EDINBURG — As the fourth set neared its end and the crowd grew louder and louder until it reached a fevered pitch, the Edinburg Vela SaberCats found themselves in a familiar spot.
Again they were faced with the tough task of fending off a hard-charging Edinburg High Bobcats squad to hold on to the set before it slipped away. That’s when senior outside hitter Glenys Maldonado kicked it up a notch.
She laid out to make several digs on key defensive plays, set her teammates and pounded away at the opposing defense. On the match point, she fired a kill that was volleyed back over the net, saved it from crashing to the ground and rose up at the front left corner of the net to deliver a thundering exclamation point to seal the match, as Edinburg Vela escaped with a 22-25, 25-17, 25-19, 25-21 victory over Edinburg High on Tuesday night at Edinburg Vela High School.
“Being a sister school, we knew it was going to be a big game,” Vela head coach Araceli Ortega said. “We knew that fans were going to come out, and I’m proud of my girls for finishing because we knew if we didn’t take care of it there we were going to end up in another (fifth) set.”
It was the third consecutive set in which the SaberCats had staved off a late Bobcats’ rally, and Maldonado took the lead in all three.
She tallied the set-clinching kill to close the second and helped deliver two critical points — one on a powerful kill, the other by wisely letting an incoming ball sail just inches over the backline — to pull out the win in the third.
For the normally loose Maldonado, everything changes once winning time arrives.
“This probably sounds crazy, but my mentality is ‘no mercy, no mercy.’ As soon as we put one down, we need to keep putting and putting; we cannot give the other team a little bit of hope because that’s when the momentum changes and you don’t know where the game is going to go after that,” she said. “Once you have that momentum, you’ve got to hold on to it and keep pounding and pounding and pounding. Keep changing the ball around, whatever you have to do to put that bomb on the floor on the other side.”
Early on in the evening, the Bobcats tried to neutralize Maldonado’s hard-hitting by blanketing her with defenders at the net, a strategy that was anticipated by the SaberCats and noticed quickly by Maldonado.
“They were going to have to come play smart and they were trying to take Glenys out of the game,” Ortega said. “We knew that and she knew that going into it, but that’s just the name of the game.”
It was a strategy that initially paid off for Edinburg High, as the team was able to limit Vela’s offensive firepower enough to jump out to a narrow first set win. But Maldonado quickly adjusted.
“They were on me! If the set was in front of me, I had to read my peripheral vision and see where they were at,” Maldonado said. “If I saw them over here, I had to take the angle or the line. If I saw them take away the line, I had to go the opposite way at an angle. Also, my teammates did awesome covering my back and it was really great.”
The offensive tweaks allowed the SaberCats to hang with the Bobcats point-for-point in the early going of the next three sets. But Vela began to accommodate for the defensive focus placed on its star outside hitter by leveling Edinburg High with well-placed tips, a tactic that was used against the home team early.
Danna Cantu, Hannah Larsen and Fey Vasquez all played critical roles in opening up the SaberCats’ offense with those strategic tips.
“I think the other team started off doing a little bit of that, keeping us guessing,” Ortega said. “It threw us off a little bit there in that first game and we were able to adjust. We were able to give a little bit of that back and I think it helped because our offense was able to move around.”
That freed up Maldonado to make an impact and start pounding away, which she did to the tune of 20 kills. Whatever the Bobcats threw at her, she seemed to find a way around.
“Glenys is a very talented hitter. She’s experienced, she’s been on varsity for what seems like forever and she was recognized this evening because of her accomplishments,” Edinburg High head coach Deanna Dominguez said. “She’s the type of hitter who can hit around a block. She’s up in the air looking for opportunities. You’re going to try to stop her one way and she’s going to find another.”
For the Bobcats, it was a well-played match despite the loss. Freshman middle blocker Natalie Hernandez was the star for Edinburg High in her first appearance against the SaberCats, tallying a team-high 16 kills, seven blocks and five digs.
Middle blocker Zarina Rodriguez and libero Hannah Vega also played exceptionally well. Rodriguez finished the night with 22 blocks and 12 kills, while Vega recorded 40 digs and four kills.
“We’re a very young team,” Dominguez said. “Our middle (Natalie Hernandez) is only a freshman, so we expect great things from her. Even though we lost this game, I still saw improvement and that’s all I can ask for.”
On the other sideline, the SaberCats were just happy to escape with a win in front of a friendly crowd and stay undefeated atop District 31-6A, for now.
“This one we needed to have because we know that when we go over there, everybody is going to be improved and everybody is going to have film,” Ortega said.