Ironwood Ridge coach Bill Lang had grand visions of 2020 for his team as evidenced by him trying to showcase the Nighthawks and two of the top players in the state — outside hitter Alyssa Feltman and middle blocker Rumur Rouille — with trips scheduled for tournaments at Chicago, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
COVID-19 canceled that plan. The pandemic also forced the Nighthawks’ season opener to be pushed back from August all the way until Wednesday night against visiting Sunnyside.
With the preparation out of kilter for this season — “We’re taking things very slowly,” Lang said — the situation was made worse when Feltman suffered a torn ACL last Thursday during practice. She will be out until she attends Arizona on a beach volleyball scholarship, her senior season unfortunately over before it started.
.@nighthawkvb outside hitter Ali Cordova talks about her performance tonight against Sunnyside after replacing injured outside hitter Alyssa Feltman, one of the top players in the state who is bound for the @ArizonaBVB program. pic.twitter.com/qDFkznxS2Y
“It’s definitely hard when we lose one of our best players and our captain … so close to our first game,” said Ali Cordova, a senior who replaced Feltman as an outside hitter. “I know we were all thinking of her tonight as well. It’s really hard not to be with her.”
Feltman watched from home on Facebook Live as Ironwood Ridge still managed to start their season strong sweeping Sunnyside 3-0 (25-10, 25-6, 25-15).
The play of Cordova and Gabrielle Suarez as outside hitters and Rouille (playing through shoulder pain) and Lauren Barberii in the middle was too much for Sunnyside (0-3) in addition to the 25 aces served up by the Nighthawks. Sophia Gomez and junior Morgan Stewart contributed most of the aces, which put Sunnyside behind big early in each set.
Gomez was also effective setting up Cordova and Suarez for devastating kills.
“I always try to spread out the offense because I know I have good hitters,’ said Gomez, a senior setter. “I try to make it equal because they are all talented.”
The match with Sunnyside was Ironwood Ridge’s first of 14 in a span of only 22 days. Such is the way of this pandemic-affected season.
With the loss of Feltman, the injury to Rouille, and the abnormal start of the season because of COVID-19, Lang is uncertain of Ironwood Ridge’s prospects.
“(If) we had a full offseason, I think that this is a final four team. Right now? I don’t know,” he said. “We’re going to take it game by game. Our biggest goal is to finish the season, being safe off the court, obviously, and being safe with each other so we can finish the season. We’ll get better game by game.”
Lang has experience on his side with seven of his top contributors being seniors — Jaedyn Azares (defensive specialist), Barberii (libero), Cordova, Rouille, Sydni Soloway (libero), Suarez and Gomez.
“Alyssa is such a big part of our team; she’s a four-year letterwinner for Ironwood Ridge, only the third player who would have earned four letters at Ironwood Ridge in 20 years,” Lang said. “She’s also a really good friend with all of these girls. Her size and her explosiveness are one thing that we’re missing, but we’re really missing her personality and her trust in her teammates and their trust in her.
“We’re kind of working through that, and like Sophia said we’re going to play this season for her.”
Sunnyside coach Pamela Robles has some hope for the future with the play of freshman middle blocker Lauryn Carbajal, who was one of the Blue Devils’ top performers. Robles, a former Sunnyside and Pima College player, coached Carbajal at Gallego Intermediate in 2018 before coaching at Sunnyside last season.
Carbajal’s teammates chanted, “Freshman, Freshman,” after one of her blocks against Ironwood Ridge’s veteran attackers.
Both teams have quick turnarounds playing Thursday. Ironwood Ridge will host Flowing Wells while Sunnyside travels to Cienega.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.