Expecting a little of the Big Head from the Lady Jags, now that they have carved out a solid hold on second place in District 31-5A? One might be surprised.
Two games into the match Tuesday at home, and two games to the good against a cellar-dwelling Pharr North outfit. But instead of fooling around, the Econ girls were in their positions and chomping at the bit, while the Lady Raiders lollygagged in the team huddle. Almost a minute to go before Game Three, and the Lady Jags wanted blood.
They would go on to sweep North with a 14-2 start, eventually winning 25-18 to clinch their seventh victory in eight league tries. This is not a team that loses focus; at least not for long, anyway.
Coach Celi Rios-Ortega, who is looking for a fourth straight playoff appearance, can say that her squad is dedicated to having a great season. With a bunch of underclass stars surrounded by a trio of seasoned seniors, the Orange is on a roll in 2009, with just a heartbreaking, 5-set loss to league leader Harlingen South on the negative side of the ledger.
“We are not all the way there yet, but we’re getting there,” said the coach, who can count on 12th-graders Lory Martinez, Val Perez, and Daniella Gaytan to set the pace. “We have had our ups and downs but for the most part the girls have been pretty consistent.”
A recent win against Edinburg North illustrated the team’s mental toughness, as the Lady Jags lost the first two only to zoom from behind to close out the Lady Cougars in five grueling rounds. With junior hitting star Kayla Silva iffy with a shoulder injury and Perez saddled with the flu, the rest of the crew came to the fore with a gutty effort.
“We’ve been to five game three times in district, and won two,” Rios-Ortega noted. “I am proud of these kids. We always expect the best from them and to be where they are, with the record we have, says a lot about them. They trust each other to come up with the big play when we need it.”
Rios-Ortega said that she kept waiting for the unit to click against North, and it finally did, putting a two-game cushion between itself and the Lady Coogs, long-time city rivals.
“I said, ‘We’ll find it, we’ll find it’ and we just didn’t at the start,” she laughed, in mock frustration, hindsight. “But in the end, they did it, they found a way to win. And the good thing is, my senior leaders have shown the young ones how to do it, and so next year is looking good…the kids who are coming back seem to be on track.”
Obviously, the frontline duo of Silva and freshman Leigha Brown has been at the center of the success this year; both are talented athletes who can take over a match, and did so Tuesday, alternating with dominant scoring runs as the Lady Jags (18-6 overall) wasted a winless Pharr North group.
But the seniors, whose names do not often appear in lights, are the backbone of the charge. Martinez, a tiny hitter who can sky to the net, is a quiet killer.
“Lory thinks she is a giant, and that’s all that matters,” said her coach of the 5-foot-3 popper. ‘She is a lion in her mind and when she gets up there, she puts such good topspin on the ball. It may barely get over the net but it’s hard to handle when she hits it.”
Perez is the libero, and a three-year starter like teammate Martinez. She is gritty and dependable, and has learned to be where the hit falls without fail. Perez had 17 digs and 25 service points Tuesday.
“Lory and Val are so smart, they know what we need to do to be successful, they work hard, and they never complain,” said Rios-Ortega, smiling widely. “I am going to miss those two next year.”
Then there’s Gaytan, a wide-body presence in the middle who rises to block with deceptive quickness and can score with either hand up top. She is also a steadying force with a lot of fire, and the outstanding Brown (17 total blocks Tuesday) seems to be watching how she handles the big-game pressure.
Econ played without setter Lexi Barreiro in its most recent outing, but transfer Kayla Longoria, a strong-legged little junior, filled in nicely. As the girls took control in Game Two, Longoria fed Silva (15 total kills) four times in a row for scoring hits, and she is getting sharper with every outing.
The Lady Jags took the second match, 25-19, after a super sequence from setter Britany Curiel, who set up Silva and Brown with a half-dozen assists in the game. Curiel won’t win any track meets, but like Gaytan seems to be in the right place at the right time. She had 20 assists and served 17 winners against the Lady Raiders.
Another kid who has contributed to the great 31-5A record is Kayla Number Three, junior Kayla Banda, an outside hitter who can score if given the chance. She is just learning how to hit at the apex of her leap, as Silva has done in transition from her sophomore to junior season, and Banda’s tricky slaps have found a home on the floor of the Lady Jag gym this fall.
Banda started the night off against the Lady Raiders with a kill and a service ace, and later added another scoring hit and ace to make it 14-13, Econ. As North hung tough, Banda made a key feed to Silva, who powered one home for a 22-16 bulge that held up for a 25-18 win when Brown finished with a flourish, scoring three times in a row.
So it is a nice mix of veterans and newcomers and as the Lady Jags head to the stretch run, there are scant few of the kind of extended breakdowns that plagued the unit in last year’s up-and-down campaign. This team isn’t invincible, but it is indefatigable and will never give up, or in.
“Like I said, the seniors are training the younger kids on how to react to pressure, how to practice, and how to win,” Rios-Ortega repeated. “This team has come together real well so far this season.”
NOTES: The Lady Jags lost for the first time in six games Saturday, to undefeated Harlingen South. EHS knocked off Harlingen while North was losing to suddenly resurgent P-SJ-A, leaving the Lady Bobcats and Lady Coogs tied for third with 5-4 marks in district.