New coaches, old rivals battle

........................................................................................................................................................................................

The 2013 high school volleyball season should be an interesting one for one big reason — all three Valencia County schools in Class 4A will have new head coaches. Add to that, the fact that the county’s small school representative, Calvary Chapel Academy, is in its last season of probationary play under the New Mexico Activities Association, and you have the makings for some captivating action.

First-year coach Dominick Romero has eight returning letter-winners from a team that went 7-13 last season, four of them starters. With a squad made up mostly of seniors and juniors, the Eagles seem to be set for a run at the District 6-4A title and a state title berth.

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Bulletin photo: SENIORS VICTORIA SPRAGG, left, and Maria Montoya are two key elements for first-year coach Dominick Romero and the Belen volleyball team in the 2013 season.

“I’m very excited and optimistic about our chances for success,” Romero said before the start to the season. “I’ve been really excited to see their improvement over the course of the summer.”

Romero said he and his staff have moved some players to new positions and that the girls are getting used to their new roles.

“More than half the battle is the girls believing in (the system) and being confident,” Romero said.

The Eagles will look to improve their defense, Romero said, concentrating at first on improving their blocking and digging, as well being aggressive on their serves.

“Defensive focus has been number one for us,” he said. “Once we get those things in place, we’ll give the offense some fine tuning. But we need (defense and service) to be solid and in place first.”

At 6-foot-4, senior Victoria Spragg will be a big part of Belen’s success as the team’s “go-to” player in the middle. Junior setter Kaylyn Gomez is also a key cog in the Eagles’ machine.

News-Bulletin file photo: SENIOR KATIE INMAN, left, will be counted on to help lead the Los Lunas volleyball team to the Class 4A state tournament.

Senior Michelle Benavidez also brings a lot of experience as a defensive setter, said Romero and will be the team’s primary server as well. Librero Maria Montoya is also expected to contribute a lot as the team’s best defender.

And junior Tori Morgan could be a factor, having made the transition from a middle blocker to outside hitter for Belen.

Romero said September will be a key month as all three county teams fine tune their teams in anticipation of district play. He said he expects the district race to be open in the wake of all the changes in the coaches’ seats.

“It’s going to be real interesting and it’ll make for some fun games,” he said. “But certainly one of our goals is to be one of the teams selected when the (tournament selection) committee sits down in November.”

Coach Amy Bell is not a completely new face for the Tigers, having been the junior varsity coach for the past few years. Because of that, the chances that LLHS will again claim a District 6-4A title as they did in their 2012 season are very good.

The Tigers lost five seniors from a Tiger team that went 19-3 last season before losing to Albuquerque St. Pius X in the state quarterfinals.

Los Lunas returns just three seniors and four juniors, and will keep its emphasis on ball control and minimizing mistakes, Bell said.

“It’ll be a lot of same style,” she said. “We have a lot of new girls and lost several seniors, so it’ll be a rebuilding year for us. We have a lot of new girls in key positions. But so far, they’re working hard.”

At 6-foot, middle hitter Katie Inman is expected to be big factor for the Tigers, as fellow junior defensive specialist/librero Alyssa Vigil. Bell said she also expects three sophomores, setters Kimberly Duran and Kelsey Bell, and outside hitter Harley Medina to pick up some of the responsibilities; 5-10 sophomore Jordan Holland is also expected to step up in a big way for the Tigers, Bell said.

“We’re a little inexperienced in terms of varsity,” she said. “We just need to find our roles and make things fit together.”

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Bulletin photo: jUNIOR dAYanna irturralde left, and senior Brenda Baeza, are help form the core of Valencia High’s volleyball squad, which hopes to repeat as District 6-4A champs in 2013.

“We’ll be strong in the middle with Katie returning as middle blocker, Bell said. “So we’ll mix things up a bit and hope the younger girls can come in and do big things for us.”

Bell said she expects that county rivals Belen and Valencia should be favorites going into district play and expects a competitive season. But she doesn’t feel her team is an “also-ran” either.

“We have high expectations,” she said, “but ultimately we want to get the best out of all out players and have them playing their best volleyball by the time we start district.”

The Jaguars posted a banner season in 2012, going 19-2 and grabbing the No. 10-seed in the Class 4A State Tournament before losing to eventual champions St. Pius X.

But new head coach Connie Campos, who held the same position at Los Lunas High a few seasons back, only has one returning starter out of her five returning seniors and is looking at having a good amount of players on the court who don’t have varsity experience.

With a group of players who aren’t that familiar with each other, communication will be key, said Campos.

“We don’t know each other very well right now, we’ve got some players who are playing positions that are out of the ordinary and have had to step up,” she said. “Right now the biggest challenge we’re facing is gelling as a unit. But we have good kids that work hard.”

Senior captain Brenda Baeza will play a big role if the Jaguars are to again advance to the state tournament, said Campos, as will seniors Gabriella Calderon at outside hitter and Kendra Pino at setter.

Pino and Calderon played on the varsity team toward the end of last season, and Campos said she hopes the experience will translate to this season.

The Lady Jags have youth at one important position, setter, as freshman Melody Valencia steps in.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever started a freshman setter, which says something about her abilities,” said Campos. “She’s got some big shoes to fill and she’ll have to fill them quick.”

Quick jumping junior Dayanna Ilturralde and sophomore middle blocker Peyton Linthicum are also players to watch along with junior Mallory Munson, who Campos said is untested but steady.

“We’ll be trying to attack more,” said Campos of this year’s system. “Last year they played good defense and out-scrapped so many people. We’ll need to have that kind of play again.”

As first-year coach Laura de la Cerda leads her Lady Warriors into their final season as a provisional member of the NMAA’s Class B, she said making sure the program is established is a goal.

“We’re just trying to get established in the sport,” she said. “We’re pushing the girls really hard and just want them to excel. They’re doing very well.”

The nine-player squad returns three letter-winners, all starters from last year’s squad, with an emphasis on a progressive attack and team work, said de la Cerda.

Junior captain Shayla Crespin will be relied on for leadership and scoring from her outside hitter position, while sophomore setter Jessica Blea will help set the table for the team.

“They both have seniority,” said de la Cerda. “Shayla probably has the best all-around athleticism on the team and Jessica has improved a lot from last season. She has a real go-getter attitude.”

Lacey Greer, a 5-foot-9 ninth-grader, is also expected to contribute as an outside hitter.

“She’s showed a lot of improvement and she’s tall for her age,” said de la Cerda said. “She’s got a lot of drive and I think she’s going to really come through for us.”