hung in there with their seasoned group paced by seniors Lory Martinez and Val Perez. They got to within one on a push score by newcomer Britany Curiel, 10-9, but South, passing perfectly and never missing a chance at the kill, forged a 15-11 advantage.
Silva scored twice to rally her mates but Benavides answered three times in a row. Silva countered, rising above the pack for a block and it was a 3-point game at 23-20, but South ended it with a 25-20 victory.
In their long reign as the Valley’s top volley outfit, the Lady Hawks have always risen to the occasion against top competition, and since the Lady Jags had been picked by most observers as a strong second this season, this matchup had all the flavor of the playoff game.
South charged out to a 9-4 lead in Game Two, with Econ freshman Leigha Brown held in check by the fine front line of the visitor. Though she is one of the top prospects in the region, Brown was hit-or-miss Tuesday, looking every bit of her 9th-grade status at times. But she did enjoy some stellar moments, and the night was a super learning experience in pressure volleyball despite the outcome.
The Lady Hawks continued to dominate the night, winning the second game 25-17, and preparing for the sweep. When they got out to a 9-5 bulge in Game Three, it looked bad for the home side.
However, that’s when the Lady Jags cranked it up a notch, illustrating that they are not going to be dismissed lightly, even by the elite clubs. Brown leapt high to deny Benavidez at the net with an emphatic block and then she scored on a slam through a block. After South mishit, it was 9-9, with the momentum turning.
Gaytan was the catalyst, patrolling the net with intensity and finally finding blocking range opposite the cavalcade of Lady Hawk bangers.
Silva tipped one home between two defenders and then scored with a healthy hammer to tie it at 14. After having had the Lady Jags on their heels throughout the first two games, South now began to bunch up in the serve-and-volley game, running into each other and mis-communicating, much to the chagrin of Lunsford, who let his team have it from the wings.
Econ reeled off five in a row as Silva and Gaytan hit the deck for saves and Amanda Duran committed two errors for South. Perez dug Benavidez well and Gaytan elevated to stuff Sydney Herrera for a 17-16 lead.
From there it was all Orange as Brown came to the fore with two kills and two blocks; all of a sudden, she was not a freshman anymore, and Econ rode her slender shoulders to a 25-20 decision. From a 14-11 hole, the homers had outscored their foe 14-6 for the W.
Momentum is always at a premium in this sport and now it was solidly in the Lady Jags’ corner. With Silva starring again, they raced out to a lead in Game Four, Brown feeling the groove with a block and a dagger down to the floor. Silva jumped high to complete a tip score, and though the play is her specialty, she has also begun to hit hard at the apex with regularity.
Gaytan dived to her belly to save one, somehow sending a perfect pass skyward for Silva, who ranged over to help and ended up redirecting in a heartbeat to sky for the kill; it was a huge play embodying the type of hustle and athleticism the team can muster.
South was still having trouble talking, and without good passes for Benavidez, the Lady Hawks looked decidedly ordinary in Game Four. At 19-12, Lunsford called timeout amid a deafening roar from the home crowd. Econ finished it up, 25-18, with Martinez selling out twice to keep the ball alive and Perez standing like a soldier under fire in the face of a withering pair of slams from Benavidez; she dug both. The program knows that though Perez lacks footspeed, she more than makes up for it with practiced timing and undeniable guts.
Now it was time for the denouement, with the Lady Hawks tested for the first time since some early tournament action and the Lady Jags seeking a win against the queen for the first time in a number of years.
Perez went down to dig, and Silva converted, again between two defenders with her impeccable knack for the clever dink. But Benavidez is not the Valley’s best for nothing, and she quickly regained the edge with authoritative bombs on three straight sequences. This was the telling juncture.
The plentiful South fans in attendance then got very loud, sensing the outcome, and making a frightful racket during a timeout.
Brown tallied in the clutch and the Lady Jag D forced two errors, to make it just 9-7. But that was the high tide, as the Lady Hawks performed like the title team it hopes to be once again with a powerful surge to close it out, 15-11.
Afterward, Rios-Ortega sighed heavily, saying that one of these days, it’s going to happen for her girls. She also noted that with the raucous crowd behind them, the Lady Jags seem to feed off the intensity and Tuesday were able to climb back into it.
“It seems to put a push into us when it’s like that,” she explained. “We still have to work on some of the little things…we were so close!! They played great tonight, after a bad start, and I think we have a chance to beat South the next time we play.”