Flanked by longtime Rams assistant coach Ken Carpenter, far left, and head coach Toby Manzanares are “Zoo Day” participants Ashlyn Ellwood, Cici Vance, Ella Lopez, Victoria Echerivel, Ashleigh Meyer, Alyssa Dominguez, Janelle Baca, Jenny Baker, Cecelia Gomez and Kiya Wilson. Vance was a first-team All-State player last season, when Meyer was named to the second team. (Courtesy photo)
It’s been a long July for Rio Rancho High School volleyball coach Toby Manzanares and his spikers, with countless scrimmages, pool play and matches taking his 2022 team through three states.
Even with just one day left in July, Manzanares was in his home away from home, the Rams’ Athletic Center, overseeing two-dozen teams visiting for his annual Jamboree, playing on three courts in the RAC and two in the auxiliary gym. Visiting schools’ junior varsity teams were playing at Cibola High.
Manzanares, one of three Rams head coaches still at the school 25 years after it opened, should be looking forward to Aug. 31 as the team’s first report card of the season: That’s when the La Cueva Bears visit the RAC.
Last season, the top-seeded Bears swept Cleveland (25-20, 25-18 and 25-13), ending the season with 20 straight victories and their third title in four years. The Rams finished 2021 with a 16-11 mark, knocked out of the state tournament after losses to Cibola and Centennial – leaving them in a fifth-place tie in Class 5A
The Rams have lost their last six meetings with the Bears – swept five of those times – and haven’t beaten La Cueva since a 3-0 match victory at RRHS on Sept. 16, 2014.
La Cueva has been the team of the ’20s; the Rams were the team of the Aughts, when Manzanares took his teams to nine consecutive championship matches (2001-09), winning all the marbles six times.
“Oh, yeah, obviously that will be a great challenge for us,” he said of the visit by Da Bears. “It’ll be early enough in the season to kind of put our team at their best against one another; that’ll definitely be a barometer for us.”
Manzanares got a sneak preview of La Cueva at a camp in Denver, where the Bears placed first and won the championship bracket, and the Rams won the gold bracket and finished fifth overall.
The team – except for recently injured Angelyse Cobos – left July 8, drove to Denver and played in the 24-team Sally Moos Invitational Summer Challenge at Grandview High School. The Rams won their pool on the first day, finished second in their pool on the second day and were sent to the gold bracket.
The Rams went to a Colorado Rockies baseball game and enjoyed some fun at a water park, then flew on July 12 from Denver to Omaha.
Wednesday, July 13, Manzanares reported was a day of rest and the 14th was “Laundry Day,” plus a scrimmage with some local prep teams.
They spent time in Elkhorn, Neb., where the players and coaches enjoyed the hospitality of one of Manzanares’s former players from his coaching days at St. Pius X High School, Jennifer (Cheshire) Petersen: a barbecue, swimming and even – as if they couldn’t get enough – volleyball.
The Rams got a tour of the Creighton University campus – Cici Vance got a thorough look-see by the head coach – and Manzanares posted this on his Facebook page: “Creighton’s Team Camp is the icing on this dessert.”
On Monday, July 18, the Rams began playing in a 32-team event at Iowa West Fieldhouse in Council Bluffs, Neb.
What do the Rams get out of such a hectic month?
“It’s two-fold,” Manzanares said. “Challenge this group with good competition, which we saw.”
The teams they saw were often bigger, aggressive and better.
“Our skill set can get better – to match the best teams here (in New Mexico), we have to be more consistent in what we do and play at a high level; being really good in serve-receive is something we have to get better at.
“Sometimes it’s learning something new about your team and sometimes it’s being validated about your team,” he said. “We served the ball really well – we have multiple attackers in multiple positions that can get us points at any time; we can grind it out, claw and scramble and scratch for points.”
And, he added, “When we’re good out of serve-receive, we can score, (but) our passing has to get better. … We have to attack open spaces and get clean shots.”
After they were back home, the Rams played in the 24-team Jamboree in the RAC last weekend and finished second, losing 2-0 in the title match to Las Cruces.
With the 2022 season right around the corner – St. Pius X visits the RAC Aug. 25 – the work starts in earnest Aug. 8 with tryouts – although, as usual, there probably aren’t any question marks about who’s on the varsity and who’ll be relegated to sub-varsity teams.