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PREP VOLLEYBALL Teams Not Missing a Beat

By Eric Butler
For the Journal
    Dateline: November 2006. Story: Pojoaque Valley, by taking the Class 3A state volleyball championship, and Española Valley, by making the 4A title match, set new standards in the sport for both schools.
    However, the Elkettes and Sundevils then proceeded to graduate the most crucial players from that landmark season. Besides Pojoaque's runner-up finish in 2005, neither school had ever been to a championship contest before and were staring square in the face of a possible return-to-normalcy
    Today: It's almost like nothing even happened.
    Expected by many to at least slip back into the pack, Pojoaque Valley and Española Valley— less than 10 miles from each other— are leading their respective districts and preparing for another trip to the state tournament.
    "I think definitely, when we were going to lose all those seniors, there wasn't much hope with the fans," said Pojoaque setter Jaymie Roybal, one of four seniors on a squad that has a 16-2 mark and is unbeaten in tough District 2-3A.
    Pojoaque Valley's Brian Ainsworth had to replace key components when hitters Meagan Valdez, Ashley Herrera and Kim Velasquez all graduated after leading the Elkettes to their first crown. With junior Janelle Roybal moving from middle to outside hitter, Ainsworth now has three players— Roybal, sophomore Dionna Montoya and junior Leandra Martinez— averaging more than 10 kills a match.
    Those young players provide the core for not only what may ultimately be a successful defense of their crown this season, but potentially another run for glory next season.
    "I think what it's going to come down to is heart and how bad we want to win it," Jaymie Roybal said.
    "We're rebuilding, but it's turning into more of a reload. We've probably got more athleticism and more talent on this year's team," Ainsworth says. "The big change is we don't have the experience."
    The Elkettes are on a 13-match winning streak. The last time Pojoaque lost was against Española Valley— a squad that lost no fewer than four members from the North team in the annual All-Star volleyball contest over the summer.
    When Amanda Strauss (Adams State), Julie Gibson (Bethune-Cookman), Kristi Salazar (NMSU) and Ariana Royball (ENMU) graduated and went off to play college ball, Española coach Sam Estrada contemplated calling it quits, too.
    "Actually, I made up my mind last March when the girls were playing club and I went out there to help," Estrada recalled. "I saw the girls playing hard, so I thought I could come back and do it again."
    Española is 12-4 overall record and is tied atop District 2-4A with Los Alamos. The Sundevils replaced all those players by building around setter Amberly Trujillo, a defensive specialist last season, as well as fellow seniors Robyn Sanchez at libero and Jayme Fredericks at outside hitter. New blood, like sophomore Renee Roybal, is helping offset the loss of so much of Española's 2006 hitting arsenal.
    "We're not as strong as we were last year, but we've won a couple of good ones," said Estrada, in his seventh year of his second stint as the Española coach.
    Estrada, who also coached the Sundevils from 1986 to 1991, said that his team's tallest players are around 5-feet-9.
    "We just try to hit the ball hard. When they block it, we can't cower and we can't shut down," Estrada said.
    "Like me, he (Estrada) is a structured guy, knows exactly what he wants and he implements a system," Ainsworth says. "We don't have the systems they run at Cruces and Rio Rancho and all that, because of the height. Typically, the Hispanic girls are 5-4, 5-5, so we've got to teach people how to pass and how to play people. And he does a great job of that."
    The hope, for the Elkettes and Sundevils, is to systematically go deep into the postseason again— even if the cast of characters is quite different than the year before.
    "This isn't like a one-and-done type of situation," Ainsworth said.