Dec. 8, 2020
By Greg Selber
Early in the fourth period, his team on top by a dozen on the road, Lucio Rodriguez instructed the SaberCats during a timeout.
“This is when we get better,” he told his kids, in a voice harsh and raspy from an hour or more of hollering. “We have to manage this game, don’t let them get back into it.”
“Them” was North, which after a fine first period of play dropped behind Vela in the 31-6A opener, trailing a step late for most of the remainder of the contest. With excellent passing and movement, and eight three-point shots, the Sabes capped an emphatic 62-43 victory and all of a sudden, their middling 3-6 start to 2020 was history.
Before the night began, Rodriguez, who took the Blue and Black to a pair of postseason wins last year, had noted that normally, when district starts, each team has had a ton of games behind it, and is ready for the fight. This time, per COVID, everything is compressed.
“This year, we missed out on a lot of action, no tournaments,” he explained. “And for us, with a basically new team, few seniors, those games would have helped us get further along. But we’re ready to see what we can do tonight.”
They did plenty, with the trademark hustling defensive effort the program is known for, and as the night wore on, the Sabes broke North down on the boards as well, with junior Roland Rodriguez playing a key part in that. He grabbed nine rebounds and neutralized 6-7 big man Eddie Gonzalez of North, who had scored 18 points with nine caroms last time out.
As Vela took control in the second quarter, Rodriguez was prominent down low, barreling for an offensive rebound – and subsequent free throws – and then coming up with a big block; still later, he scored off a feed from junior Alex Mancillas. Tony Requena, one of the most experienced guys from last season, threw in seven in the quarter and when Mancillas converted a loose ball in the North backcourt into a slick runner near the horn, it was 31-23, Vela. And they never looked back.
Requena finished with 17 points with junior Jacob Rodriguez adding 14, senior Victor Silva 12 on four bombs. After a 17-6 second period edge, Vela withstood a surge from North senior Aaron Gonzalez (team-best 18 points, hit three 3’s in the first period) to coast to the W ahead of a home showdown against EHS Friday.
“It was a Rivalry Game and that always gives the guys some extra motivation,” said Rodriguez, whose club was coming off a loss against Los Fresnos in the preseason finale. “These kids know each other, our guys have been playing with the North guys, or against them, since they were small.”
The coach said that this lid-lifter for 32-6A marked his team’s best performance of the year, by far. Coming in, the Sabes had beaten Palmview, Brownsville Hanna, and Brownsville Vets, with losses to Harlingen South, Laredo United, McAllens Rowe and McHigh, Weslaco, and Los Fresnos: all of those schools are perennial playoff stalwarts.
“It’s all about finding your role and being good at it,” Rodriguez commented. “Roland, tonight he was really good at that, he knows what he can do, what we want him to do. If every kid will buy in to his role and then work at it, we’ll be good.”
As for the latter stages of the contest, when Vela was trying to seal the deal after having led by as many as 16 points in the third, it worked like the coach wanted.
“We had told them at halftime, when we were up 8: now is when they [Cougars] will either come back, get their confidence, or we can put it away. The first part of basketball is physical but the second is psychological. I thought we did a good job, when we got ahead, of doing what we had to do, to stay ahead.”
SHARP OUTSET FOR COOGS
Still, it was North that worked into the lead to begin Tuesday, as Gonzalez was on fire and active junior Ethan Garza contributed a blocked shot and drew a charge. The Coogs entered the shootout having beaten Palmview, Pioneer, Edcouch-Elsa, and St Joe, with debits against top-shelf outfits Rowe and Laredo Alexander. Coach Rudy Garcia noted that his crew had hung in there until the fourth period in both defeats.
“We’re still working on our chemistry as a team,” he said before the tip. “So I am anxious to see how we will handle district play.”
The Coogs followed the hot start with a flat second quarter, missing some chippies down low which could have helped had they gone in. Meanwhile, Vela was rising into the eight-point halftime lead. The visitor extended that soon after intermission as Jacob Rodriguez found Roland inside for a hoop and Silva connected from downtown. North threw up an airball at the other end and all told, did not enjoy its most efficient offensive night of the young campaign. Vela’s Silva rang the ball again soon after and it took a three-ball plus a steal-and-hoop from the aggressive vet Gonzalez to keep North within shouting distance.
Requena started the fourth with a great defensive effort for a block and Vela was off and running. Jacob Rod scored seven in the fourth, Silva knocked down another trey, and Requena added six points in the stretch action. Everyone contributed.
Garza of North scored 10 points but for periods of the clash the Vela defense took him out of the mix. Sophomore Christian Faz showed flashes of talent Tuesday and Aaron Lopez canned a long one. But for the most part, the Coogs were rattled by Vela’s ball movement and perimeter accuracy, and got outworked on the boards. It’s way early in the race, obviously, and North will seek to regain some momentum at Pharr North Friday.
For now, Vela has to feel good about its first shot across the district bow. The Sabes posted a solid road result against an old foe, and now will reload to take on another, EHS.