Volleyball: Grants ousts Belen, but falls at Valencia; Jags to play at LL

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From News-Bulletin reports

If tonight’s District 6-4A championship holds to the form of the rest of the district tournament, expect some unforeseen twists and turns.

Jason W. Brooks-News-Bulletin photo: Aries Marquez of Valencia High sets a ball in Thursday’s District 6-4A semifinal. An unpredictable week of district tournament matches included the Lady Jaguars’ five-game win over Grants. VHS plays at Los Lunas at 6 p.m., Saturday, in the 6-4A championship match.

In a week filled with surprises, the Valencia Lady Jaguars emerged as one of the finalists. Their drawn-out, dramatic 3-2 home win Thursday over Grants put them in the 6 p.m. championship match Saturday against host Los Lunas High.

Los Lunas earned an automatic bye all the way to the district title match by placing first in the 6-4A regular season. The Tigers (19-1) are headed to next week’s state tournament, regardless of tonight’s outcome, by having taken first place in the district standings.

Belen (7-13), the No. 5 seed in the district tourney, bowed out with a 3-1 loss Tuesday at No. 4 Grants. That same night, No. 3 Gallup needed five games to beat No. 6 Miyamura.

Gallup’s five-game match might have taken a lot of energy by the Bengals, who lost at home, 3-0, to Grants on Wednesday.

Grants then played a third consecutive night, where they lost a thriller at No. 2 Valencia on Thursday.

Valencia is in an excellent position to get its first-ever state tournament berth with its 18-4 record. A New Mexico Activities Association committee will meet Sunday to seed Class 4A’s automatic district champions and at-large teams, and will post the 12 selections on www.nmact.org.

Belen, Grants, Gallup and Miyamura are not likely to be chosen for the tourney, which will be held at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho. Pool play and first-round matches will be held Thursday, and the tourney’s later rounds are Friday and Saturday.

Valencia 3, Grants 2

In a test of the moxie of both teams, the host Lady Jaguars outlasted the Lady Pirates (11-11) on Thursday by 25-14, 21-25, 25-20, 16-25 and 15-11 scores.

In the fifth game, some key kills by seniors Aizlinn Gutierrez and Aries Marquez and freshman Peyton Linthicum helped the Jags hang on. Their 13-8 lead dwindled to 13-11 before kills by Linthicum and Alexis Montaño ended the match.

Neither team could seem to gain much of an edge, and rarely were both squads playing sharp at the same time. The teams seemed to take turns playing defense well or controlling the net, although Valencia seemed to be more effective in blocking throughout the match.

“To their credit, Grants played three nights in a row, and they were warmed up and ready to play,” said VHS coach Karen Vanessa Chavez. “We struggled on defense, but then we worked as a team again.”

In game one, Valencia turned it on about halfway through, and led 19-8 at one point. The Jags were clearly the better defensive team in the game.

In the second game, Grants’ back-row defense improve, while Valencia’s digs and communication waned. The Pirates led 22-14 before VHS made it as close as 23-20 with a late run.

The third game was probably the most even, though Valencia did lead 12-5. Valencia led only 21-20 before closing on a 4-0 run, aided by a kill by Gutierrez and a pair of blocks by Linthicum.

Grants had its passing game working best in game four, and the Jaguars’ back row and setters were struggling. The Pirates went out to a 6-1 lead before Valencia surged to tie it 11-11, but Grants played scrappy and scored 15 of the last 20 points of the game.

In game five, Grants led 5-2 before the hosts went on a 9-1 run to lead 11-6. Potent senior leadership from Gutierrez and others made a difference in the Jags hanging on.

Gutierrez said tough matches, even if one or both teams didn’t play well, will help make each squad a little tougher. “We both really wanted it,” said Gutierrez. “It makes us work as a team.”

Valencia needed four games to beat the Pirates in both regular-season meetings. Grants was most effective Thursday when it could set the ball accurately for powerful junior hitter Sydney Garcia.

The Jags finished 8-2 in district play, partly because they had to forfeit their regular-season finale against Los Lunas, which was never played, as Valencia was penalized for scheduling too many matches.

The scrapped finale does not seem to sit well with either the Los Lunas or Valencia players, who were looking forward to facing their local rivals.

The Tigers won a spirited 3-1 decision over the Jaguars at LLHS on Oct. 16 in their only district meeting this year, and swept VHS in the Belen Invite in September.

“It helps us to play one of the better teams in the state,” said Gutierrez of facing the Tigers. “We always want to face the best competition.”

—Jason W. Brooks

Grants 3, Belen 1

It was evident in the first 11 points of the first set in Tuesday night’s playoff game at Grants that the host Pirates would not allow any room for Belen to challenge them. The Lady Eagles lost 25-15, 25-14, 18-25, 25-15.

Grants opened a 9-2 edge by not letting the Eagles get a point on serve. Grants ran off five straight points before Belen called its first time out. After four more, Grants led 13-2 before Victoria Spragg got a kill at the center of the net to give Belen the serve back.

That 13-3 edge held the rest of the first set as Grants took control. The second set was much of the same.

“I just don’t think we played consistent enough to do anything. We didn’t pass well,” said 26-year veteran coach Barbara Rodriguez.

“We had some nice tools to use offensively, but when you can’t pass the ball to get it to your setter, it makes it hard to run an offense.”

A 10-1 run in the second set gave Grants a 14-3 lead, and maintained it.

Belen took their first lead of the night in getting the opening point in the third set. They built it to 17-15 until Grants made a run to tie it at 17-all.

Belen knuckled down, getting several kills from Spragg and blocks from senior Erica Sluder to take the win.

But Grants took control of game four, built a double-digit lead and held on.

“I love my seniors,” said Rodriguez after their final game. “I think that they had a little bit of a hard row, in some injury areas and illness areas.

“They had to overcome some of those things, which is especially hard for a senior. The season is short enough as it is and when you have to overcome things like that.”

Seniors Sluder, Sierra Cordova and Lorena Chavira likely played their last match as Lady Eagles.

“I think that we were very exciting to watch,” said Rodriguez. “We were on the verge of breaking into greatness. I think we served well, and I think that our setters did an exceptional job.”

—Mike Stearns