Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It is Tigers time right now as not only does Taos High School return all of its starters, but also has added senior defensive specialist Sydnie Pino, who was a starter at Santa Fe Indian School, which shuttered its program for this school year.
“Right now, we have a solid nine,” said Taos coach Anita Rodriguez.
What’s more, the team is still young as Pino has 11 juniors, with defensive specialist Abbie Cardenas the only other senior.
“The way this team kind of works, they all just work together, which is great,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have one person that stands out from anyone else. They work so well together.”
Many of the players, including Pino, have been together since middle school. But the seniors are not necessarily looked upon as the team leaders, Rodriguez said.
“We don’t distinguish that seniors are our leaders,” she said. “We have a team mentality that this group has. We kind of work together, and feed off each other and push each other, which is different from other teams.”
It should make a difference in the rugged District 2-4A as the Tigers came up empty against its district foes.
But having a group that has been together for a while should prove to be an advantage as teams are still scrambling through odd practice situations. The Tigers have taken advantage of every opportunity afforded by the state health guidelines and the New Mexico Activities Association mandates.
“These girls play really well together,” the coach said. “They have that chemistry with each other. Especially in this kind of situation. I’m hoping it will be an advantage.”
In addition to the two seniors are juniors Noelle Good, Dahnyell Martinez, Madeline Quintana, Anakaela Trujillo and Daniela Cortez.
Martinez and Quintana are the top returning hitters, each recording 84 kills.
Trujillo and freshman Kiona Ely will share setting duties, although the 6-foot Ely, the team’s tallest player, also will spend time as a middle blocker.
“Things are looking pretty positive with these girls,” Rodriguez said. “I feel we can have a better season than we have had in the past. Our goal is try to win that district championship. Our district is always very competitive. They’re always ready to play. It’s never going to be easy to play against them.”
The Cardinals had an almost magical run to the team’s first state championship last year, defeating District 2-3A rival St. Michael’s in the fifth set to claim the title as their suspended coach sat in the stands.
New coach Vanessa Martinez has three starters returning from that stalwart group, which should keep Robertson in any discussion of championship contenders.
“I think it’s really important,” she said of the championship experience. “They’ve experienced the feeling. That whole emotional roller coaster to be state champ. It motivates them to come in and want that feeling again. They have that hunger inside them to keep working, and get in the gym and have as much time as they can there.”
This will be Martinez’s first time as a head volleyball varsity coach, although she has coached middle school volleyball and was the girls’ varsity head basketball coach at her alma mater, Mora.
She will be relying on junior hitter Jayden Jenkins, outside hitter/defensive specialist Stella Garcia and setter/outside hitter Mikaela Sena.
“The strength of the team is the majority of them are juniors,” Martinez said. “It’s a young group, and they’ve experienced success together. Also, they’re classmates with good friendships. They have a really close bond. All the athletes outside of the gym do and I think that helps out. We need a team to get anywhere and I think that’s really important.”
The big challenge right now, especially with the season suddenly up in the air once again, is to keep the players focused, she said.
“We have to keep them motivated,” Martinez said. “The girls want to see all this hard work going for games and such. Right now, we’re working one practice at a time, then one game at a time. I don’t like to look too far ahead. I want to keep them motivated, and make sure they get better and better. We work our way toward our goals. I know they have that fire and hunger to get where they were last year.”
The resiliency the team showed in overcoming the suspension of their coach for the final three weeks of the season shows just how tough they can be, Martinez said.
“I just told them it’s a new year, a new season, a new coaching staff,” she said. “And we moved forward. I think what they went through last year only made them stronger because they had to overcome a lot of obstacles. They are strong group.”
WEST LAS VEGAS
The Dons are pretty much just getting to know each other as Monday was the first day the school district permitted any of the athletic teams to meet.
But coach Lori Vigil said the team quickly showed its promise.
“Through (Wednesday), just in those days, the girls have had a lot of improvement,” she said. “Monday they were pretty rusty. Tuesday, things started to gel a little better. And (Wednesday), their confidence was up and they’re totally performing to the expectations that I held for them.”
And, to be honest, with six returning starters, Vigil said she expects the Dons to show rapid improvement moving forward.
The coach is looking for outside hitter Mickela Montoya, defensive specialist Maddie Griego, star setter Jermaine Valdez, defensive specialist Madison Marquez, outside hitter Miciah Gallegos and defensive specialist Samantha Sandoval.
“I don’t have a set libero,” Vigil said. “I like to play them all the way round instead of holding them to a libero position because they’re also great hitters.”
What they are not, however, is tall, so it’s no coincidence that several of the players are defensive specialists, Vigil said.
“Unfortunately, the water out there doesn’t let us grow,” she said with a chuckle. “I may not have the height. But what we’re really working on this season is passing, attacking and service. Those three things are what we’re concentrating on right now to make sure they are our strengths.”
With the season now in flux, Vigil said she sees volleyball as a chance for the players to be active.
“I just want them to play and have fun, enjoy what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s been hard on their mental health and social well-being, having to have virtual learning and not really being with their friends in social settings. Them coming together, it’s great seeing the energy. You can just see the sparkle or glow in their eyes. As we move forward, then the expectations will change. For now, have fun and play the game, and enjoy being together.”