Lady Cardinals defeat Lady Eagles, win first district title in 15 years

BROWNSVILLE — The No. 25 Harlingen High Lady Cardinals already had at least a share of the District 32-6A title clinched heading into Tuesday’s regular-season finale.

With a win over Brownsville Hanna on the road, the Lady Cardinals could secure the championship — their first in 15 years — outright. Behind strong performances from outside hitter Juli Bryant and setter Juliana Valdez, Harlingen High got the job done with a 26-24, 25-16, 29-9 sweep over Hanna to finish the district season 13-1.

“We had our eyes on this prize, and the fact that we get to open (the trophy box) and do everything we wanted to do since we talked about it last year is amazing. Super proud of these girls,” Harlingen High coach Joslynn Torres said. “It means a lot. Hard work should pay off, and it paid off here. Look what we did. I love it.”

The Lady Eagles, playing in their final match of their season, showed good fight and a lot of hustle as they battled the powerhouse Lady Cards. They kept Harlingen High out of sync during the opening set with scrappy play led by senior libero Rihanna Trevino.

Harlingen High had some early timing and ball control issues, with hits sailing long and lacking its usual gusto. Bryant, Valdez and Casey Vidal created some cushion for the Lady Cards, but Hanna came fighting back. Marlen Gutierrez and Aliyah Castillo were strong at the net to get Hanna within two and fought off four set points, but Harlingen High took the slim win.

The Lady Cardinals made some adjustments in the second set and rode the hot hand of Bryant to close out the win during the second and third sets. Bryant, playing at the middle pin instead of her usual outside position, was pounding down hits and working around the Hanna block to rack up 25 kills.

“I think Juli Bryant kind of took it into her own hands, like, ‘Hey, we need to settle down and get this over with,’” Torres said. “Juli plays where she’s comfortable. She’s a great outside hitter and a great middle blocker. So today, she went middle. That’s where she was feeling it, that’s where she was hot, so we’re going to go until they know how to defend it.”

Along with Gutierrez and Castillo, Carolina Mendez and Gallilea Andrade played tough up front for Hanna. They got touches with the block and used a good mix of hits and well-placed tips to keep the Lady Eagles fighting. Alyssa Rios contributed some nice back-row defense and notched good digs.

Closing her Hanna career in front of a home crowd, Trevino shined and surpassed 500 digs in the district season. She was tough at the service line and hit well in the back row. Trevino used tireless defense and solid passing to fire up her team, diving for digs and getting under hard hits to elongate rallies and keep Hanna fighting. She’s one of several seniors Hanna coach Ansgar Hagemann praised for setting an example of hard work and dedication.

“(Trevino) did what she does best,” Hagemann said. “She’s an amazing libero, and she has a really high game IQ. She’s the complete package as a player, very unrivaled from the liberos I’ve had in this program.

“This has to be one of my best groups, even if they didn’t finish in the playoffs. I’m very pleased with the way they developed technically and the heart they put out there throughout the season.”

Valdez recorded 40 assists and got Harlingen High’s offense producing more efficiently as the match went on. She was also strong as a server and played solid defense, hustling around the court to get the Lady Cardinals in system.

“It feels great. It’s crazy, but we did it. We’ve worked so hard and we’ve come a long way,” Valdez said. “My girls, they’re all amazing players. And the coaches pushed us a lot. We’ve proven ourselves to a lot of people that didn’t think we could make it this far. We’re so ready for playoffs.”

Valdez said the Lady Cards have worked a lot on the mental side of the game, and they’re feeling prepared for whatever’s coming in the postseason. Torres likes the consistent level of play her team has shown, even with a target on its back, and feels the team is trending the right way for playoffs.

“The consistency throughout the entire district play is exactly what we wanted, exactly what we needed. We look amazing heading into playoffs,” Torres said.