All-STAR Volleyball: Aguinaga excels in new role, earns defensive award

HARLINGEN — When the Harlingen High Lady Cardinals needed someone to lead the back row, junior Elena Aguinaga stepped up and excelled.

She was one of two setters in Harlingen High’s 6-2 system as a sophomore, but following the 2019 season, the Lady Cardinals graduated their top defensive specialists. Coach Joslynn Torres had minimal time to find a libero, and after watching film of Aguinaga in the position with her club team, Torres said her reaction was, “Holy moly.”

Aguinaga was tasked with leading the defense as the libero and took the position change in-stride. Her fearless play and high volleyball IQ from years of training with select organizations helped her rack up a whopping 532 digs to help the Lady Cardinals reach the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. She is the Valley Morning Star’s All-STAR volleyball defensive player of the year.

“I was so excited when I heard,” Aguinaga said. “Last year our coaches told us, ‘Set a goal for yourself. What are you training for?’ Typically, back row players don’t get much recognition. But without the pass nothing can be done, so my goal was to get some type of recognition, to make some type of noise the upcoming year, and that’s what I did. I’m just so proud that my hard work paid off.”

Aguinaga was a unanimous District 32-6A first team selection. She was a key contributor in Harlingen High’s thrilling five-set win over Edinburg North in the bi-district round, earning the final point in a must-win third set on a back row kill to allow the Lady Cardinals to erase a two-set deficit.

Torres said the effort and leadership Aguinaga displays make her a top-tier libero and worthy to serve as team captain next year as a senior. The coach praised Aguinaga’s poise and never-out mentality, two characteristics that make her a defensive standout.

“Elena takes a lot of pride in everything she does. She is a super hard worker. She will do anything and everything to keep the ball in play,” Torres said. “I am super excited that I still have her for next year because I know it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side, Elena’s going to pick the ball up. She has every cut and bruise you can think of, and the toughness she shows every single day is awesome.”

The pride Aguinaga takes in her play led her to elevate the libero position after earning it. She has been playing volleyball since she was 8 years old, and she used her vast knowledge and experience to contribute in ways some defensive specialists don’t.

“It felt amazing knowing I could do whatever I needed to help my team win games,” Aguinaga said. “As libero, your job technically is just pass. We get put into a stereotype that we’re too short so we can’t hit, or we’re only defense and we can’t set. I know the game so well that when (our setter) couldn’t get there, I was able to get the second ball. And I loved calling for a back row attack and my team actually having the confidence in me to set me up to get the point.”

As Aguinaga reflected on her accomplishments this season and her volleyball career, she was appreciative of her village of supporters for aiding her success.

“My parents have done so much for me, they’ve paid so much money for me to get the training I needed to get to where I’m at right now,” Aguinaga said. “My coaches have all seen potential in me and pushed me, and I’m so grateful for them and for my teammates for always being there and making me laugh and being the best teammates ever, especially this year. And I thank God for everything, because even in this difficult time we still had a season and I appreciate it.”