AZTEC — Senior Vanessa Chavez has been at the epicenter of the Aztec volleyball team's worst-to-first campaign in 2016.
A versatile player and hard worker who is never emotionally erratic on the court, the middle blocker and outside hitter is one of the reasons Aztec received the No. 6 seed in this year's 5A state tournament.
"She's our quiet leader out there. She's our leader by example," Aztec coach Anna Strauss said. "She does everything well, and she's just a great kid and a great student-athlete."
Aztec, which went 4-17 last season and 0-10 in District 1-5A, not only crawled out of the district cellar this season, but it left no qualms about who was the best team in the area.
Behind Chavez's team-leading 110 solo blocks, 41 serving aces and ultra-efficient .335 percent hitting percentage, the Lady Tigers went 10-0 against district competition on their way to a 1-5A championship, which they earned by sweeping Farmington on Saturday.
Chavez said going from zero wins in the district to zero losses was the product of improved team chemistry and mental strength.
"We just grew a lot mentally. We learned how to handle the pressure more," Chavez said. "Because last year, if we were behind, we would just, like, flip out on each other, instead of handling it and getting past it."
Fortunately for Chavez and Aztec, there haven't been many reasons for the Lady Tigers to react that way, simply because the team has been so dominant. Out of their 16 wins, 11 have come via clean 3-0 sweeps.
On the few occasions Aztec has fallen into mid-match slumps, Chavez and the other five seniors on the team have demonstrated the ability to calm each other and their teammates.
Most of the mental blocks Aztec had to hurdle came during the off-season. Fresh off the 17-loss campaign, the returning players had to learn to play with confidence and carry themselves like winners. Chavez said she and her teammates spent a lot of time together over the summer, and that helped turn things around.
With better chemistry and mental strength came maturity, Strauss said.
"I always believe the ones who can get over adversity and be resilient are the ones who are going to be the most successful people in the long run," Strauss said. "And sometimes, like last year, you have to take those lumps in order to get better. This is a crazy game because it's a game of mistakes. We made our mistakes last year, and now we're growing from them."
Chavez's on-court contributions have also sparked Aztec's amazing turnaround. Her team-high hitting percentage, which was third in 5A, speaks to her court awareness.
Strauss said Chavez is one of the few players on the team who can predict sequences on the court before they happen.
"I always call them hound dogs, the players like Vanessa that know where the ball is and where it's gonna be," Strauss said. "She reads everything so well."
Chavez has proven to be a coach's dream by establishing herself as one of the district's best servers, attackers and blockers. Her coach said she thrives at every position on the floor.
"You would not expect a 6-foot-tall middle blocker to come back and serve as well as she does," Strauss said. "She honestly is an all-around player. If I needed her to be a setter, I think she could in there and be a good setter, or libero."
Chavez's versatility was on full display during the district-title clinching match over Farmington, as she registered 10 total blocks, seven kills and three aces.
The Lady Tigers will ride into state on a 12-match win streak. Chavez, who last made the postseason trip to Rio Rancho in 2014 as a sophomore, is approaching the state tourney like she has approached every game this year — laid back. And she's encouraging her teammates to feel the same way.
"Don't freak out, just take it in and enjoy it," Chavez said. "Because it could be your last time at state."
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.
A closer look: Vanessa Chavez
1. Favorite team?
"The Penn State volleyball team."
2. Favorite athlete?
3. Favorite food?
4. Favorite show on Netflix?
5. Favorite subject in school?
6. Least favorite subject?
7. Favorite band?
8. Do you play any other sports?
"No, just volleyball."
9. What is the first thing you would do with $1 million?
"Buy a bunch of food."
10. Do you have any pre-game rituals?
"No, I don't think I have any."