After 20-month absence, Lady Braves can compete in Class 3A

·6 min read

Oct. 17—Brian Gurule would like to keep his Santa Fe Indian School volleyball team under the radar until the Class 3A State Tournament, but even Angelina Geissinger sees there is futility in her head coach's wish.

Every match the Lady Braves play, especially within the highly competitive District 2-3A, makes it a little bit harder for SFIS to maintain its anonymity. The Lady Braves are 10-8 after sweeping 2A foe Monte del Sol on Saturday afternoon in the Pueblo Pavilion, but it's the performance they had in district play that stands out, especially since the program didn't collectively touch a ball since the Class 3A State Tournament in November 2019.

Geissinger, the Lady Braves' sophomore outside hitter who has risen in prominence, said SFIS has shown it can compete against 3A's best — namely district foes Las Vegas Robertson and St. Michael's.

In a Sept. 30 match against the top-ranked Lady Cardinals, SFIS almost became the second 3A program to take a game off of Robertson. But a 23-21 Game 3 lead evaporated as Robertson rallied to win 27-25 to secure a district sweep. On Tuesday, the Lady Braves won the opening game against the second-ranked Lady Horsemen, 25-21, before losing the next three games.

Those glimpses of what could be have the Lady Braves believing they are not that far away from making a breakthrough, which would shatter the underdog status Gurule, their 10-year head coach, hopes to maintain.

"There is always that element of surprise with us, but I feel like it's not much of a secret anymore," said Geissinger, who played on Santa Fe High's Class 5A runner-up team in the spring since SFIS did not participate in athletics during the 2019-20 school year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gurule said the 2020 team could have competed for the 3A title if it wasn't for the pandemic. Seven 2021 graduates either didn't get a chance to play or went to other schools to finish out their careers. In the process, Gurule found himself in a familiar situation — a team of young, inexperienced players having to play at the varsity level.

That was the narrative of the 2019 team that went 8-17 but reached the 3A state tournament.

"That [2020-21 team] was going to be really good," Gurule said. "In losing them, we had to fill key positions with girls who last played in the seventh or eighth grade and some C team and [junior varsity] players had to move up. It's the lack of experience and the speed of the game that they are having to adjust to. There is going to be some mistakes because of the speed of the game at the varsity level."

Still, the Lady Braves are playing a level that might not be expected from a program that hasn't been together in 20 months. Only two players — Geissinger and senior Cameron Conners, who played at Española Valley — played in the shortened spring season, and freshman setter Haley Aguilar competed in sand volleyball tournaments. The rest of the team? Not a touch since the Lady Braves lost to Albuquerque Sandia Prep in the consolation bracket of the 3A tournament in 2019 or played in middle school.

For Aguilar, it was the latter, as she was a member of the school's seventh-grade team. Now, she is the starting setter, which is a world of difference.

"It's been rough, but I'm getting the hang of it now that I'm playing," Aguilar said. "It's a fun experience, too, because I am this young and I have four years to go."

Gurule said he has exercised patience with this group, which Conners has noticed. She said he has worked hard at being positive with the team and helping the younger players relearn skills that were rusty after 20 months of inactivity.

"Compared to where he was two years ago, he's been really patient," Conners said. "it's good, but it kinda throws you off because you're used to him yelling. But it's really helped us."

Patience and persistently emphasizing the basics have proven to be beneficial. Gurule pointed out that the Lady Braves lost to Taos and Española Valley to start the season, but then beat them in rematches weeks later. SFIS lost to Taos in five games in its season opener but beat the Lady Tigers in five games on Sept. 18. The Lady Sundevils swept the Lady Braves on Aug. 28, but the tables were turned in an Oct. 9 rematch, which SFIS won in four games.

"They are getting confident and they are starting to believe in themselves," Gurule said. "Right now, what we need to learn how to finish teams off. Part of that is winning. You have to remember where they were two years ago."

He pointed to the recent matchups against St. Michael's as an example. In the first match Oct. 5, the Lady Horsemen easily swept them on their home court. A week later, SFIS took Game 1 by a 25-21 count and were within 25-22 in Game 3 before losing in four games. Gurule said getting that kind of exposure to elite-level play will help SFIS grow.

He added the team's work ethic has helped accelerate the learning — and in some cases, the relearning — process.

"It's a big process we're trying to tie in right now," Gurule said. "We're taking baby steps, and we're improving. Coaches keep telling me we're improving. [St. Michael's head coach Valerie Sandoval] said, 'Your girls showed up [Tuesday].' It's nice that we're competitive, but you're also like, 'Come on, let's take this match.' "

Conners has been a centerpiece to the Lady Braves' attack, but she has been getting help over the past month from Geissinger and junior Shade Phea-Young. Geissinger has averaged 13 kills per match since the district season began in late September, while Phea-Young has had just under nine per match in that span.

Phea-Young, who is among the majority of the team who didn't return to the sport until July, said it took her a while to relearn skills she was in the process of acquiring when she was a freshman.

"It's been about going back to the basics again and working my way back to hitting the ball hard again," Phea-Young said. "I'm learning where to place the ball again and where it is open on the other end of the court."

It's those little things that become big as the season progresses, Gurule said. He hopes that it portends to a successful run to end the season — and lends hope that the Lady Braves are on the cusp of becoming a 3A contender. It was the step he and the Lady Braves missed in 2020-21, but he hopes he can retrace those steps with the team.

The girls need to believe in the process," Gurule said. "I keep telling them they are something special and they're going to be something special. They just need to learn to trust each other on the court and just stay aggressive."

At the same time, Gurule hopes the other coaches in 3A sleep on the potential he sees every day.

He'd rather the Lady Braves become the state's best-kept secret.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting