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FURIOUS FIVE: VELA QUINTET MAKING SERIOUS WAVES WITH TOP NEWCOMERS AT THE FORE

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December 10, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

Is it too early to start waiting, impatiently, for next Friday?

Hope not, because two battleships are circling the seas in search of one another, and when their radar locks on and they collide, it’s going to be incredible.

But before talking about the impending Vela-EHS clash – at Vela next week – let us catch up with some peripatetic nomads and their hard-charging coach. Prior to Friday’s home win over La Joya, the Lady SaberCats have been everywhere, man, except – it seems – in town, traveling to multiple tournaments and compiling a sweet record of success.

So Friday was an opportunity to see just what magic Lottie Zarate has been cooking up in the travels. And the answer is, a whole lot of problems for the rest of District 31-6A. One already was familiar with the returning core for the Blue and Black, paced by the 1,000-point jitterbug Lauren Vega, now in her fourth season, believe it or not. Teammates Fey Vasquez and Aneyda Chapa are also back, the latter in her senior campaign, and that trio right there would be plenty enough for any team wishing to compete for a title. They’re all excellent veterans who know the drill and have contributed a ton to the program’s achievements the past couple of runs.

Here, of course, is where it gets interesting. Very interesting.

For Zarate, who came into 2021-22 with 203 career wins and has now added 19 in rapid-fire fashion, the wild cards are a pair of aces that would make any gambler bold. The first, former EHS freshman phenom Janai Coleman, is a relatively well-known quantity after a fabulous debut season across town in which she averaged a double-double and helped the Lady Bobcats to within a single second of the Sweet 16 with her athleticism and skill. Just adding her to the roster made the Lady Sabes stronger, obviously, as Coleman’s all-around ability makes her one of the Valley’s top prospects.

But now for the hole card. What has made Vela the best girls’ basketball team around, at least in the preseason? More like a “who” than a “what.”

Who, is Emma Lucio, not a question but a statement.

Emma Lucio, Baller.

She’s now whizzing through her junior season after two fine years down the road at Pharr North. Locals might remember her as a sophomore, when she averaged 15.8 ppg and 8.7 rpg for the Lady Raiders. They would recollect that she went off for 31 points in a win over North, grabbed 23 rebounds in two Lady Raider victories over Econ, and scored 36 in two narrow defeats to EHS. Some smarties might even recall that as a callow freshman for PN, Lucio averaged a solid 9.0 ppg. All that is old news, though.

After an offseason of intense training, the 5-10 guard has taken her game to the next level, so to speak, and one watching her Friday – as scouts from a couple of Division I programs have been doing lately – was to see a kid who is peaking in all aspects of the game.

She expertly ran the show for Vela against La Joya, leading the Lady Sabes to a 71-34 win, about matching the domination Zarate’s crew unfurled on Pharr North in the 31-6A opener (77-33). Scoring 24 points, yanking eight rebounds, and passing with the alertness of a true point guard, Lucio reminded everyone why Vela is such a hot commodity these days. With a superb starting five that can do it all, the Lady Sabes have carved out a margin of victory of 22 ppg, beating 11 separate opponents by at least 19 points. Their losses came to Highland Park (near Dallas) and to ancient Valley nemesis Laredo Alexander, by 2 in overtime. Other than that, they’ve run the table, have Edinburg North on the road Tuesday, and are poised to make a huge push forward against the perennial local obstacle, EHS. And yet …

“We just want to take it one game a time, never taking anything for granted,” said Zarate, after the Lady Sabes blew the doors off a tiny but decently talented La Joya group with piranha defensive pressure and excellent shooting; they led 41-16 at the half, by 30 after three, and knocked in seven three-pointers to go with a plus-21 margin on the glass. Total blowout. “We’ve come together pretty well, though, I have to say, the chemistry has been there, the girls are trusting the process and they’ve come on well so far.”

Coming together means that the newcomers, Coleman and Lucio, had to go through an adjustment process in their new home. The latter was a real booster for the volleyball program in the fall and has settled in without a hitch. She is a natural leader. Commands respect.

Zarate said that Coleman has done well in adjusting and has quickly become one-fifth of what has to be the top starting 5 in the Valley. Who’s got a better one? Tap, tap, tap …

“Everyone seems to be knowing what’s important, what they have to do,” the coach continued. “You look at Fey, she runs the court, plays D, gets boards, same with Chapa. She’s going to get us second shots, she works very hard to do that. And we have been winning some games by a wide margin, giving us a chance to get some of the youngsters some playing time, too.”

Good, good. But what about Lucio?

“I think she has what it takes to play at the next level, no question,” said Zarate, who as a former hardwood standout herself (and a lefty like Lucio) should know from whence she speaks. “Emma has amazing basketball IQ, she sees the floor so well, her vision is incredible. She seems to always know where her teammates are at, and when to make what pass to which girl. And that kid will battle, hustle, get rebounds, everything.”

Zarate noted that she and her staff had seen Lucio when she was coming up with the Lady Raiders (as a soph she had 15 rebounds in a win over Vela, btw) and suggested that her recent progress has been swift.

“She has had a great attitude since she came to us, and the thing is, as I understand it, she had never gone through intensive training in the past. She’s just now coming into her own in that respect, but you can see in five minutes watching her, she’s a great basketball player. She is mature and polished as a junior, we really didn’t know how good she would be: you never know until you get a kid in, on a daily basis.”

POOR LADY COYOTES

Having such a fantastic athlete like Lucio (19 ppg, 6 rpg, tops the club is assists and steals too) makes all the other Lady Sabes better. To start the La Joya rout, Lucio and Vega were trapping monsters on the press, the agile Coleman using her quickness from the middle to pluck steals out of the air. Both Vega (18 points Friday) and Lucio hit bombs early on, and that’s a part of the transfer’s game that has improved greatly, accuracy from downtown.

As the Lady Coyotes gasped for breath, Coleman elevated for a lay-in off the inbounds, and then Chapa (nine rebounds, after getting 16 against Pharr North Tuesday) clutched onto a sweet Lucio pass to convert. It was 14-2 a little over four minutes in, and though fast-footed guard Destiny Pinon of La Joya (18 points) was equal to the challenge, the rest of the team struggled with the speed of the game, not to mention Vela’s athleticism and length.

There is something else to be said about Lucio, and it is the ultimate compliment in the world of basketball. Sometimes she makes moves that one just does not see in the girls’ game that often. She’s got a legit And-One vibe, and yet she’s not a showoff, not even close. Lucio just has eternal confidence in her handles, enough quickness to get through a jam, and all kinds of tricks in traffic to get shots off and draw contact. Midway through the first she swooped into the lane, leapt off one foot and absorbed a pop, sinking the shot. Soon after, she was the trailer on one of Vela‘s seemingly limitless fast breaks (Zarate’s number one focus: pressure defense, and the easy looks that result) and received a sharp pass from Vasquez to make it 18-4. Lucio is deceptively strong and her expert timing and coordination – along with a nice bit of competitive mean – makes her a safe bet for any loose ball in range.

And yet, Vela is not quite a finished product. After a flurry of giveaways let La Joya narrow the gap to 10 after one, the hard-nosed Zarate gave it to her kids in the huddle.

“You just made five turnovers in one quarter, do you understand that?” she fussed, and the girls all nodded and exhaled. “I don’t want you to make five turnovers in an entire game, so get back out there and let’s go!”

Thus advised, Vela cleaned up its act, steaming to a 23-point quarter with Lucio pushing in a smart leaner and Chapa pounding the ball to ground on a drop-step power move in the lane. And it is Chapa that provides this unit with a quality one does not find in every big. She will cruise the floor, can catch a pass, and has a pretty decent midrange shot. You cannot sleep on the Fab Five; each of them is versatile and dangerous. And they play in concert.

Later, lefty Lucio scooped a rebound off the offensive glass and scored from the right side, and then Vega – who has been such a tremendous force for the program and seems to truly enjoy playing alongside her newbies – stole one and fed to a streaking Lucio. Those two act like they grew up playing in the backyard together: such intuition between them.

The viper Vega again tormented the La Joya guards, coming away with a theft and firing to Lucio, whose perfect bounce pass found Vasquez on the run, and halftime had arrived, Vela comfortably ahead.

It seemed that every other possession was a treat to see, as Coleman started the third with a steal at midcourt and a romp to an open basket. Later she would can a couple of threes, one a filthy Harden-like stepback 3 with a defender right on her. Bam! Take that!

On one sequence Lucio hit the deck to corral a loose ball and in the same motion shoveled to a releasing Vega, who bunnied downcourt as only she can do. It was like that Friday, the Lady Sabes having fun hooping, the Lady Coyotes left to watch the action, basically, as they were always a step behind. And this from a La Joya squad that had scored more than 60 points five times this season.

Now for the other interesting facet to 2021-22 for Vela. No doubt about the starters, they are first cabin and then some. They went the first 12 minutes against La Joya without a sub, and until the fourth, the replacements did not sniff much time.

The newcomers who entered the fray are a varied lot of underclass kids, with freshman G.G. Betancourt appearing to have ability at the point. Karsyn Hackerott brings some height to the equation and Zarate notes that the 5-10 junior’s got a pretty nice shot, too. When sophomore Kiara Quiroga came on Friday she provided some tough defense and a solid assist to Chapa for an 8-footer in the lane. Other subs included soph Kaitlyn Liendo, who wildcat-scrapped a stray ball on the baseline in impressive fashion and freshman Ava Tovar, who grabbed some boards. The progression of the non-starters is important, and if this group can grow into the role and give some assistance off the bench, Vela will be that much tougher. Right now, it’s a work in progress, really. Foul trouble could be an issue at some point.

One thing is for certain right now. Vela is intent on wresting the crown off the heads of the Lady Bobcats and has the talent to make a great run at doing so. P-SJ-A will also have some commentary on the nature and denouement of the race, do not forget that.

And the bottom line is, EHS has been the gold standard for many moons, and will not go gracefully into the night by any means. With twin stars Emily Carranco (22 points, 13 rebounds, six steals, and five blocks in a simply titanic showing against Econ Friday) and the explosive Kimora Fagan (23 markers against the Lady Jags), this team is still worthy of consideration in any title talk. EHS has lost some stars, yes, and a key transfer, indeed. But one imagines that come Friday night, Coach J.D. Salinas’ proud contingent will come calling to Vela, with blood in the eye and malice in the heart.

How will the new-look Lady Sabes work against the pressure of a Rivalry Game? Lucio’s brilliance, ample chemistry, and the terrific start of 19-2 allowed and noted.

But this will be a step up in stakes. A magical contest that any true fan of the game cannot miss. Be there.

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