Where are they?
InezAnna Gonzales waited almost impatiently on U.S. Highway 84, straining to see the Peñasco High School activities bus. It was already after 5 p.m. on Nov. 4, and the clock was ticking in the Lady Panthers head volleyball coach’s head.
Sure, the bus carried members of the school’s cross country team that repeated as Class 1A/2A champions that morning — most of whom also doubled as volleyball players — but Peñasco had one more bridge to cross. There was a District 5-2A volleyball tournament championship to be decided, and the Lady Panthers already were close to missing the 7 p.m. start in Tierra Amarilla against Escalante.
“I kept looking at my watch and wondering, ‘Where are they?’” Gonzales recounted. “They finally showed up, and I asked the bus driver, ‘How fast does this go?’ He was like, ‘I’m sorry. We came from Albuquerque.’ I told him that was fine, just get us there safe.”
That, the driver did — with 15 minutes to spare before first serve. Peñasco got an extra 10 minutes to warm up before completing a hectic day with another piece of hardware to go with its shiny new blue trophy — a district volleyball championship and an automatic spot in the 2A state tournament. Peñasco earned the 12th and final seed in the 2A bracket and will play in the same pool with top seed Logan and No. 8 Tatum Thursday morning at Rio Rancho High School.
It wasn’t easy, as the Lady Panthers endured another marathon, beating the Lady Lobos 21-25, 25-20, 11-25, 25-17, 15-9. When Gonzales talked to her team after a lackluster Game 3, she made it clear the volleyball season was at hand.
Peñasco had an 8-15 record going into the match, and finishing tied for second place in 5-2A wasn’t going to be enough to warrant an at-large bid.
“I told the girls, ‘I know we peaked at the right time, but our record will not allow us into state,’” Gonzales said. “‘We have to win these two games to make it to state.’ They were like, ‘Really, coach?’”
But as the Lady Panthers showed during the season, no obstacle was took big for them. They already balanced two sports and school work, endured a frightening episode in which their team bus was shot at with a pellet gun while leaving Española in September and even overcame an 0-8 start to the season.
What it took, Gonzales said, was communication. She said her players were shy around each other early on in the season, and getting them to talk on the court was almost an exercise in futility. So, Gonzales used a drill during pratice called “Mine.” If a Lady Panther didn’t call for the ball, she was out of the drill. Suddenly, there was chatter.
The Oct. 3 shooting incident, in which an unknown assailant fired a pellet gun at separate buses transporting the Lady Panthers and the Questa boys soccer team through Española, also helped with communication.
“It was scary, but we did a lot of talking and that probably helped draw us even closer together,” Gonzales said. “They were really emotional, but they were also able to put that behind us and learn from that.”
So, when Gonzales got on the team bus over the weekend, it was anything but quiet.
“I was thinking, ‘Maybe they should save all of that energy for Escalante,” Gonzales mused.
The cross country runners wore their medals all the way from Rio Rancho to Tierra Amarilla, and some wouldn’t take them off until they saw their parents at the match.
Those medals went right back around the players’ necks after beating the Lady Lobos. Ironically, the district representative did not bring the district tournament championship medals to the match.
Gonzales isn’t too concerned about it; she believes the Lady Panthers can bring home some more hardware this weekend. Or, at least turn some heads.
“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people at state,” Gonzales said.
At least she won’t be wondering where her girls are at.
James Barron is sports editor for The New Mexican. This story was first published in The New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.