The exact turnaround point for the Española Valley volleyball team was pretty easy to pinpoint.
The SunDevils had won seven in a row against so-so competition before losing four out of five to leave their record at 8-5. And they were down two games to zero against Capital on Oct. 13, the night of the memorial service for recently slain Española grad and basketball player Cameron Martinez.
That’s when coach Damon Salazar got a bit fired up.
“I made a mistake in playing that night,” he said. “As adults, we think we can handle things, but we forget that they’re kids and maybe they can’t handle things.”
Still, Salazar was not ready to put up with another loss.
“We knew we needed to win to get a good seed and put ourselves back in contention, but after we lost two games, I just asked them, do they want to be a good team or did they want to be a bad team like last year?”
It was a pretty simple question and the SunDevils had a pretty simple answer.
“We know that we’re good,” said senior outside hitter Chloe Fell. “We didn’t perform that way.”
The difference on the court, well, “it was almost immediate,” she said. “After the first two sets, Damon told us we needed to make decision, whether we wanted to lose or wanted to win. Him telling us just kind of clicked in all of our heads. We don’t want to lose, so we need to start winning.”
And that’s all Española has done since, reeling off three straight set wins to take that match with Capital and the SunDevils have won four more in row since then, including a 3-0 blanking of fourth-ranked Pojoaque Valley.
Almost across the court, Española looks and plays like different team, Salazar said, although he knew his group had this kind of potential.
“Our setting has improved, has been much, much more consistent,” he said. “We have given our hitters a more hittable ball more consistently.”
Those setters, senior Izabel Sena and Anita DeAguero, have been feeding Fell and junior Dulce Maldonado with pleasing regularity; Salazar and the hitters have responded in kind.
“We have good hitters, two strong outside hitters, so they can really carry the load,” Salazar said. “Now we need to get our middle to produce more points. We still have a lot of growth in us … once we get our middle a little more stabilized. Our blocking is coming. Those two things can make a big difference for us come state tournament time.”
Another factor has been improved serving by reducing errors. And the play of senior libero Meranda Romero has been steady throughout the season.
“She has close to 400 digs and she passes at a high level,” Salazar said. “We have a lot of really good components. We’re not real small. We have decent size and the kids who aren’t big jump pretty well.”
Now the team’s confidence is high heading into a late match Thursday with Los Alamos.
“I think we have a good team,” Salazar said. “When we play close to our best level, we’re a hard team to stop. I have a lot of confidence in them.”
And the team has finally figured out the secret to success, Fell said.
“I think it’s a little different for everybody, but everybody knows if you want to be on a team, you have to play as a team,” she said. “If one of the girls is down, another girl gets down, then another girl gets down and it keeps going. But when a girl is up, another girl wants to get up, then another gets up and that’s when we started playing good.”