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Two teams that took completely different paths are on the verge of where everyone expected them to arrive since the beginning of the high school volleyball season.

The only difference from a year ago is that just one McAllen Memorial or Sharyland High will be playing in Friday’s UIL Class 5A Sweet 16. The District 31-5A rivals meet at 6:30 p.m. today at McAllen Memorial. Last year, they both advanced to that round.

Sharyland High’s Kassandra De La Garza, middle, with a hit against Sharyland Pioneer’s Hailey Botello, left, and Itzel Hernandez, right, during a game at Sharyland Pioneer High school gymnasium Saturday, September 23, 2023 in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Sharyland is 44-1, the two-time defending District 31-5A champion and winner of 43 straight matches, the longest active streak in Texas in any class. The Rattlers also have won 82 of their past 85 matches dating back to last season.

Their only loss came to PSJA High during the second match of the season Aug. 10 almost three months ago.

“We reminded them about losing to any team we can on any day,” Sharyland head coach Raul Castillo said. “I don’t think we had a bad game that day, we just were not ready to play and they were. It doesn’t matter who is across the net, the best or the worst team, you need to be just as ready, you don’t need to be putting in extra reps or jumps. Since that game they just took off.”

Their only district loss during the past two years came last year, when McAllen Memorial snapped Sharyland’s 30-match win streak. Since then, the Mustangs are 0-3 against them, including a five-set thriller Oct. 7 at Memorial. The Rattlers have lost just 11 of 121 sets for the season, a .909 winning percentage.

That doesn’t make it any easier this time for the Rattlers, Castillo warned.

“In this case, the team that hasn’t won starts to figure out the opponent more, and they become more dangerous because they’ve had time to watch and pick up on a lot of habits,” Castillo said. “We have that same advantage, but we can’t’ get overconfident.

“They are one of the toughest teams we’re going to face. We are not going to stop every ball that Leah (Garcia) or Amare (Hernandez) or (Madisyn) Sosa are going to hit. They’re beasts. We just try to minimize the damage they do. It comes down to what the kids are capable of doing.”

Juniors Kenisha Martinez and Kassandra De La Garza lead the Rattlers. Martinez, last year’s Volleyball Player of the Year, averages 4.5 kills per set, ranking her 13th in the state, according to Max Preps. De La Garza averages another 2.7 kills per set.

Hernandez, Garcia and Sosa, all seniors, combine for 10.2 kills per set for the powerfully offensive Mustangs, who are 32-17 overall and finished fourth at 13-5 in District 31-5A.

“They’re definitely not a four-seed,” Castillo said. “They are a great team, and you couldn’t ask for more than this matchup.

“These girls are hungry, and making it 44 would be that much sweeter to go face what we have to face. We want to measure ourselves here and have a good game trying to get (to the Sweet 16). We have to try to break that glass ceiling for Valley teams.”

The Mustangs also had arguably the toughest schedule of any Valley team, facing powers such as PSJA (37-5), San Antonio O’Connor (29-15), Cedar Park (30-16), Davenport (42-5), San Antonio Brennan (38-7) and Dripping Springs (46-6) among others, along with district foes McHi (36-9), Pioneer (39-6) and, of course, Sharyland (44-1).

They also were plagued with injuries and illness throughout the season. But when it comes playoff time, that may be the biggest tradition Memorial has. It knows how to win in the postseason.

“Something we know is that we’re not a fourth-place team. We are a first or second-place team, and we knew this would be tough to get back here and get back to our goal but we are very excited to play Sharyland,” said Sosa, who injured her knee at Sharyland during their first district matchup and missed a good portion of the season after that. “It’s redemption and, for me, it’s closure.”

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