EDINBURG — Edinburg Vela senior outside hitter Glenys Maldonado and the SaberCats paced back onto the court needing to defend a slim lead toward the tail end of the fourth set.
Edinburg High delivered the opening serve, and the SaberCats and Bobcats battled back and forth in a lengthy rally. Maldonado then elevated along the left side of the net and delivered a spike that was too hot to handle.
On the next point, she took the return and jammed a Bobcats player before sailing out of bounds behind the defense. Then on match point, Maldonado rose up and hammered the ball sideways into a block to net Edinburg Vela a 25-22, 26-24, 21-25, 25-21 victory over rival Edinburg High and the District 31-6A title Saturday.
“The last point, she was kind of (playing me) pretty tight on the net and that girl, she was on me,” Maldonado said. “I could feel her and I could see the block in front of me. I couldn’t go straight to it, so I had to go to her to get the point fast and it worked.”
The fourth-set photo finish was just a small portion of a match that remained intensely close throughout with neither side being able to establish a strong foothold at any point.
The SaberCats twice gained three-point leads in the final set, but watched Edinburg High erase both and knot it up at nine and 19. Vela had already allowed the Bobcats to claw back to a tie late in an earlier set.
“That fourth set could have gone either way,” Edinburg Vela head coach Araceli Ortega said. “I’m glad we capitalized there at the end and pulled through.”
Maldonado’s leadership and poise in the face of pressure helped Vela clamp down on multiple Edinburg High comeback bid attempts.
She opened the game on a tear from the service line, helping the SaberCats gain some badly needed separation in the first set with a run of serves that garnered her team six straight points, inflating their lead from one to seven.
It proved to be a necessary boost from Maldonado, as the Bobcats pulled within two late in the set before the SaberCats slammed the door.
“I was just trying to be really smart about where I was placing the ball,” Maldonado said. “I feel like I did get lucky, but my teammates really helped me keep the serve so it was really them. I just needed to do my part and stay consistent.”
Her serving proved pivotal again in the second, when she fired off three consecutive aces to help Vela jump out to a 21-15 lead. But the Bobcats battled back, winning nine of the next 12 points to tie it up at 24.
Maldonado made the difference this time with her hard hitting. She earned a kill to set up a match point and then hammered a spike so hard that it bounced up to the ceiling and off an air duct when the Bobcats tried to return it.
The third set was a bit of a role reversal, as Edinburg High got hot thanks to strong offensive play by outside hitter Natalie Hernandez and middle blockers Bryahne Salinas and Zarina Rodriguez. This time, the Bobcats fended off a late surge from the SaberCats, but turned it around in set four.
“It’s very good, especially with where we’re at at this point in the season. In the third set when Edinburg High came back, they were a force and we had to defend,” Ortega said. “I saw that they caught us a few times, but the fact that we were able to come back in the fourth set, pull through, catch up and finish is great.”
Down the stretch, however, it was the SaberCats that narrowly pulled out ahead thanks some offensive adjustments based off what they saw from the Bobcats’ defense.
“They were running perimeter, which is kind of like next to the sidelines, so they were leaving a huge gap in the middle,” Maldonado said. “Honestly it was the tips, we just needed to be smart.”
The victory was the SaberCats’ second four-set win over the Bobcats this season. It also allowed Vela to clinch the district crown over Edinburg High and Edinburg North with one game remaining after the three teams shared a first-place tie last season.
“It’s very, very nice. I think the girls knew that coming into this game and we didn’t want a repeat of last year,” Ortega said. “We wanted to make sure we solidified the spot so that we could stay in it by ourselves in the end.”