Lady Cards make a statement with district-opening sweep of Rivera

BROWNSVILLE — The Harlingen High Lady Cardinals are on a mission to rewrite the volleyball program’s history books this season.

They’re on the right track one month into the season, boasting a 22-5 record and a No. 18 ranking in Class 6A from the Texas Girls Coaches Association — the first state ranking they’ve had in more than 20 years.

Harlingen High took the first step toward a big goal — clinching its first district championship in 15 years — in Tuesday’s District 32-6A opener. The Lady Cardinals swept defending district champion Brownsville Rivera 25-22, 25-20, 25-19, handing the Lady Raiders their first district loss since 2019.

“They came out … and 100 percent threw (Rivera) off their game. I’ve never seen Rivera play like that because they’re a great team,” Harlingen High coach Joslynn Torres said. “I’m so proud of them. It sets the tone for our main goal, and that’s the district championship. We’ve got our eyes on the prize, and they’re executing very well.”

Rivera started the match by maintaining a two-point lead early in the first set. The Lady Raiders’ hitters were swinging well while the Lady Cardinals were tipping often, which Rivera’s defense, anchored by libero Richelle Guerra, took advantage of. Kenya Ibarra, Emily Morales, Nyla Trevino and Alondra Garza all picked up kills to aid Rivera’s offense.

Outside hitter Casey Vidal’s powerful swing and libero Elena Aguinaga’s tough serving got Harlingen High on a roll. Aguinaga challenged Rivera’s serve-receive, and Vidal and middle blocker Aaliyah Gomez came up big at the net with blocks and kills to aid a six-point run, putting the Lady Cards on top 13-8.

Rivera responded with a pair of blocks by Morales and heavy hits from Ibarra to pull even at 13, then a back-row kill by Guerra gave the Lady Raiders back their edge. The teams played each other tight and swapped points until Vidal took over the back end of the set. She used a well-placed tip and a service ace to give Harlingen High some cushion, then clinched the opening set with a kill.

The Lady Raiders again had a lead early in Set 2. Garza, Ibarra and Kimberly Chavez played well at the net to put Rivera up 15-10 midway through the frame. But as Harlingen High’s hard hits from Vidal, Bryant and Gomez got Rivera’s usually top-notch defense on its heels, the Lady Cardinals came roaring back.

Poor passing kept Rivera out of system and scrambling, and Harlingen High took advantage of the inconsistent attack. A kill from Vidal gave the Lady Cards their first lead at 18-17, and then the combination of her swing and Aguinaga’s serving again gave the Lady Raiders fits as Harlingen High went on a run to win the set.

“I just think we came out flat. I just never saw the fire,” Rivera coach Mary Elizabeth Avelar-Guerra said. “You can’t come out flat just because you beat a team in the past. They’re going to try harder, and that’s what happened. They wanted the game more than we did. We weren’t even talking, and I don’t know why.”

Rivera’s communication and energy plummeted during the third set. The Lady Raiders were visibly frustrated as the Lady Cardinals jumped out to a lead.

Harlingen High’s block came up big throughout the match and especially during the final set. Alana Rouquette, Gomez, Vidal and Bryant all recorded blocks and got good touches to slow down Ibarra and Co.’s hits.

“That’s what we’ve been focusing on a lot, so it’s really nice to see it come through. (The block) looked really good tonight,” Torres said. “Alana, she’s a freshman. She’s the baby, but she’s a sponge. Anything that we tell her, she’s going to try her very best.”

After trailing by five, the Lady Raiders trimmed the deficit with hustle plays and some help from Harlingen High errors. But Bryant came up big down the stretch for the Lady Cards to put the game away.

“Harlingen was on fire. That was the difference, they came out to play and we didn’t,” Avelar-Guerra said. “We still have the second half of the season. There’s a lot of good teams (in our district), so we just have to keep fighting and we have to stay up.”

Bryant finished with 17 kills and Vidal added 14. Aguinaga recorded 15 digs and anchored a solid passing effort that helped Harlingen High setter Julie Valdez notch 46 assists.

“This is exactly what we needed as a district opener. It was time, and we showed up and we took care of it,” Torres said.