By Kenn Rodriguez
RIO RANCHO — Top-seeded Elida made history Saturday in the Class B state volleyball championship match, but the school’s fourth consecutive title did not come easily.
The Lady Tigers played tight for much of the match and at one point it looked very much like their opponent, the Carrizozo Lady Grizzlies, would deny them a chance at etching their names in the record books as the only Class B title-winner in New Mexico high school volleyball history.
But led by their senior captains, outside hitter and Kaylen Jasso and libero Hunter Haley, and junior defensive specialist Marily Varela and middle blocker Kayla Summers, the Lady Tigers (23-1) forced a fifth set before outlasting Carrizozo to claim a dramatic 25-23, 19-25, 22-25, 25-20, 17-15 victory Saturday morning at the Santa Ana Star Center.
“Both teams were taking hits at each other, both teams were swinging hard at the ball,” Lady Tigers coach Darrell Chenault said. “It came down to whoever made the right play at the right time. We lucked out and did that. Both teams played well at times and both teams were frustrated at times, but that’s volleyball.”
Jasso, who served the ace that ended the two-hour, 45-minute match, said the Lady Tigers’ previous experience with high-pressure matches paid off in the end.
“We have been through a lot of games that went five (sets),” she said. “We knew we just had to keep our energy up, and we were just thinking positive.”
Positive thinking seemed to be in short supply for Elida and its vocal fans in the fifth set as Carrizozo (23-2) battled back from a 5-2 deficit to pull even 7-7 after a Elida error. The two teams battled back and forth before the Lady Grizzlies forced match point at 14-13, but the Lady Tigers got a sideout on the next play when Jasso sent a kill through the heart of the Carrizozo defense.
Elida followed that with a serve into the net and again the Grizzlies seemed poised to end Elida’s reign.
But Jasso again came through, just skirting the left sideline with a kill to tie the match at 15-15. Summers and sophomore Kynzi Creighton then set up a huge block against Carrizozo’s Kaitlyn Pierson to set up match point for Jasso, who aced the shot to end the match.
“’I told them don’t think they’re quitting, it’s not over,” Chenault said of the final huddle before set five. “It’s about every point. We just had to keep passing and we did. Both teams were just wailing on each other. It was like a heavyweight boxing match. You have to be aggressive. And we were.”
After losing a competitive first set, the Lady Grizzlies asserted themselves as outside hitters Pierson, Sarah Ferguson and Shayna Gallacher began to dominate around the net. Elida started strong in set two but was outscored 15-5 down the stretch to lose the set.
“Carrizozo’s a good team,” Jasso said. “We just kind of let down, thinking, ‘Maybe we got this.’ We realized we weren’t playing our game and we needed to step it up and play with a lot of momentum and intensity.”
The Lady Grizzlies continued their confident play throughout the third set and into the fourth as Pierson and Ferguson gave the Lady Tigers fits and consistently set down winning shots.
“We were so overwhelmed with emotions that we were trying to be perfect,” said Summers of Elida’s play in sets three and four. “We were working too hard to be perfect and lost sight of our bigger goal. We tried so hard to be perfect that we wound up messing up more than usual.”
But something began to click midway through the fourth set as Elida traded shot for shot with Carrizozo.
“We realized we’ve been working for this game all year,” said sophomore Lauren Stone. “Every drill we’ve done, ever lap we’ve run, we had this game in the back of our minds. So we thought, ‘We don’t want to give this up.’
“We really encouraged each other. If it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t have made it.”
Chanault said making sure to not give the Lady Grizzlies easy shots was a key in the final two sets.
“We got some good serving right there and they put some free balls up because we got them out of shape,” he said. “I told the girls at the end of the fourth game that it was about us hitting and if they gave up the free ball that we’d win the game.”
The loss was the first in the last 12 matches for Carrizozo. The Lady Grizzlies’ lone loss came to the same team that served the Lady Tigers their only loss of the season — Class 1A champions Fort Sumner, which managed a 1-1 split with the Lady Tigers.
Elida graduates four seniors from this year’s squad — Haley, Jasso and defensive specialists Raeona Sanders and Krista Avritt.