Jan. 19, 2021

By Greg Selber

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She waited, and she trained, and she imagined. And when the opportunity arose, Ky Richards was ready.

The Vela senior has made a return to her natural position in the midfield this year, after two stellar years as a defender for the Lady SaberCats, and her exemplary work so far in 2020 has been the payoff, for herself and for the team.

“I started out as a midfielder, sometimes as on outside back, in club,” said Richards Tuesday, in the aftermath of an emphatic 5-0 victory at home over Edinburg High, a match in which her pairing with superb sophomore Natalia Cortez in the midsection of the Blue and Black spine set the tone for a dominant result over a bitter foe. “Then we had a tournament up in Portland, sophomore year, and I went back on defense and stayed there. I never minded it all, because it worked very well. But in the back of my mind, I always thought maybe I would some day get back into the middle.”

The 6-foot veteran approached Coach Americo Cortez before the latest campaign began and inquired if that switch could be a possibility. He was interested, but his main concern was how the defense would perform without her.

“I asked for the chance, I told coach that I had been working very hard in offseason, training and focusing on speed, quickness,” she recalled. “And he was open to it.”

The result has been tremendous, just as it had been years back when Richards moved into the defensive line and quickly proved a perfect addition. Her strength and aggression, matched with considerable ball skills and knowledge, made her a defender with a discernible difference. And now she is making the same impact in a new-old role. The defense has been just fine without her, too.

“I knew if wanted a chance to do it, I needed to have better touches,” said Richards, who is a refreshing combination of soft-spoken and eloquent. “And I have gotten in better shape, training like crazy, especially during quarantine, and I felt like now was the time to see if it could happen.”

Vela has certainly enjoyed the change, as Richards and Cortez are generally a masterful duo, and the former says the best is yet to come.

“I am sort of the newbie in midfield now,” she chuckled. “But the more all the mids train and practice together, the more we start to get it clicking, knowing each other and learning to play together, well, we’re getting used to each other and it’s pretty cool.”

Against EHS – the team that kept Vela from clinching an undisputed district title, on the last day of the 2019-20 season – the mids were dynamite, controlling the action throughout, setting up runs and keeping the Lady Bobcats from making connections. Now Vela is even more versatile in attack, because Cortez the manager can call for opening the ball wide with fast and agile wingers, or work through the middle, Richards using her strength and passing ability alongside the wizardry of Nat Cortez, which continues to increase as she gets more physical and retains her technical prowess, which she is doing, big time.

The Lady Bobcats always present problems with their scintillating flier, Leah Sanchez, and the all-around skills of Titi Munoz. While Sanchez was able to make a couple of her patented headlong runs through the defense, she never dented the net; Munoz, one of the Valley’s most talented kids, spent a frustrating night being banged off the ball by Richards or confronted by the tricky Cortez. The result was surprising to everyone, because it figured beforehand to present a classic 80-minute fight for league supremacy.

“I kind of expected them to come heavier on offense, they have got some really good offensive players,” Richards said. “I think that they never really got going like they usually do because we kept possession so much. I had marked No. 10 [Sanchez] last year so I know how good she is. We just had to try and keep the ball, and not let them have it, that was the plan.”


The schools came in with well celebrated attacks, but that sometimes means that the defensive group that manages to up its game can decide the final margin. In the early going Tuesday, Coach Serjio Elizarraraz’ stop crew was active and precise, turning away a number of runs from the Lady Sabes. Tori Hinojosa in particular made some outstanding stops, and of course junior Melo Munoz is always a formidable presence back there. The first real chance came with Sanchez, all center of gravity and perpetual motion, breaking free to shoot at 32:30, whereupon Vela came back with an effort from senior MF Kat Carrizales, playing well in a more deep-lying role these days.

The weather was poor all night, intermittent rain falling and the pitch becoming more unforgiving, especially in the 18-yard boxes. But Vela senior Taylor Campbell, who always seems a step ahead out there, had no terra firma trouble skipping right to left with the ball and slotting home from 10 yards out at 26:52. Partly responsible for the 1-0 lead was the wetness, as Campbell’s shot caught a lot of keeper before sneaking underneath and finding the net.

Most observers will tell you that once Cortez’ crew gets its moxie up, a little momentum, trouble could possibly be on the way for the other side. This was the case Tuesday as just 1:30 after the initial score, the Lady Sabes were at it again. This time it was Richards creating a chance for senior Odessa Leal, and the fleet winger crossed the keeper from the left side, back far post, doubling the lead.

EHS senior Kristen Salinas, long one of the most sturdy stoppers going, injured a hand midway through the half and was in and out of the lineup. Only a truly gutty kid, which she is, would have tried to stay in there, but eventually, Salinas had to give way.

But Vela was having its own issues in the net, as starter Julissa Echevarria was knocked out after a nasty collision in the half, to be replaced by Rebecca Resendez. The Lady Sabes survived a spill back there at 16:30 but then Richards played Campbell in, who ran for an attempt that nearly succeeded.

Coach Eli’s side had a golden opportunity to halve the margin late in the half on a loose ball in the box, but the chance went wanting at 13:20. But Sanchez was determined to do something, and raced back down a few minutes later one on two, to pound the side netting. For the most part, when the midfield had its lapses, Bailey Jo Gonzalez and the defensive gang for Vela were equal to the challenge. And when they needed a boost, Richards herself reverted to form late in the half, tracking back to manhandle the rampaging Sanchez into a miss.

As the half came, one still quite expected a competitive next portion, as EHS had made some noise but failed to capitalize.

However, Vela just got better after the break, getting Crystal Palma into the mix. The sophomore crew is astounding, and Palma might just be the most polished member of the contingent aside from Cortez. Say it with me: Baller! And Richards spoke volumes about the girl who has been iffy of late with a muscle but has obvious talent. 

“She is such a natural goal scorer, she knows how to put the ball in,” she said. “She is actually a great all-around player, and she just has the eye for the goal, you know she will not hesitate to go score.”

Richards was playmaker for a Palma blast that narrowly missed, in the first minutes of the second half. Then EHS produced a solid on-target attempt, to a goalie punch. Lady Bobcat Daniela Toscano held her own on D now, slamming a clearance away, but seconds later, the wet ball skidded through a tardy EHS backline, and uh oh. If Palma is an emerging offensive force, then Campbell is the finished product she may one day approach. And Campbell needs no invitation to the dance; she pounced on the mistake and buoyed by two soft touches, smacked it home for an insurmountable 3-0 advantage. Out like a light … like a light.

Still, EHS is a proud and talented group, and after the goal, Sanchez tore downfield to set up Titi Munoz, to no avail. On the next Lady Bobcat rush, Richards again ran back to contest Sanchez, and that is a brawl we all recall from last year, such great athletes with such fight and spirit. 

All the while there was little Cortez, a pitch dancer, rising on a toe to stop a ball, gliding this way and that, head up all the way; her football IQ is insane, her skills terrific, and Nat has added some power this time around, making her almost impossible to guard in the midfield. Also seeing some time Tuesday was Hope Sanchez, a promising prospect who has endured a serious injury but now is back in the fold. She laid off some perfect balls to teammates during her minutes and how fine to see a good, hard-working gal get to see the field again.

During the half Vela was zing-pinging the ball around with ease, putting three and four laser feeds together to move through a tiring but still game EHS side. Cortez lined up a shot at the end of a four-girl combination straight out of the textbook, and when it was punched out, Campbell was there, taking advantage of slow cover by the Lady ‘Cats to increase the lead to 4-0 with 20 minutes remaining.

No one on earth is going to see Sanchez ever quit, though, forget it. The powerpack wound up for one last marauding assault, knifing through no fewer than three Vela defensive options to get off a blast. She was denied by the keeper and this was the structure Tuesday: when the Lady ‘Cats had their chances, they were good ones, close but not in. It was that type of night for a squad one feels will still compete for the marble sack before it is all said and done.

Americo Cortez knows that sometimes, it just isn’t your night. After Palma ended the scoring with a simply exquisite volley on the back side of a cross from the right, he spoke to his team and offered the sort of straight talk and wisdom he is known for.

“Great job, and it’s way better than last game,” he said, referencing the team’s disappointing 1–1 draw with North last week. “We were more aggressive on defense, we got better all around. We still have things we need to fix … I am very proud of you, but I am telling you, ladies … you are still at about 70 percent of your potential as a team. Don’t get overconfident, the little drills we do in practice, they’re for a reason, so we can fix our mistakes.”

The coach noted that all the girls got to see minutes against EHS, and lauded the performance of the subs. And yes, this is the best squad depth the program has ever had, by far.

“I know you guys are going to be sore, we’ve got some injuries,” Cortez continued. “But this is soccer, that’s the way it is, bumps and bruises are part of the game.”

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