By George Morse
Down 2-0 and trailing 18-10 in the third set of their District 2-4A volleyball match against rival Pojoaque Valley High School Nov. 1 at Los Alamos, Los Alamos High School came back to defeat the Elkettes 17-25,18-25, 25-23, 25-10, 15-13 to win the District 2-4A regular season title. Los Alamos will host the District 2-4A tournament championship game in Los Alamos.
The dramatic turnaround even caught Los Alamos Coach Joe Palmer by surprise.
“I was already trying to figure out how I was going to prepare them for Monday,” Palmer said.
If Pojoaque had won the match, the Elkettes and the Hilltoppers would have had a playoff game Monday (Nov. 4) on a neutral court to determine the District 2-4A championship. After the first two-and-a-half sets, that certainly seemed like that was going to happen.
“We had 41-42 errors in the first two-and-a-half sets,” Palmer said. “Natalie (Gallegos) had nine. That’s not like her.”
Gallegos is Los Alamos’ best hitter and the one the Hilltoppers depend on to come up with big kills and be an intimidating force. After beginning the first set with a pair of kills, she started to struggle to keep her hits in bounds or sent them into the net.
Pojoaque took advantage of the errors and came up with a few kills of their own by Leah Trujillo and Ashten Martinez to take an 8-3 lead. Thanks to more hitting errors by the Hilltoppers and Pojoaque’s well-known ability to keep points alive, the Elkettes were able to maintain that five-point advantage through the middle of the set, taking leads of 11-6, 15-10 and 20-15 to stay in control. Two more hitting errors gave the Elkettes a 22-17 lead and the serve. Pojoaque reached set point on a kill by Martinez. Los Alamos was called for being in the net and the Elkettes won the first set,
In the second set, the two teams battled back-and-forth in the first half of the set. With the score tied 12-12, Pojoaque put together a key 5-1 run that featured another Los Alamos hitting error on which the Hilltoppers argued the ball had been touched by Pojoaque. They didn’t get the call.
Los Alamos came back to draw within a point of Pojoaque 18-17 when the Elkettes put together a four-point run. A kill by Espe Torres, an ace by Mikayla Padilla, a kill by Martinez and another Los Alamos hitting error gave Pojoaque a 22-17 lead. Kills by Lauryn Gomez and Martinez gave the Elkettes set point. At 24-18, two Los Alamos players couldn’t decide who was going to receive serve. They bumped into each other and the ball fell for an ace, giving Pojoaque the victory and a 2-0 lead.
Clearly shaken and frustrated, the Hilltoppers fell behind 5-1 to start the third set. With the Elkettes leading 10-8, Pojoaque put together a 6-0 run that seemed to put them firmly in control. The score was 18-10 when a kill by Gallegos and a nice block put Los Alamos setter Elise Olivas at the service lie with the score 19-12 in favor of Pojoaque.
Olivas served the next seven points. A kill by Eden Schmierer and a Pojoaque hitting error and suddenly the score was tied 19-19 and Los Alamos had some momentum. Pojoaque got the ball back and led 20-19, but a service error tied the score. Los Alamos took its first lead in the third set 21-20 after a hitting error by Pojoaque.
Los Alamos reached set point 24-22 with a kill by Schmierer. Pojoaque got the serve back trailing 23-24, but the Elkettes sent that serve into the net to give Los Alamos an improbable 25-23 victory. The Hilltoppers were back in the match with momentum shifting to their side.
Now swinging away with confidence, Gallegos took over in the fourth set. She slammed down four kills and the Hilltoppers jumped out to a 7-2 lead. The hitting errors that had deflated her earlier were now a thing of the past.
“My teammates backed me up and pushed me to do what I know how to do,” Gallegos said.
Los Alamos stifled Pojoaque’s attempts at generating an offense with a strong block and Olivas had another long service run of nine points to give the Hilltoppers a commanding 17-4 lead. Los Alamos rolled to a 25-10 victory and the match went to a fifth decisive set.
The fifth set is played to just 15 points. The confident Hilltoppers took leads of 4-0 and 10-5 before Pojoaque’s scrappy style of play put them back in the match. Three kills by Martinez and a nice block got Pojoaque back to within a point 11-12 in the fifth set. A tip by Gallegos and an ace serve by Los Alamos libero Gracie Swenson gave the Hilltoppers set and match point with a 14-11 lead. Pojoaque fought back and was within a point of tying the fifth set. All Los Alamos needed was one good set and one good swing by Gallegos to end the match. It took them awhile to do it. Olivas finally gave Gallegos a set she could really swing at and Gallegos put the ball down to give Los Alamos the victory.
“That was fun,” Palmer said. “In that third set, Michaela (Gonzales) told them to look each other in the face and know you did your best when you walk off the court. They believed in themselves.”
Pojoaque Coach Joe Rodriguez was tired and frustrated at the end of the match.
“We need that killer instinct,” Rodriguez said. “We just don’t have it. A match can turn around real quick. You’re down and suddenly you are back up.”
Gallegos led the Hilltoppers with 24 kills. Schmierer had 10 kills for Los Alamos. Martinez had 14 kills to lead the Elkettes.
Pojoaque finishes in second place in District 2-4A with a 6-2 record. The Elkettes will play a semifinal game in the District 2-4A tournament Thursday at Pojoaque against a yet-to-be determined opponent. It could be third-place Moriarty High School, which lost both its matches against Pojoaque during the regular season. The Pintos took the Elkettes to five sets both times. Pojoaque is 14-6 on the season
Los Alamos will host the District 2-4A tournament championship game Saturday in Los Alamos. The Hilltoppers finished 8-0 in District 2-4A. Los Alamos 13-7 on the season.