Rio Grande Valley high school sports team state champions are few and far between. While several Valley soccer teams, including the 2011-2012 Sharyland Rattlers boys team, have accomplished this impressive feat, only a handful of Valley teams in other sports have reached the pinnacle of high school sports as the top team in the Lone Star State.
Last Saturday, the Juan Diego Academy Lady Lions volleyball team took to the court at the South San ISD Activity Center in San Antonio with the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) 1A state championship on the line.
The Lady Lions earned this right by compiling an impressive 36-3 record, including a straight sets victory over Fredericksburg in the bi-district round, a four set victory over San Antonio Gateway in the area round, a straight sets victory over San Marcos Hill Country Christian School in the regional semifinal round and last Thursday’s straight sets victory over Bellville Faith Academy in the state semifinal round.
Located south of Mission, in the shadows of the old St. Joseph and St. Peter Seminary, Juan Diego Academy is a private regional Catholic high school with a current enrollment of 129 students. Of those 129, 13 are members of the Lady Lions varsity volleyball team. Those 13 girls made the trip to San Antonio as regional champions and returned as state champions with a 25-17, 25-22, 22-25 and 25-21 championship game victory over Lubbock All Saints Episcopal School.
Two of the Lady Lions’ standouts are transfers from McAllen Memorial High School – senior Jasmine Long and junior Elouise “Elie” Kittleman.
While Juan Diego Academy did get as far as the state semifinal game last year, Kittleman is in her first year on the Lady Lions’ squad making this her first trip to the state tournament. That made the entire experience an especially memorable one for her.
“It was really exciting,” declared Kittleman. “We had a lot of support going to the game. I had never felt so much support and love. It was just exciting and fun!”
As for what she felt going into Saturday’s championship game Kittleman said, “Obviously the nerves were there; I’m not going to lie. We were all nervous and excited. But we all had confidence in each other and we knew that we could do it.”
In her second year as a Lady Lion, Long was part of the team that qualified for the state tournament last year but lost to San Antonio Gateway in the semifinal round. Long believes that having been there before helped the Lady Lions this year.
“I think that we weren’t mentally ready last year,” Long said. “This year though we conditioned a lot more so I think that not only were we more mentally prepared this year but we were also more physically prepared.”
As for what she felt the moment the Lady Lions scored the final point and became state champions Long said, “It was something unforgettable. All the work that we had put in that led up to that last point. While we were a little shaky in the third set, we came back and we knew what we had to do. We knew we could do it and winning the state championship made all our hard work pay off.”
Lady Lions head volleyball coach Vic Garza shared what having the support of the fans meant to him and his team.
“We counted and we had about 214 people at the game,” Garza said. “They were definitely the loudest fans there. It meant a lot that so many made the trip to support us because they give you some energy and they give you that extra shot of adrenaline that you really can’t get unless you have them there.”
“With so many students, parents, teachers, members of our administration and even board members there that were so committed to cheering us on, that was something that the girls fed off of and they used it to our advantage. It was really sweet,” added Garza.
Next year the Lady Lions will be making the jump from 1A to 3A in order to avoid having to play their district games out of the Valley. While that will make a state championship repeat more challenging, Garza has all the confidence in the world that the 2016 version of the Juan Diego Academy Lady Lions will be ready to take on every challenge they’re faced with just like they were this year.