When the New Mexico High School Volleyball Championships start Thursday in Rio Rancho, Los Lunas and Valencia will probably not need much introduction to their first opponents.
If the 5A bracket goes as seeded, No. 4 Los Lunas, which earned a first-round bye, will face Cleveland (15-8) for the fourth time this season. The Tigers (19-3) defeated the No. 5 Storm, which faces No. 12 Hobbs to open the tournament, in all three previous matches.
“We’re just going to treat it like any other week,” LLHS coach Tanya Sanchez said Sunday after the pairings were announced.
Los Lunas must once again deal with the tall front line of Cleveland, and, possibly, No. 1 La Cueva in the semifinals.
“We’ll be working on our blocks and our defense,” Sanchez said. “We’ve done a really good job with that.”
Seniors Ella Zamora and Mya Hessinger, along with junior Lauren Shiplet, lead the stingy defense.
Offensively, the Tigers will try to keep Cleveland off-balance, with junior Mia Mendoza setting the table for senior outside hitter Riley Luther, junior Mellody Chavez and others.
The Tigers will carry confidence into the championships, and a bit of an attitude.
“We’ve been like underdogs,” Sanchez said, hinting that LLHS has been overlooked in the past. “They finally see us a little bit now.”
The first game for LLHS is at 6 p.m., Thursday at Rio Rancho Events Center.
In 4A, No. 11 Valencia (14-9) takes on No. 5 Hope Christian (17-6) in the first round at 10 a.m. Thursday, also at RREC.
Despite losing to Hope each of the last three years, the Jaguars are optimistic.
“We have a few resources to help us prepare and we’re looking forward to this opportunity,” is how VHS interim coach Leslie Owens put it. “I think we have a good chance.”
Owens took over the program Sept. 27, keeping Valencia moving forward after head coach Melissa Marbury-Profitt resigned.
“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ve given them my best. That was my goal,” Owens said, while praising the efforts of her assistant coaches.
The Jaguars will rely on a solid core, including versatile junior Alissa Raley.
“She’s very consistent — a great teammate,” the coach said.
Sophomores Jaiden Montgomery and Monique Chavez, and senior Gracie Ramsey will also play key roles.
Owens, who says she will not return as head coach next season, believes the future is bright.
“A program on the rise. I’m proud of their growth as players and young ladies,” Owens said.
(Editor’s note: Valencia lost it’s first match 3-0 (25-11, 28-26,-25-19) to Hope Thursday morning. VHS will next play at 10 a.m., Friday in a loser out match.)
Belen (10-12) likely came up a few games short in the Eagles’ bid to make the 4A state tournament, falling to Valencia in the regular season finale.
“I’m happy with the girls and the improvement over the season,” said third-year coach Victoria Spragg, adding that the team has more to accomplish in the future. “They have all the skill that they need, although we do lack in some height.”
Spragg believes the next step is to improve the mental aspects of the game.
“You have to be able to be strong mentality and to overcome the dips that happen throughout the game,” the coach said.
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.