What a difference a day – er, senior – makes.
After incurring an ankle injury in a match in Las Cruces in early September, Rio Rancho High School senior outside hitter Ella Lopez had been dreaming of returning to action on the floor.
And that she did on Oct. 26 in a sweep at Atrisco Heritage Academy.
Five nights later, she was the spark that ignited the host Rams (11-10, 2-4 in District 1-5A) to a 25-15 victory in the first set of their second district encounter with Cleveland (14-7, 5-1).
“I’m just so happy to be back,” Lopez said, after playing the entire match without being replaced. “(The injury) is definitely in my head, so playing against Cleveland helps, because they’re a great team, we all wanted to go out there and play hard. … Every time we play (Cleveland), it’s just a fight.”
The Rams, who’d already lost to the Storm in matches at the APS Metro and Volleybash in Rio Rancho, and then a 1-5A meeting at Cleveland on Oct. 12, never trailed in that opening set and looked poised to pull off an upset.
Cleveland, though, had other plans, despite the return of Lopez, with junior middle blocker Kelsey Heffner taking over up front in the second set, in which the Rams’ only lead was 2-1.
Heffner and Azlynn Tittmann kept pounding the ball and the Storm evened after the Rams took a 2-1 lead in the second set with a 25-19 victory, capped by an ace by Lauren Snippen.
The Rams’ last lead in the third set was 11-10, with what turned out to be a 16-8 run by CHS leading to a 25-18 victory. Heffner and Tittmann were joined by some kills by Emma Wild in taking control of the match.
But wait: The Rams again appeared ready to tie the match with leads throughout much of the fourth set, until their 17-14 lead was to be their final “big” advantage of the match. A return out-of-bounds by the Rams tied it at 17, and the Storm were soon at match point, 24-21.
A would-be kill by Tittmann sailed long and another one went into the net; with her lead now at 24-23, CHS coach Charity Gomez called a timeout.
The next point went to the Rams on a block at the net, but Heffner and Baylee Savage combined on a block for match point, 25-24, and a potential tying kill by Rio Rancho’s Jacey Mader went into the net – giving the Storm their ninth victory over the Rams in as many meetings.
“We talked about in our huddles, doing the things we know how to do and doing them consistently better,” RRHS coach Toby Manzanares said. “That’s the ebbs and flows of this game. … It was great to get Ella back on the floor.”
Mader, he said, has turned into a “bright spot.
“I wasn’t so sure this summer, to be honest with you,” he added. “But she has continued to impress and worked to get kills. … I think when we get those two kids (Lopez and Mader) getting some solid kills for us and shoring up our right side and getting our middles will be able to chip in some points.
“There were some points where we just didn’t do the things we’re very, very capable of doing, not as consistent as we could do defensively, and those points got away from us,” Coach Manz added. “I loved our battles tonight, and I loved our battles toward the end of the (fourth) set – we had a chance to win it, we just came up a little short.”
Lopez finished with 15 kills and Mader added 14 for the disappointed Rams, while Alex Shane had 34 assists, Jenny Baker had 23 digs and Lopez was all over, adding 16 digs. The Storm were led by Heffner’s 11 kills and four of the Storm’s nine blocks, with Snippen and Tittmann adding nine kills apiece. Marian Hatch had 41 assists; Hailey Griego came up with 30 digs.
Cleveland has another match this week, visiting Volcano Vista Thursday, Nov. 2, at 6:30 p.m.