WEB EXCLUSIVE: Belen spikers eliminate VHS from district tourney

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BELEN – Twice this season, the Belen Eagles volleyball team had turned away their cross-county rivals, the Valencia Jaguars with a dominating performance in the deciding fifth game.

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Bulletin photo: BELEN HITTER VICTORIA SPRAGG (7) hits a shot past Valencia High's Mallory Munson (12), Peyton Linthicum (11) and Dani Rae Martinez (7) during the Eagles' 3-2 win over the Jaguars Thursday night in the District 6-4A Tournament.

Thursday night at Belen High, the No. 2 Eagles followed that familiar script to the letter against Valencia, earning their fifth fifth-set win of the season and defeating the No. 3 Jaguars 25-11, 25-16, 26-28, 19-25, 15-9 to eliminate VHS from the District 6-A Volleyball Tournament.

The Eagles (12-8) now travel to Los Lunas at 6 p.m. Saturday to play the Tigers for the district championship at Los Lunas High School.

“We were just determined to win,” said BHS senior hitter Maria Montoya. “We pushed ourselves. All five seniors this year, we didn’t want this to be our last game. So we just talked our way through it.”

Senior hitter and future New Mexico Lobo Victoria Spragg finished with a phenomenal game, tallying 41 kills and 28 digs in the match. But none of her kills were as important as the seven she hit in the fifth and final set as she helped the Eagles race out to a 5-1 lead as well as closing out the final three points of the match.

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Bulletin photo: JUNIOR HITTER DAYANNA ITURRALDE of Valencia High taps a shot over the block of Belen's Charlene Mier (6) and Kaylyn Gomez (5) during the Jaguars' district tournament match at Belen High Thursday night.

“We make everyone work overtime, we wouldn’t have it any other way,” said BHS coach Dominick Romero. “Valencia’s a tough team, and scrappy. They dig every ball and fight. Our girls were resilient (tonight).”

As they had in two previous matches against VHS, Belen burst out energetically, winning the first two sets with relative ease, taking big early leads then holding off the Jags’ rally.

But Valencia changed things up in the third set, taping balls over and around the Eagles’ blocks and taking advantage of Spragg being rotated off the net.

With senior Brenda Baeza and junior Dayanna Iturralde and sophomore Peyton Linthicum playing more aggressively at the net, the Jags held the advantage for much of the set. VHS forced a set point at 24-23 on a tap winner by Baeza. But Spragg registered a pair of kills to give Belen a match point at 25-24. VHS forced another at point at 26-25 only ot be tied against at 26-26 by a Spragg kill. After a referee’s ruling gave the Jags a 27-26 lead, Iturralde tapped over the winning point and Valencia staved off elimination.

“The girls got a little timid,” said Romero. “We almost closed it out in set three. We expended so much energy and emotion trying to grind it out in three. We had a little bit of a let down (at the end) and that carried over to set four.”

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Buletin photo: BELEN VOLLEYBALL PLAYERS sing their school song along with fans after their 3-2 district tournament victory over Valencia Thursday night at Belen High School.

After playing each other evenly in set four, VHS overcame Belen, outscoring the Eagles 7-1 to end the set and force a fifth set.

“We didn’t show up for the first two sets so in the third set I said ‘Let’s just have fun,’” said VHS coach Connie Campos. “When Victoria is at the net and we don’t stop her, that’s the key.”

Valencia loses four seniors, including hitters Baeza, Gabriella Calderon, and Mariah Ibuado and reliable service from defensive specialist Kendra Pino, but has a solid core of players returning, said Campos.

“We proved a lot of people wrong and showed then what kind of team,” said Ibuado. We overcame a lot. Next year will be better, I hope.”

LOS LUNAS 3, GRANTS 0:  At Los Lunas High, the No. 1 Tigers got 24 of their 46 kills on the night from senior hitter Katie Inman in sweeping past the No. 5 Pirates 25-15, 25-11, 25-22 to advance to the Saturday’s district title match.

Grants (10-12) managed only 18 kills on the night against the tough Tiger defense while Los Lunas (15-6) established themselves early in notching its 13th straight win. The Tigers had only eight service errors the entire night. Senior Carley Medina led the team with 14 digs while sophomore Kelsey Bell had 43 assists and 11 digs.