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Opportunity knocks for SFHS volleyball team

Santa Fe’s Jorja Chambers, center, and Laila Bernadino, top, compete in a volleyball match against Capital High on March 25 at Capital. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Although the Santa Fe High School volleyball team after last season said goodbye to some of the strongest hitters in its program’s history, coach Josie Adams wasn’t too concerned.

As a matter of fact, she was anxious for this season to start because she felt the Demonettes could possibly be even better after reaching the final eight before being eliminated by Cleveland.

“We definitely knew that we had a huge opportunity with this team to do really well,” Adams said. “They’re a close-knit group of athletes. They’re workers. They’re resilient. They just have that special dynamic that you get every once in a while, that you know that they can achieve anything. That’s the kind of group of girls we have right now.”

It’s the kind of group that, on seeing that its nemesis, Storm, was in its redrawn district, the girls rubbed their hands in anticipation.

“When we found out the districts were changing and Cleveland was in our district, everyone was super excited because Cleveland took us out in quarters (last season) and we really wanted to take them,” said senior outside hitter Laila Bernardino. “We were more than thrilled to have Cleveland in the district.”

And the Demonettes (8-1, 5-1 in District 1-5A) punched their ticket to next week’s state tournament with a four-set win over Cleveland on Tuesday. The best-seeded team will play host to quarterfinals and semifinals Tuesday and Thursday, with the championship game set for Saturday at the Pit – without fans as Bernalillo County remains under yellow protocols.

“I don’t think we were really expected to beat Cleveland,” said senior outside hitter and occasional defensive specialist Isabella Melton. “Definitely, there’s going to be people looking for us at state and watching to see what we’re doing right now. I think we’re a lot stronger than people expected us to be this year.”

What makes Santa Fe particularly difficult is that it is a well-rounded team that gets contributions from everyone on the floor.

Bernardino is the leading hitter, but Jorja Chambers and Melton are equally dangerous, while Sydney Pino-Pacheco and Ariana Anaya are capable up front, as well.

The team is strong from the line, averaging three aces per match, and everybody is willing to do the dirty work digging the ball off the floor. And Beliicia Esquivias is averaging more than eight assists per set.

“We lost big hitters, but what’s important about our team currently is we all have big hearts and passion,” Bernardino said. “Even though we don’t have the height for offense, we have a lot of mental strength and heart for the game.”

The coach could see that in the way the players carried themselves.

“We set our goals to win the district right from the beginning,” Adams said. “We knew that we had to get to work, prepare ourselves mentally and physically for Cleveland, and that’s what we did. Our expectations are always to win. That’s what we always talk about and work for, being our best and playing our best, and winning.”

The Demonettes have not won the state championship since going 20-0 in 1996, but this season marks a strong chance to get there.

“We talk about opportunities,” Adams said. “No matter what the obstacles are, we meet every challenge. We knew this was a pretty dramatic challenge. We felt like we just wanted to play. Once we got that opportunity, they were so incredibly excited to get the opportunity to get on the court. So, let’s utilize it.”

The players have taken that to heart.

“I think our expectations are to go as far as we can in state,” Melton said. “Previous years, we weren’t able to play with the big 5A schools in Albuquerque. I think we’re mentally ready to do that.”

Given what the team has been through, it is determined to be playing a lot next week.

“This year, we’re definitely all family,” Melton said. “We have a stronger connection than any of the other teams that we have had in the past. I think it really translates into how we play together.”

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