RIO HONDO — The Rio Hondo Lady Bobcats have spent the past few seasons sneaking into the playoffs as the fourth seed in District 32-4A, then making an early exit in the bi-district round.

This year, they wanted more. With seven seniors leading the way, the Lady ’Cats went 10-0 in 32-4A, clinching the program’s first district championship and first undefeated district season. Now, they have their sights set on making more history with a playoff victory.

“Getting that first district championship was amazing, because every year I’ve been here we’ve been fourth, so now going into the playoffs, I feel really good,” senior outside hitter Alexis Rhyner said. “I’ve heard a lot of talk about how a lot of Rio Hondo teams go undefeated and then lose in the first round of playoffs. I want to change that, especially for volleyball. I’ve never heard of us winning a playoff game, so I at least want to win one. I think that would be amazing.”

Rhyner, an every-rotation player, and senior middle blocker Alyssa Silguero are four-year letterwinners who anchor Rio Hondo’s tall, athletic offensive attack.

Silguero is a power hitter, but her skills aren’t limited to the front row. First-year coach Esther Pena praised Silguero’s tough serving and said despite her height, she hustles for digs when she’s in the back row. Silguero said the strong chemistry the team has, which starts with the tight-knit senior class, has been a big factor in their program-changing season.

“All the seniors, since we’ve all grown up together, we’re used to playing all sports with each other, so everyone came together (this year) and we’ve had a great year,” Silguero said. “We’re making history here, and it feels so amazing to be a part of it. It’s such an honor. I really hope we make it far in playoffs. We’re really doing great this year, and we’ve worked really hard.”

Setter Jalyssa Sauceda is another experienced senior playing a big role for Rio Hondo. Pena credited Sauceda for adjusting to the increased responsibility of running a 5-1 system this season, making her the lone setter instead of splitting time with a second setter as she did previously.

Sauceda said she’s “so proud” of some other seniors who have stepped up this season, even after not playing last year. Senior libero Karley Lozano is someone Pena lauded for having a key role. Sauceda felt this team was capable of great things early in the season, and credited Pena’s leadership for sparking consistent improvement.

“When we started tournaments, I knew there was chemistry. Everyone was working well together. Once we got to our first district game, it was, like, wow,” Sauceda said. “Our offense has really gotten better. We’re not just a hitting, pounding team. We can do tips, roll shots, hit different spots on the court. …

“I knew that (Pena) was going to be hard on us because she wanted us to be how we are right now,” Sauceda continued. “She made us overcome plenty of obstacles, which I’m really happy about. I feel we have a really good chance (in the playoffs). Watching film and just waiting to see who we’re going to play next makes me so anxious and so excited at the same time.”

Rio Hondo’s bi-district match is set for at 6 p.m. Monday in Falfurrias against Robstown or Kingsville King.

“We told them this is a whole new season, so we’ve really turned up the intensity in practice,” Pena said. “I’m extremely proud of them. It meant a lot to me (to win the championship). There were some days I felt I wanted it more for them than they did for themselves. They’re a really hard-working group, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Pena has coached in Rio Hondo for six years, but this is her first season leading a program. She emphasized making her players good at everything instead of at one particular skill, and the well-roundedness of the versatile, coachable athletes has been a major boost.

But more than anything, Pena believes the Lady Bobcats’ tenacity and desire to change the program led to making history, and she hopes it’ll continue.

“Their hustle is a strength, being able to come out and give it their all,” Pena said. “We’ve been in holes, down by 10 or 12 points, and we’ve been able to come out of it. I think a big difference in this year is they’re not giving up. They want it.”

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