Feb. 12, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for game photos

At first there were two hardy trail veterans taking in the first moments of the rest of their post-hoops lives. A little dazed, dried tears lightly salt-streaking weary faces, both of the girls began to focus again. As they talked about what they will miss about Vela basketball, the seniors, Dylan Cantu and Dre Molina, were joined by 12th-grade partners Kyra Garcia and Destine Garcia, and together they began to work through what had gone down.

Fact: Harlingen is the bona fide No. 1 team in the Valley and after a quarter of haymakers Friday exchanged by both parties in the bi-district round, the Lady Cardinals rolled to a 62-44 victory, eliminating the Lady SaberCats. So the postgame chat was partly about how aggressive the Harlingen kids are, and some of it concerned the way Vela stood toe to toe with them. And toward the end, after Coach Lottie Zarate had joined the group to add her presence and wisdom, the chatter turned to next year. And beyond.

“Don’t worry, I’m-a be in the gym tomorrow morning,” cracked Molina, the sharpshooter who led the team in scoring this year and is always ripe for live, witty repartee, along with 15 ppg. “And I’m gonna come back here as a coach, just wait, I’ll be baaack!”

Cantu, the slender but bruising kid who’s weathered a string of injuries to become a real contributor the past two seasons, nodded.

“She’s right, she always showed up for practice like an hour early,” Cantu laughed. “We’re going to miss being here in the gym, that’s for sure. We’re going to miss being teammates, having Team Nights, all that stuff.”

Though she had not been expected to be able to compete in the playoffs after an ankle injury a few weeks back, Cantu was adamant in recalling her thoughts a few days before the game.

“No way I wasn’t going to play, they told me three weeks, and I was thinking, nope, I am gonna play,” she said, in the same defiant tone she has always translated onto the court via a ferocious will to win.

Destine Garcia, another one of the rugged competitors on this year’s unit, remarked that Harlingen was a very strong opponent.

“They had their hands on us all the time, they were rough,” said Garcia, who is pretty relentless herself in grabbing boards and going after loose balls. “We just told ourselves we had to keep pushing. The adrenaline was huge in this game.”

All the seniors noted that for the first eight minutes, when the lead swung back and forth and Vela was right in the fray, well, that felt pretty sweet.

“Vela Basketball, that’s what that was,” quick little Kyra Garcia said. “We just went out and played our game, and we did pretty well.”

A few minutes later, Zarate agreed.

“They gave it all out there and I am proud of them,” she said, glancing at her warriors for one of the last times on the home court of battle. “We told them that they had to find a way to succeed, to not give in and try and find ways to get it done.”

Zarate is a no-frills article and always was, back to her days as a legendary baller with the, um, Edinburg Lady Bobcats (sorry). So for her to open up and let her kids know what she thought of them – it was not out of character, per se. But just say that when Lottie gives you props, she ain’t foolin’ around. She means it. Z loves her kids, generally giving the tough variety.

“Harlingen did convert a lot steals they made, they capitalized on our mistakes,” Zarate continued, code-switching back to Coach Speak. “We tried to keep our composure, the game has such a fast pace and sometimes it gets away … there are a lot of things running through your mind out there. Hey, we gave it our best shot and that’s all anyone can ask. These seniors have worked their butts off and we’re really going to miss them.”


Vela had a few weeks to prepare the postseason, a boon and bane both. They worked on conditioning at the beginning of the run-up, and then started to focus on tactics and strategy this week. Nice to have actual training time in the wake of pandemic, which has made practice a rare bird indeed. But so much time in between games – prior to Friday the last live action had come Jan. 29 against Mission – meant that some rust was inevitable.

Against Harlingen, which had a contest as recently as Feb. 5, the Lady Sabes had to shake the dust off, posthaste. The Lady Cardinals were 20-2 heading in, having lost to Laredo Alexander (in overtime) and Laredo United before embarking on a perfect 12-0 run through District 32-6A. They have an uber-deep rotation, coming at you in waves of hard-charging girls who relish contact and seem to grow stronger when facing it. This after all is a squad that defeated EHS earlier in the season, knocked off a CC Vets crew that went on to compile a 24-2 record to date, and swept through vaunted Weslaco twice in district. 

Perhaps the most dangerous stat preceding the first- round war was this: discounting their two losses and competitive matches against EHS and CC Vets, the Lady Cardinals had walloped all other foes by an average of 41 ppg. Again: average margin, forty-one. That’s a lot. Some teams don’t even averagethat much per game offensively.

So Vela was up against it and the girls knew it. But as Destine suggested, adrenaline. And as Kyra noted, Vela Basketball.

The first quarter was an entertaining heart attack waiting to happen, with both teams running the floor and jumping out on defense, banging the boards, and trying to establish their mark. The Lady Cardinals always press, always, picking you up hard-core when you even think of stepping inbounds. Early on, they forced some turnovers, hit a three, and it was 8-2. 

But then the Future stepped up, as junior Aneyda Chapa started to roll, helping break the press as the middleman and scoring at the other end. She would end with a seriously impressive double-double, 13 points and 12 rebounds, and next season she will surely be one of the leaders of the new pack. So too will talented junior Lauren Vega, whose quickness came in handy Friday when she got the chance to show it. She and Molina were charged with getting through the smothering Harlingen D and attempting to penetrate and dish. 

That was a steep hill to climb in bi-district because it’s not just that the fullcourt pressure can generate turnovers. The second effect can be to rush the team that breaks it into faulty decision-making once the frontcourt is reached. Almost like, hey we made it, shoot it, quick!! For seasons and seasons – dating back to the Nora Zamarripa days of yore in the 1990s, Harlingen has made a living out of forcing its enemies to play at the Redbird pace. More often than not, the opponents soon tumble off the cliff like blinded buffaloes led to slaughter by crafty Plains Indians back in the Western day.

But the Lady Sabes refused to cop to that, methodically passing and running their way out of pressure, avoiding the unnecessary dribble. What was that, the slight glimmer of doubt on some of the Harlingen faces?

Vega raced into the zone with the ball and creating a 3-on-2 chance, whipped a feed to Chapa, who had cut from the middle to the goal: layup. Then Molina found Cantu free and when Dylan was thwarted on the first shot, she grinded back to the board and put in her own miss, Vintage Second Effort. Tie game.

It got even better when the snake-fast Vega stole one and gave to Molina, who slithered around a rocky Chapa screen to hit a jumper at 2:27, Vela ahead, 10-8. Kaboom! This was the drill early on, give and take, as Harlingen was up one, 13-12 after eight minutes. How long would this parity between No. 1 seed and No. 4 last, though, that was the lingering question.

Alas, in the second, the Lady Cards asserted themselves with a flourish, gunning out to a 33-20 halftime advantage thanks to a 14-0 run constructed on turnovers, quick dashes to the basket, and moments of doubt from the Blue and Black. Don’t blink against Harlingen, it has been said. Cuz, zoom, they gone.

Though Chapa was fantastic, scoring 12 of her 13 in the half, the frantic current seemed to take a toll on all the Lady Sabes. In the second period they lapsed into iffy shot selection, rushed some possessions they didn’t have to, and managed only eight points. The third was more of the same, 21-10 Lady Cards, leading to the final tally.

And yet, none of the home girls flagged or gave up. They kept fighting, as Destine Garcia pulled down five rebounds in the fourth and Cantu barged to five points, getting to the line like she’s done more than 270 times as a three-year Lady Sabe. Vega worked against two and three defenders with her amazing dribbling skills and Molina – the 1,000-point star – stood in there with the horses, daring them to come at her again; on offense she swayed and juked from out of her trademark crouch, never batted an un-goggled eye, and refused to quit, looking for an inch of space to exploit.

So while it was a one-sided affair before long, ngl, Vela never lost the identity: it played hard and didn’t flinch, even when the Lady Cards were putting on a clinic on how to move seamlessly from O to D and back, with a side session on driving to the dish and converting. They were inexorable.

The final margin of 18 points may seem rather large, but remember, this is a state-ranked squad that in 2020-21 has demolished teams by margins of 76, 68, 62, 53, 43, 43, 43, and 42 … and so on. Vela threw its blows and took mega counter shots in return and is now out of the playoffs. But as the seniors can attest, they stayed themselves, let it all hang out, and can now say that in their last high school game, they met the best in the land face to face, and have plenty of cool memories to last a lifetime.

As the days go by, and the sting of defeat fades, the soldiers who are moving on will be wistful, sad to be leaving friends and mentors for whatever comes next. And hard as it may be to believe, they might even miss Zarate’s killer morning practices, although pals Cantu and Molina might disagree somewhat on that.

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