El Centro Cousins providing back row spot for Western Arizona Matadors Volleyball

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Sashiko Sanay
SaSashiko Sanayshiko Sanay

 Jason Smith wasn’t exactly in the mood for a trip to the Imperial Valley. It was the day after his Arizona Western volleyball team beat Eastern Arizona to win the 2012 NJCAA Region I Division I Championship with a trip to Oklahoma looming.

Not only did the trip net him his future starting libero, it ended up leading to him finding his setter for 2013 as well.

The Matadors are getting ready to open the NJCAA National Championship in Casper, Wyo., on Thursday against North Idaho. Libero Jocelyn Heredia Rodriguez and setter Sashiko Sanay Heredia – who are not only both freshman but cousins as well– have been a big part of the team’s success. And if it weren’t for that trip to El Centro last year, Smith may not have found either.

Southwest athletic director Craig Lyon kept sending emails to Smith about a star player the Eagles had, which turned out to be Rodriguez. But Smith said he wasn’t expecting much as he headed west. “I’ve been over there, and I’ve seen the level of volleyball, so I’m thinking this isn’t going to quite be the level I’m looking for,” Smith said. “I was very tired, and the JVs are playing, and I’m like ‘oh my gosh, this level of volleyball is so low. There’s no way these kids can come play for a top 10 team like this.’”

Of course, he was almost instantly proven wrong once the varsity game began.

“I must have looked so stupid in that gym, because Josie started playing and within 60-90 seconds I knew how good she was,” Smith said. “I was sitting there in that gym tired, looking cranky and my mouth was wide open. I couldn’t believe how good she was.”

That was just the start, however. Smith was at a tournament in Las Vegas to watch Rodriguez play for a club team when she mentioned her cousin, Heredia – who spent much of the year competing for the Mexican junior national team.

Jocelyn Rodriguez
Jocelyn Rodriguez

Both Heredia and Rodriguez come from volleyball families – the duo’s mothers are sisters who played college volleyball together.

“They’ve been playing since they were 6 or 7 years old,” Smith said. “They’ll tell you they started playing at 8, but the thing is their moms, who are sisters, were on the same team in college. I think they came out of the womb being able to pass. Sochi’s dad is a coach at a college in Tijuana, and Josie’s dad was a player in Mexicali. They just have grown up playing so much. They’re fundamental skills are so good.”

Rodriguez said she was happy with the way it turned out. “I made the decision first, then I helped her make hers,” Rodriguez said. “Right now we are really happy to be here together because we are like sisters. We do everything together. We always try to help each other.”

Smith had said their passing is a big reason the Matador big hitters have had success this year as AWC (19-4) prepares for the Cardinals (16-10). Heredia doesn’t speak much English, alternating between answering through her cousin acting as a translator or directly in short answers. She said that the relationship between the two translates on the floor.

“I know that she will make a good pass,” Heredia said. And her cousin agreed. “Every pass has to go to her,” Rodriguez said. “If something is wrong with me, something is wrong with her. We have to be helpful with each other and communicate on the court during the games.”

Heredia averaged 9.6 assists per game. Her 2.7 digs per game were second only Rodriguez’s 3.2.  Smith said he’s glad to have two great players in what he called very important positions.

“People don’t understand at the junior college level how important the libero and the setter are,” Smith said. “Josie is the key to our defense and one of our best passers, obviously. And Soshi touches the ball every time. She’s can throw the ball all over the court. Those two make our hitters better.”