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READY FOR WHAT COMES NEXT: VELA GIRLS WHIP SOUTH IN BI-DISTRICT, WILL TAKE ON SA TAFT NEXT

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March 25, 2021

By Greg Selber

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HARLINGEN – With 13 minutes left in the half here Friday night, No. 4 was hanging right in against the No. 1 seed for bi-district. The Harlingen South goalkeeper, having just been beaten by a tremendous shot from Vela senior Taylor Campbell, voiced her opinion.

“Come on, they’re not dominating us!” she yelled to her teammates. “They’re not beating us.”

Not yet anyway. W-w-w-ait for it tho.

Though the Lady Hawks played well in the early going, pestering the Lady SaberCat midfield like a barrage of busy bees, they had not gotten a goal with the wind. Sooner or later, the Valley’s top scoring offense was going to get untracked and start rolling.

Vela commandeered its first postseason victory since the glorious three-deep journey of 2015 – led by the sublime Sommer Van Hook and Carolina Cortez – with three sharp goals in the second half; only a late consolation score by South erased the clean sheet, and now Coach Americo Cortez’s side is on to area to encounter Northside Taft of San Antonio.

By the time the bi-district match was over, a once dominant South program – long the gold standard until being superseded by Mac High – had been zapped, fair and square, by a school that is in the process of staking its own claim to program fame. The Lady Sabes went out in the first round three years in a row starting in 2017 and were crushed when last season ended without a playoff chance. The process is coming full circle now, as Cortez explained.

“We hadn’t beaten EHS over there at their place, we did that,” he said. “We hadn’t beaten North in a long time, we did that, too. So we have told the girls these are the steps, the process, and now the next one is a playoff win.”

Cortez was confident in his kids coming in, although the Lady Hawks had won seven straight matches after a slow start, presenting a pretty tough first opponent.

“Then we had so much time off, I was wondering if they would be rusty,” he mused. “But we had played four games in five days at the tail end of district, so they got some time off for that, they needed it. When we started back up, we had a warmup game against Sharyland, a lot of scrimmage in practice … but I think the girls tonight were ready to play, they were anxious to get back out there.”

And indeed the wait for postseason seemed interminable, because Vela’s league was done for weeks while South’s, buffeted more harshly by COVID, was getting its business taken care of as late as, well Monday.

DO IT TO IT

And to begin the match – a rematch of 2017’s South victory over the Blue and Black – it wasn’t that Cortez’ gang was rusty, really. It just was knocked a tad off balance by the alacrity with which the youthful Lady Hawk bunch came at them. Buoyed by a stocky little workhorse in the middle, South was strong out of the gate, limiting the time the mids had to conduct their affairs, with intense pressure from the outset. The Lady Hawks also took off on some promising runs into the attacking third but here, note one of the keys to the eventual Vela decision. Junior Jaleina Carrillo, pressed into center back duty in the back three due to the season-ending injury to Bailey Jo Gonzalez, was to perform exceedingly well in the role Friday. She and sophomore left back Crystal Palma were outstanding early on in stopping the series of Lady Hawk attempts, while keeper Julissa Echevarria showed her improvement as a net-minder.

Once they steadied themselves following the initial South surge, the Lady Sabes got some fierce force from the marauding sophomore Alayna Rodriguez, who will just not take no for answer from the defense. About 12 minutes in, Vela began to find its rhythm in the tiki-taka style it favors, a keeper kick going to Palma, who booted to senior Ky Richards, who found the rushing Campbell in the box. No score, but the pattern was set. Any team that gives this team time to do its quick-touch thing, just has  pray.

South kept coming, however, and though she was beaten initially on one run, Palma recovered nicely to close out the play, and then a minute down the path she intercepted a short corner trick by the Lady Hawks to gain possession. That led to a dash down left by senior Odessa Leal and eventually a terrific Campbell pass to sophomore Nayla Pena, who missed the chip try but was to enjoy a superb match overall.

At this point, the Vela defense gave two fouls in succession, leading to free kicks by the home side, but nothing came of them. Then midfielder Natalia Cortez – her older sister is Carolina, thoughtcha knew – connected with Rodriguez, who passed to Campbell for a shot that was blocked but led to a corner at 17 minutes. That did not net, and soon it took a sharp defensive clearance from Carrillo to turn South away at the other end.

Then came the aforementioned stunner from Campbell, who was first to a loose ball in the box and beat two defenders with a wicked, sliding half-volley that ended with the ball scorching the net and the fabulous No. 9 on her backside at 13:04. Not quite Dayana Cantu against Harlingen in 2018’s bi-district, but still a super, super goal.

Now the race seemed to be on as South’s mids were sucking some air and Vela starting to find the range. Cortez banged into a Lady Hawk and came up with the ball and down the green, Lauren Vega put on her basketball persona to steal a pass, deke no fewer than three South defenders, and narrowly miss the second goal at 9:45.

Again, the effective Carrillo did her job in back to thwart an enemy try and Pena chased down a fast moving pass in the corner, showing both hustle and wheels. But South dug in, holding Vela off the board despite some very late machinations from Rodriguez, who nearly scored inside the final minute.

BREWING STORM

At halftime, South coach Omar Pedraza praised the work of his team, a unit that has nine freshmen in the rotation. But he was worried.

“That team over there is so good, you can tell by watching them how they were able to win district and scored so many goals,” said the legendary mentor, who knows, always. “We have done alright but we just have to hang on and see what happens.”

What happened started to happen when Campbell, soon to be doing her do for Trinity up in SA, banged a bomb off the post in the first ticks after intermission. Senior Kat Carrizales got off a solid effort, too and although the wind had died down somewhat in the passage of a half, Vela was playing downhill, hogging possession as it likes to do, and itching for more pointage.

Cortez made a nice clearance with her head off a South kick, and Pena revved up to re-win a ball in the midfield. Echevarria made a nice diving save for the Lady Sabes and Abby Carrizales came up with a strong defensive play. The stars were out to shine Tuesday, Campbell and Richards foremost, but the rest of the gang did a fine night of work, all over the field.

That included Pena most prominently, because in the second portion – as Palma had done in the first – Pena showed that when the season finally ends, the seniors on to their various pursuits, she is ready, willing and able to take up the mantle left behind. Future.

Just then Vega got after it again, chopping a drive off the bar, and it was starting to feel like there were goals in this one, to come. At 28 minutes, Campbell’s lefty drive sailed into the night, high, but she wasn’t finished.

On a wonderful arching cross from the left by Leal, Pena rose into the air backpost and smashed a magnificent header that at first glance seemed to be the winner. When the South keeper lucked into a save up top, the ball fell to Campbell, who alertly bundled it in at 26:10. Like a basketball player following the shot and looking for an offensive rebound, Tay was where she needed to be when she needed it. Always take a chance, never assume. Two-nil, Lady Sabes.

Four minutes on, Cortez flashed the ball out wide – the coach’s strategy after the halftime skull session – and Pena was there, leading to a corner after a deflected shot. Then Pena, who was just everywhere now, rolled a perfect ball to play Leal in, and a few passes later, Vega was audacious with a backheel attempt on goal that was pretty to look at, no matter the result.

Yeah, Vela was vibing now, and Vega high-stepped past a South defender, much to the delight of Lottie Zarate, the school’s hoops coach and girls’ AD, who was watching from the side.

With a two-goal lead, Vela was off and running, but on the odd Lady Hawk counter – and there were not many in the second half – Carrillo had the antidote with a rescuing kickaway. Cortez found some space against a tiring opponent and on the sideline, Coach Cortez called out, “Why not!?”

He knows that once his team gets in the zone, it can make shots from all sorts of angles and distances. As if on cue, Richards took a feed from player Cortez and launched an absolute howitzer with her left foot, beating the keeper from 30 yards out. BAM. And bam. And b-a-m, and when Ky sent that missile hurtling to the Good Place, the entire Vela squad erupted in leaps and claps, yells and all kinds of hair flying everywhere and what not. Moment of the game, no doubt, because with 17 minutes to play, and with the Lady Hawks having fatigue issues, Vela seemed to intuit that yes, this glow up was gonna happen.

And yet, South has that long history of football greatness, and it would gird up for a few more forays before the night – and the season – were over. Dee Cantu, inserted in back, made a sweet sidekick clear, after Carrillo had roared up to corral a long ball and pass it off to a teammate on the bounce. The Lady Hawks got on the board with a mammoth shot from distance at 6:38, but on their next try, Echevarria came speeding out, properly, to boot the ball way over the home side touchline. She played well Friday, to repeat.

To put the icing on the cupcake, Rodriguez fashioned a pretty excellent final goal for Vela, finding the net at 0:52 with a lofting ball that fell into the chords. More mayhem, laughs and hand slaps, and the Vela crowd fired up the “Saber Cats, Saber Cats!” cheer seconds later.

After the fun and obligatory picture-taking was done, and Cortez had marshaled his happy side together for some postgame chats, the mini-stadium at South, quite a nice venue for football, one suggests, began to empty out, the Lady Hawks to turn in their gear, the Lady Sabes to start planning for Taft. That team came a close third in a killer district with O’Connor and Brennan. Record of 15-4 this season, 17 playoff appearances in its history, 11 wins. They went to the regionals in 1991 and 1996, or before any of these kids were even close to being born. From 2007-13, Taft was a regular playoff participant, reaching the second round in five of the seven seasons. A trip-less lull ensued from 2014-2017, and in 2018 the Lady Raiders won one playoff game before dropping out. In 2019 they lost in bi-district.

So much for history, regarding the area round foe. The history as far as Vela is concerned is this: Cortez and the process are working, inching onward with increments both in the regular season and the playoffs. The last time the school tasted playoff success, it was against P-SJ-A Southwest and then Gregory-Portland, six years ago under Hugo Leal. Cortez was the boys’ coach back then and now he has piloted the girls into a second-round showdown.

Before the win against South, he told the Lady Sabes that many good things could be waiting for them down the road. But, he warned, you have to win here, this game, before we can start thinking about it. The coach thinks his side has the right mental maturity to deal with the postseason, after a series of near-misses in the past. And Friday Vela proved him correct, doing the job with a total team effort, everyone contributing, no one getting pouty when the goals didn’t immediately start rocking the scoreboard. It was a firm test against a worthy enemy, and now Vela moves onward. They’re ready for this next step, though it be a daunting one.

[And we got through this entire long-winded stem-winder without any complaints about the absurdity of a district champion having to play on the road against a No. 4 seed … almost, anyway. Peace, love, out.]

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