Since missing the state tournament in four consecutive years from 2012 to 2015, the Dulce High School volleyball team has become a usual contender in Class 2A.
After returning to state in 2016, the Lady Hawks made their third straight appearance in 2018, which marked the pinnacle of the program’s recent success.
Dulce danced its way all the way to the championship match, and although they lost 3-0 (25-18, 25-22, 25-12) to Texico High School, the run through the tournament was a magical one.
Not only did it feature a dominant pool play effort, a sweep over Mescalero Apache School in the quarterfinals, but the Lady Hawks’ semifinal 3-2 (8-25, 26-24, 25-23, 20-25, 18-16) win over Mesilla Valley Christina School is what lives in memory.
“I could say last year was last year, but when we sit and have water breaks or we have that little team hangout day, we talk about last year and for sure we talk about Mesilla Valley,” Dulce head coach Kathy Salazar-Valdez said. “We for sure talk about that, and to me, that was the game; that was the championship game for us right there. I enjoy when they talk about it because I see the spark in their faces.”
That victory not only gave the Lady Hawks their first-ever championship match birth, but it also marked the first team from Dulce — regardless of sport — to reach a state final.
Salazar-Valdez said she’s unsure how last year’s magical run that resulted in the red runner-up trophy will affect her team’s mentality heading into this season.
She did point out that the quick, two-day turnaround after the state championship match to basketball season almost made the experience become lost in the shuffle.
“Maybe it’s a devil in disguise because we’re just getting to feel the emotions from it now,” she said. “I’ve been sitting here and praying a lot and asking myself, ‘How am I going to enter this season? Do I talk about last season and use that in my opening speech or do I let that go?’”
Salazar-Valdez still has some time to make that decision before the Lady Hawks begin their campaign on Aug. 27 when they host Cuba High School.
However, one thing is for certain, and that is Dulce returns five starters from last year’s team.
They graduated rotation player Brooke Vigil, but they will most miss the services of New Mexico High School Coaches Association North-South All-Star selection and First-Team All-State player Jaelynn Reval, who began her career at Lamar Community College this past week.
“Some of the girls are missing her and thats a big transition,” Salazar-Valdez said about Reval. “They’re struggling with that a little bit. My coaching staff and I talk to them and keep them on a positive track, letting them know everything is going to be OK.”
Since starting the offseason program in April, the two players who have been most present and committed just also happen to be two of the most important returning pieces for the Lady Hawks.
Left-handed outside/middle hitter Caitlin Duncan has been a force over the past few years, and her offensive production should increase even more so this season with the departure of Reval.
Duncan — a First-Team All-State middle hitter — will benefit from setter Jasmine Salazar, who is entering her fourth year as a starter.
The junior was also a First-Team All-State selection, and she has held the position since the eight grade. Salazar-Valdez said she’s seen a bulk of new confidence from her setter after she was chosen to be a demo setter at the University of Texas Longhorns' Advanced Setting Clinic in July.
Duncan had a tight-knit relationship with the Reval, so improving her chemistry with Salazar has been a major area of focus this offseason. The two players have different personalities, Salazar-Valdez said.
“Caitlin is an athlete who tends to want to be on her own,” she said. “She likes to withdraw and sit on that chair with her music and think about her play. Jasmine and Jaelynn, they’re barking, cheering and are nonstop on the bus. Jasmine and Caitlin started doing that earlier in the summer, and they would sit and talk and when practice was over, they’d ask to spend some more time on the court and work on that connection with each other.”
Sophomore middle Tionne Lovato should expect to have a greater impact with more “power plays” coming her way, and other hitters returning are junior Kierston Vicenti and senior Kristen Manwell.
Alancia Herrera will be back at libero, and she will be working alongside a new, young defensive specialist in eighth-grader Bailey Vigil.
“I feel our strength is we are still going to be a united team and will still have what we had when we left last year,” Salazar-Valdez said. “The monkey wrench is a new defensive specialist that I need to work with. With her being so young, working on volleyball rules, how to pass, how to drop step, that will take some time.”
Another young product the head coach is excited about is outside hitter Jasmine Keith. Like Vigil, Keith is also an eighth-grader that will need some time to polish her skills, but at her current age, her ceiling for improvement is limitless.
“Superb little young athlete, just superb,” Salazar-Valdez said about Keith. “She has athletic skills that are just jumping every which way. She jumps almost as high as Caitlin Duncan. I’m very excited for her, however, I just need to get that confidence and timing of jumping and hitting the ball going for her.”
Dulce’s early, non-district schedule features just four matches in addition to a stop at the Piedra Vista Tournament. The small portion size of non-district play coincides with the large District 1-2A, which again features seven total schools.
The Lady Hawks steamrolled their way through the District last season with a 12-0 unblemished mark, and Rehoboth Christian School was the only team to push Dulce past a third set.