By MIKE PHILLIPS / Corsicana Sun
Her voice cracked, fading to a whisper.
It was almost gone, all gone, like everything else about the night, the match and the moment.
But Carolina Barbosa was hanging on, finding the words in that soft almost silent voice — hanging on just the way she and the rest of Navarro’s volleyball team had hung on all night.
That’s all that she had now, that steady whispering voice. Everything else had been left on the court — everything.
That’s the way Navarro wanted it to be, almost needing it to be that way. How else are you going to grow? How else are you going to soar? That’s where the Bulldogs were Wednesday night, growing, soaring and embracing each other and this oh-so-wonderful five-set victory over Trinity Valley.
It might just be the turn-around moment in a turn-around season.
It could mean that much down the road, and there wasn’t a player in this program who didn’t know just how much it meant at the moment.
“It meant so much. It meant a lot because of last season,” Barbosa said in a voice just loud enough to hear on a night when Navarro was shouting. “We had such a bad season. We never beat Trinity.”
They didn’t beat anyone in the conference last year in a silent 0-for-Region XVI season that saw the Bulldogs go winless in the conference and just 6-31 for the year. How do you come back from that?
Enter Ronda Shirley, a Hall of Fame coach who somehow landed in Navarro like the Wizard of Oz, right out of Kansas, where she became a legend at Hutchinson. There was a stop at Tyler before her long road took her to Highway 31 and Navarro, where suddenly there’s no place like home in the Wolens Center, where the band has never been louder or sounded better and the volleyball program has been lifted right off the ground.
“Oh my God! She’s great. We love her,” Barbosa said. “She knows so much about the game, and she gives the game to us.”
Hayley Daniel quickly added: “She’s like a mom and a coach — all wrapped into one. We love her.”
Shirley’s kids have now won five in a row and are not only 8-3 for the season with the only losses coming to nationally ranked teams, but they are 1-0 in a conference race that was heartless a year ago.
Yes, Carolina Barbosa, this one meant so much.
It was the conference opener, and it was against TVCC, a team ranked 14th in the nation and a team that was not only unbeaten at 8-0, but a team that hadn’t lost a set all year.
No one outside Corsicana gave Navarro a chance. But that’s why this one felt so good and tasted so sweet. It’s why the Navarro women broke out in celebration, leaping and shouting in the middle of the court when they put away the fifth set 15-13.
All five sets were like that, a point or two away all night. Neither team could run and hide, and every three-point lead was erased, even the rare five-point leads vanished, and every set was gut-wrenching.
“It was crazy,” Barbosa said, describing just how tense and energizing it felt to play in such an adrenaline-pumping match of will and nerves.
“It was intense,” said Daniel, who like Barbosa had a tremendous night. “It was intense all night. You would be right there, and then it wouldn’t be there,” she said of the way no lead was safe. “We just had to keep pushing, and pushing each other to finish and get through it.”
Daniel came through with the biggest kill of the night when she untied a 13-13 knot that put Navarro one point away in the fifth set. The final point finally came moments later when TVCC’s return hit the out of bounds pole on the left side of the net.
Navarro’s joy devoured the court.
It had been simmering since the two powers staged a marathon in the opening set that didn’t end until Navarro out-willed and out-played TVCC 29-27, giving a whole meaning to the term, “deuce,” when Biatriz Berti’s final serve cut through TVCC and landed just inbounds, hitting the floor and all but knocking out the Cardinals. Daniel’s kills produced Navarro’s 26th and 27th points.
The Cardinals survived 25-22 in the second set, but Navarro took a 2-1 lead in sets with a 25-19 win in the third in what felt like a rout in such a tense match. Libero Alice Bermudez, who led the Dawgs with 10 digs (all memorable) and a pair of aces, had her best dig of the night to save the volley that ended with Daniel slamming in the 25-19 nail.
TVCC came right back to win 25-23, but it was dramatic. Navarro was down 24-19 when the Dawgs stormed back with a four-point run to close to 24-23 on a slam by Daniel, an ace from Bermudez and back-to-back points from Barbosa, who scored on a block and a kill to make it 24-23, lifting the crowd to its feet.
Then came the fifth set, the dig by Bermudez, the slam by Daniel and the celebration.
Barbosa and Daniel each finished with 16 kills — each more significant than the last. Barbosa also had seven blocks and Daniel came through with two big blocks. Navarro’s setter Ivona Vojvodic had 25 assists and three kills and played an errorless match.
The Dawgs had heroes everywhere from Brazil’s Larissa Perez to Slovakia’s Viktoria Veilika, who both had their moments at the net, to Destiny Henderson, who is from Waxahachie. From Berti, who was invaluable at times diving to the floor and stopping shots to keep the ball alive, to Paola Lopez-Sanabria, who came up with big plays in big moments, to Shelby Heitkamp, a situational server who stepped up off the bench all night.
No one knows how far Wednesday’s victory can take Navarro, but Shirley knows this team needed this kind of win.
“I’m happy for them,” she said. “I’m happy for the ones who were here last year. I want them to feel what this feels like. To me, it’s important that they feel this. My concern is they work hard and get better, and they’ve been doing that. If you work hard the wins will come.”
Others are noticing. When the first national volleyball poll of the year came out Wednesday morning Navarro was ranked 19th in the nation. Imagine the jump from oblivion to No. 19. It’s unimaginable.
Just not to Shirley. She is all about teaching and pushing and lifting kids and programs. She has done it everywhere she has been, and she’s doing it at Navarro.
“I knew they were capable of doing this, but I think they still doubted,” she said. “We have to put the pieces together. They’re buying into the team concept. They’re a great bunch of young ladies.
“It feels good,” she said. “I want to breed a culture, and it feels good that I can go another place and breed that culture.”
“We’re going to turn heads and make people believe,” Daniel said. “This is only the beginning.”
DINKS: The Bulldogs Wednesday played their third 5-game match of the season and claimed their first win. The team dropped two 5-gamers to Hill (-13 and -12 in the fifth)….TVCC entered zone play with an eight-match winning streak, all by 3-0 counts….Beginning this year, Region XIV East Zone will certify only three of its four teams for the post-season tournament. When the first regular-season poll came out Wednesday, all four squads — Panola, TVCC, Navarro and Tyler — were listed among the Top 22 receiving votes…..Navarro is scheduled to host Wharton County in a 5 pm non-conference matchup Thursday at the Wolens SEC. Wharton (0-1) opened its season August 23 against TVCC, but has not played since Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast. Wharton had been scheduled to compete in two invitationals at San Jacinto College that were cancelled. WCJC allowed students to begin moving into dorms September 4 and 5, and classes began Wednesday…..During 2016’s 6-31 season, Navarro lost its final 14 matches and dropped a total of 18 by 3-0 scores.
WEDNESDAY’S JUNIOR COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL MATCHES
Navarro 3, TVCC 2
Tyler 3, North Central Texas 1
Panola 3, San Jacinto 0
Region V West
NMMI 3, Clarendon 0
Odessa 3, Frank Phillips 0
Midland 3, Western Texas 2