Feb. 20, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
Leave it to Americo Cortez to find the angle, the edge. Vela’s coach had his team practice in the gym the day before a huge appointment, and the results speak for themselves.
“It’s all about touching the ball for us,” Cortez said. “Passing, quickly, without waiting or dribbling too much. So the gym was small and this field here today is pretty small too. We even managed to play 11 on 11 in that little gym space. I figured if we could do that in the gym, that small area, we could do it here. Because when we do that, touch, pass, don’t hold it too much, we should win.”
Cortez was speaking in the minutes before the second half began Saturday, on a simply glorious sunny day, of the variety that many people were not sure would ever recur, given the inclement (crap, better word) weather as of late. And the veteran coach had every reason to be shining along with the radiant orb in the sky, because his Vela girls had performed a veritable clinic in the first 40 minutes at EHS, using video-game precision and repetition of excellence in connection, to storm – gracefully if the two words, storm and grace, can be linked – to a 4-0 lead against the Lady Bobcats. It was supposed to be a real showdown, with the Lady Sabes leading the 31-6A pack but rivals North and EHS, along with perhaps that troublesome Juarez-Lincoln crew, in hot pursuit.
What it was, was a blowout, plain and simple. Vela dominated every aspect of the match, ending with a 6-0 decision that put the juggernaut at 28 points, leaving the Lady ‘Cats at 20, and setting up Showdown Part 2, Wednesday against North. Win there, and nobody is going to stay within hailing distance of Cortez’ smashing unit.
It ended with a decision and started with one, too, because once the pregame coin toss was completed, the tale was already starting to be told. Yes, it would be an old-fashioned Wind Game, with a strong gusting breeze whistling through the smallish EHS ground. Not a gale, for sure, but definitely a situation where the team that went with the wind first was going to have a distinct advantage. The plus is not just physical, although it is. It’s also psychological; the team having to defend with the wind in its face can sometimes get bum-rushed, it happens quite a lot. Conversely, if a side gets the wind but doesn’t pile up some goals, it’s in trouble, and starts to play like it. As annoying as wind is, it does set up some fascinating tactical and strategic games within the game.
So, the Lady Sabes took flight with the wind in their sails, putting pressure on the EHS defense from the opening tap, and never letting up an ounce. It wasn’t just pelting shots from distance, either; it was more like old Kansas City Chiefs’ coach Hank Stram used to say: Vela matriculated the ball downfield, patiently consistently, putting itself in position to score. From the first minute, the Lady Sabes controlled possession, ping-ping-ping passed with alacrity in the midfield, and got to the corners. One of the elements that makes the latest Cortez edition a special one is the ability to get crosses into the box. The skill has paid dividends all season and is partly responsible for the fact that coming into Saturday’s action, the Lady Sabes had tallied 70 goals in nine matches.
Nayla Pena, one of the talented sophomores forming the backbone of next year’s crew, was intense early on, taking feeds from Ky Richards and Nat Cortez down to the right corner, where frankly she met with very little resistance. It seemed that acres of space were available to the wingers Saturday, and they took full advantage of this to bombard the box with looping, well-placed centering balls, usually in the air and right on target.
The third such opportunity ended with a handball call on the Lady Bobcats, whereupon senor Taylor Campbell stepped up to the spot and drilled a penalty into the twines for a 1-nil lead at 28:56 of the first half. This thang was on, like Donkey Kong, and although EHS has been a quality club all year, there seemed like nothing it could do to stem the onslaught.
The best defense is sometimes offense, and Vela has lived well by this axiom all season. The Lady Sabes love to play downhill, keeping possession and running into the attacking third, again, gracefully but by storm. Outside of a few half-chances by a beleaguered rival, the visitor kept the ball and made it work for them.
Shortly after the opening goal, Campbell came close with a header attempt off a cross from sophomore Crystal Palma, who was outstanding up front before moving to left back midway through. This illustrates another winning factor of Vela 2021, the strong depth Cortez can throw at opposing sides. He has no fewer than six or seven kids who come off the bench, and they can all play. They wait for their chance and when the cambiocomes, they jog in and start dealing, almost as well as the folks they replaced. Which means that when you play Blue and Black bingo, you’d better be ready for fatigue, ‘cuz it’s coming.
Just then EHS, which is not offensively challenged at all these days (28 goals in nine games before Saturday’s goose egg), countered, with the ferocious Leah Sanchez getting loose. But just when it looked like she was going to do damage, defender Bailey Jo Gonzalez streamed across to close her out; that junior stopper has some strength and some skill, and she has shown in her breakout campaign that she has the smarts to make the right play at the right time. And this is a very good thing for Cortez, given the fact that his former top defender, Richards, is now dancing in the mids. Another exhibition of the versatility of this side: midway through, once the Lady Sabes had assumed a commanding lead, Richards was back in her old spot at the heart of the defense, showing that she has not forgotten how to clear, hold, and out-jam the attacking enemies.
But before she made the switch, Richards provided the second goal, a low-slung rocket from out front that was arranged by a nice bit of footwork to touch the ball into shooting position, at 23:43.
And still, on they came, with Campbell roaring into the area before a timely intervention from Melo Munoz of EHS momentarily stopped the bleeding. Not to be denied, Vela forced to a free kick, and here, Palma, not yet relocated down the pitch either, elevated on the set piece for a beautiful header that beat her defender and the goalkeeper too, installing Vela as 3-0 leader at 22:30. Minutes before, the smooth and aggressive sophomore had nearly headed a cross into the net; now she just went back to work and made this one count.
Nat Cortez, with the ball at her beck and call, on a string at all times, is the most polished product of the killer sophomore class, which makes sense considering that she became an instant impact player – and starter – as a freshman. But Palma is coming up the road at a healthy pace, promising more and more superb things to come in the offing.
For those few neutrals who might have been in attendance, this was the Rubicon, and that is a rather depressing arrangement. Anyone hoping to see a competitive grudge match was at this point assured that there was no such denouement in the cards. Over. Just over. Bag it.
THEY COME IN WAVES
As if this total supremacy were not enough, there was the Jitterbug to deal with. Though junior Lauren Vega had just finished another terrific basketball season a few days back, she found herself in the middle of the soccer action early on against EHS. Cat-quick with great ball/foot knowledge, Vega made herself a nuisance to the Lady ‘Cats by winning 50/50 balls, cruising into range, and getting off several attempts on goal. She may be rusty as far as football is concerned, and she may have gotten a tad winded on occasion, but there is no doubt that Vega can go. Great, says the rest of the district, another weapon to worry about … just great.
Completing a mad dash to three goals in the span of a measly six minutes – may have seemed to the Lady ‘Cats like six hours of pain – Campbell then did Tay, touching sweetly past a defender to set up a left-footed laser that sizzled the nylons at 18:08. Her brace Saturday was impressive, but if one were going to count the number of perfect lay-offs to teammates (along with breathtakingly accurate crosses into the Magic Spots) that she contributed Saturday, well it would take a whole bunch of ink and a calculator to boot. Saturday Campbell showed why she is one of the region’s top players, seeing and passing with expertise, taking her chances like a college signee (natch), and basically, well, watch the film. She does it all, case closed.
This was just too easy. It might have been 10-0, such was the constant focus and execution of the Vela girls. The final marks came in the second half, and both were notable. First, the ebullient Vega was on the spot to slot home a rebound with a heavy smash to the top right corner, less than two minutes in. And the carom came off a powerful foray into the box by Alayna Rodriguez, a fierce attacking super sub who would probably be a starter on most other rosters, such is her ability. Such is the depth.
The second tally of the half came courtesy of an absolute gollazo from Odessa Leal, at the 30-minute mark. Sometimes the little speedster on the left wing can get lost in the publicity shuffle, but recognize: she just goes about her well-skilled business, jinking, juking, speeding around befuddled defenders, sighting teammates, and being a very effective if underrated part of the drill. Leal can fondly remember this shot for as long as she lives, because her scientific, lofting try from an acute angle way down left turned the keeper to stone as it sailed toward its destination, back post and way up. It was the kind of shot that some kids will take, but few kids will make, and it was by far – even though the result was safely tucked away – the filthiest of the six. Dirty, girl, dirty! Such a shot has seldom been seen.
For the Lady Bobcats, the silver lining, such that it was, is that no matter how many scores go up on the board, it’s only about three points in the end. Having now been swept in the season series with Vela, EHS will dust itself off and return to the goal, competing for a playoff spot. And this top-flight bunch is going to make some waves before it’s all said and done. They’ve beaten Lincoln and drawn with North, and despite Saturday, this club is still hard to handle. They’re cool, they know it. Just as well as they know that based on the way Vela came to glow up Saturday, touching the ball and passing it, scoring with audacious flourishes, never relinquishing possession or an iron grip on the match, there was nothing to be done, except endure.