RIO RANCHO — A collection of 13 players, but a voice of one.
How else can you explain the 2012 volleyball season of the Pojoaque Valley Elkettes?
Their trials and tribulations have been chronicled and rechronicled — and they will be again here — but to understand how this disparate group survived and thrived amid adversity, you have to recognize the basic principle of the program.
No one player is bigger than the rest.
And no voice is less authoritative than the other.
So, it might appear that Erica Rendon carried the Elkettes to their fourth straight Class AAA title on Saturday afternoon with a 25-15, 25-18, 18-25, 25-14 win over Ruidoso in the title match in the Santa Ana Star Center. But it was the open arms of 12 Elkettes back in September that allowed it to happen.
Rendon transferred from Pojoaque to Albuquerque La Cueva in the summer, but she was not allowed to play volleyball at the school. Given the option to return to Pojoaque, she took it.
“I just wanted to play,” Rendon said. “Whatever it was that came down, I just want to play. I wanted come out and play my hardest.”
She felt awkward when she started practicing mid-September, but within a few days, Rendon admitted it felt like she had never left. Where the Elkettes could have made her re-earn her stripes on the team, they opted to welcome her back.
“We all just work as one,” junior Kristin Woody said. “If someone else comes in or they leave, we just have to stick together, no matter what. And we’re not going to let anything affect us or bring us down.”
Against the Lady Warriors, the Team of One needed one player to lead the way. Ruidoso fed off the energy of a Game 3 win and went hit-for-hit with the Elkettes to start Game 4. When Lady Warriors middle hitter Destri Vincent hammered a kill to the middle for a 12-11 lead, it looked like the Elkettes were shrinking in the spotlight. That’s when Rendon, a senior outside hitter, powered her way to the front of the line.
“Some girls, you’ll see them get down on themselves and start shrugging their shoulders,” senior outside hitter Kristen French said. “But she went out, and she’s such a reliable player. She is a key player. She’s not our star, but she is amazing.”
Consecutive kills by Rendon gave Pojoaque a 13-12 edge, and suddenly, the life was back in Pojoaque’s eyes. Cheyenne Law, the 6-foot-1 junior, had a tip kill past the Ruidoso block. Rendon had a tip kill to the end line. Kristen French served an ace to the midcourt and the score was 17-12.
Vincent had a block from the middle to slow the run, but Rendon smashed a pair of kills for 19-13 and a closing 14-2 run spun into overdrive. Kyra Gonzales finished off Ruidoso with a block and a kill off the block for the final championship points, but it wasn’t possible if not for Rendon.
And head coach Joey Trujillo made it clear what he thought of Rendon.
“If Erica Rendon is not player of the year in triple A, then there is something wrong with the voters,” Trujillo said.
This will bolster his argument. In the biggest match of the season, Rendon had 24 kills, four blocks and five aces. Twelve of her kills came in the final game.
The first half of the match, though, was an example of the balance Pojoaque showed over a 13-1 finish after a 6-4 start. Rendon had 10 kills through the first two games, while Woody added nine, senior middle hitter Kyra Gonzales had four kills and a block and Law recorded a block and three kills as the Elkettes found the holes in a strong defense that carried Ruidoso to upsets over No. 4 Silver and No. 1 Albuquerque Hope Christian.
Ruidoso sealed those openings in Game 3 and Pojoaque felt the frustration that the Lady Colts and Lady Huskies felt on Friday. And the team that swung away freely through two games became timid. Trujillo, though, didn’t believe the teams would get to a fifth game.
“I was counting on our seniors and our experience of being here, versus Ruidoso’s youth and inexperience,” Trujillo said.
The seniors, though, benefitted more from the experiences of a rocky 2012. They lost head coach Brian Ainsworth and setter Briana Ainsworth, Brian’s daughter, to Rio Rancho Cleveland in February. Two other players, including Rendon, left during the spring.
The next four months saw two coaching searches before Gary Morrow was hired, but he quit just three days before the start of the district season. Trujillo took over in an interim capacity, and Rendon returned right after the Tournament of Champions, where the Elkettes took second and started their comeback.
All the while, Pojoaque heard the whispers the program was in decline before the first serve hit the court for the season.
“We heard it all the time, ‘Was Pojoaque even going to be good?’ ” French said. “Because we lost so many people. Yeah, we were rocky at the beginning, but we played as a team.”
It was that element that kept Pojoaque together, and it was more than just the leadership of the seven seniors on the roster.
“If anyone that has been here sees us doing something wrong, we just all contribute to help us,” Woody said. “Even the younger ones, they’ll tell the other ones, ‘Hey, we need to do this.’ It’s just constructive criticism sometimes and we try to help each other. We all work as one.”
In this equation, one equals four — titles, that is. And there’s room for more.
Woody, Law, sophomore Sofia Lucero and junior Chenoah Ortiz are key pieces back. And Trujillo left the team with one piece of motivation.
“It’s not over yet,” Trujillo said. “It’s not over.”
The seed for the drive for five had been just planted.