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Elkettes building on last year’s success

Pojoaque Valley’s Alicia Quintana smashes the ball at Los Alamos’ Nadia Gallegos, number 13, during a match at Pojoaque on Tuesday. The Hilltoppers won. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — When Pojoaque Valley graduated six seniors, including four starters and two other key players, from a volleyball team that reached the semifinals last season, it appeared the Elkettes would be in for a bit of a rebuilding season.

Well, opponents can scratch that notion.

Despite a tough, five-set loss to Los Alamos on Tuesday, Pojoaque is rolling right along, thank you very much. The Elkettes may even be headed back to the heights that saw them win five straight championships from 2009 to 2013 – the final three under three different coaches.

“Fundamentals, energy, commitment,” second-year Joe Rodriguez said in explaining Pojoaque’s success. “We were good last year. This year is a spinoff from last year’s success. And it’s just continued.”

It is a team that works together in unison, with the players helping each other get better, holding each other accountable, and keeping upbeat and positive throughout each match.

Junior middle blocker Leah Trujillo, daughter of longtime, highly successful Elkettes boys basketball coach Joey Trujillo, credits the current seniors with fostering a winning attitude.

The Elkettes’ Mikayla Padilla makes a play during Tuesday’s game against Los Alamos. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“It definitely has to do with our seniors,” she said of Mikayla Padilla, Espe Torres, Ashten Martinez and Lauryn Gomez. “A majority of them have been on varsity a long time. They motivate us and keep pushing us. Our big goal is to make it to state and see what we can do.”

Martinez has been working with Trujillo on her play at the net.

“Ashten helps me out with timing, or what hits to do depending on what types of defenses they’re playing,” Trujillo said. “Mikayla is in charge of the back row. She helps, keeps the mentality high, and makes sure we don’t get down and we can come back stronger in those games.”

In turn, Martinez credits last year’s senior group with setting an example for others to follow.

“I’d say the leadership that the seniors had carried on from last year, that set an example for us and we kept it going,” she said. “They taught us how to lead. It’s about the hard work, to always work hard for practice and the bonding part, how close you are with your teammates. That’s always important.”

The players work at helping each other on the court and in practice, which goes a long way to sustained success.

“In practice, we really just try to help each out,” Martinez said. “What we’re doing wrong and how we can be better, and I feel like that’s really helped us out a lot.”

Coach Rodriguez, who has been with the program at various levels for the better part of a decade, said he was able to glean quite a bit from previous coaches, particularly Brian Ainswoth, who led the Elkettes to four state championships overall before moving on to Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho.

“He mentored us,” Rodriguez said of Ainsworth. “One of the things about volleyball in New Mexico is just don’t go out there and hit it. Volleyball is unique and so is the skill set, and there are certain things kids need to be trained to. There’s an IQ to it. Discipline, commitment, willingness to do things other people don’t want to do. That’s the big buy-in.

The team was a little nervous entering this season because setter Ayanna Aguirre was taking over for a veteran.

But Aguirre quickly put everybody at ease, Rodriguez said.

And the players responded to her well, Martinez said.

“I felt that we were going to have a harder time catching on, but I think we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do it,” she said. “In the beginning, my expectations were just to learn, teach the young ones volleyball and how it fun it can be. And keep winning.”

Pojoaque Valley volleyball coach Joe Rodriguez talks with his team during Tuesday’s game against Los Alamos. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Elkettes are still coming together as a team, said Rodriguez, as some injuries have forced him to consistently juggle the lineup.

But that’s not necessarily been a bad thing, as practices are so sharp and competitive that he feels comfortable putting any of his players into the lineup.

“We have competition within the program itself,” he said. “We have four underclassmen who are playing very well. The JV girls who came up and the freshmen who have surprised us have stepped up and played really well.”

And despite the loss to the Hilltoppers, Pojoaque feels in no way deterred from its goal of playing a long time in November.

“That’s only going to motivate us now to come out on top in our district,” Trujillo said. “The season so far has been really great. We have a great team. We’ve all been playing with each other a while now, so our connection is really good. We don’t get down on each other. It’s been fun and we try to keep the energy high. The connection is high and you can feel it in every game.”