December 17, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

The end of a stressful week arrived, and the Lady SaberCats were jubilant, relieved, winded, name it. They had just put the finishing touches on a memorable victory over the most bitter of foes and the girls now celebrated with current and past members of the program. Everyone gathered around to take a photograph with senior Lauren Vega, behind a huge sign trumpeting her feat of scoring 1,000 points as a Vela player. Accolades well-earned and deserved.

Then there were four in the next shot, Vega along with three Century Club notables of the past: Jaida Muhammad, Kayleen Rios, and Andrea Molina. Coach Lottie Zarate spoke her piece to the media and was seen to grin broadly, which does not happen every day.

After having tried to defuse the pressure surrounding the home clash with EHS all week, Zarate was able now to put it all into perspective.

“Hey, I always feel pressure and I always did, as a player and now a coach,” said Zarate, whose high-flying five humbled the Lady Bobcats thoroughly, 61-40 to rise to 4-0 in District 31-6A and 21-2 overall. “That’s sports, though, it’s just the way it is. But we also wanted to make sure we didn’t put too much on the girls. I mean, they knew what was at stake, so we went hard in practice Wednesday. But then Thursday, we relaxed some, we had a scout team with some exes out there, that sort of thing. Tonight we wanted them to just go out and play.”

The coach termed it Hell Week, after the Lady Sabes faced not one but two city rivals, completing the successful flexing of power with a demolition of EHS after having eviscerated North Tuesday, 84-34. Vela came out confident – Zarate says her kids have swag but are not cocky, just grounded in knowing what they can do – and it was long-time city leader EHS which showed nerves and anxiety.

“We knew it would be intense, no doubt,” Zarate said. “Emotional, physical, we knew they [EHS] were going to bring it, so the goal was for us to keep our composure, not get shell-shocked. It was a game between high-level teams, and I think the girls handled themselves well.”

The elephant in the gym was, of course, the business of controversy, and while The Observer tends in the main to de-emphasize any brand of beef, it cannot be ignored that the subtext to the clash of super quintets included something extra. Two of the Vela stars would combine for 51 of the team’s 61 points Friday, and each is a transfer. A few Lady Bobcat supporters made reference to having lost the incredible Janai Coleman (24 points, 11 boards in the W) to Vela after the close of last season. Guard Emma Lucio (27 points, eight rebounds, simply the best athlete on the court throughout) was at Pharr North last season.

One of the visiting fans held up a sign that said “Loyalty” and it was obvious what this seemingly oblique reference was all about. In the run-up to the game, much social media buzz had been spent arguing about this matter, and we will leave it at that, except to add that the dust-up added another layer to what promised to be, as Zarate noted, an emotional game to begin with.

What is not debatable was that the newest Lady Sabes were exemplary in the ball game, though in essence, Vela was wondrous as a unit: passing, cutting, defending, and bossing the night from the start. The last lead for EHS (3-1, 18-7) was at 4-3, and from then on the Lady ‘Cats were befuddled, firing up six airballs and failing to get a defensive bead on the Vela transition game.

They cut the margin to 5 late in the first period but by the half were down, 38-25, amid a series of missed shots and turnovers. Vela was just too strong and too sharp, extending the lead liberally after the break, taking a plus-15 margin on the glass, and leaving no question about who the top cat is in town, for now anyway.

The result ended an 8-game Vela losing streak against EHS and it is ironic that some of the exes were on hand to see it. Back in January 2017, the last time they defeated the Lady ‘Cats, Muhammad and Rios were standouts, along with Bianca Cortez (20 points, 13 boards) and the eternally feisty Julissa Cuellar. Now, five years down the road, the program was again ascendant in the Game That Matters Most.

“We never take anything for granted, I was raised that way and I coach that way,” Zarate commented. “I want my girls to play like that, too. As for all the other stuff, well, I heard it all, but I am the type, I just ignore it. I don’t really want negative energy in the air. We just came to play tonight, period.”


This balloon was fat full as the night began, the girls taking the court after the Vela boys had carved up EHS pretty well, by 27. Soon enough, Lucio of the Lady Sabes assumed command of the drill, with ample support from her teammates. The striking fact about the first period was how well Zarate’s gang set up and ran the offense. EHS Coach J.D. Salinas said before the game that the Lady ‘Cats wanted to try and limit the Vela fast break, preferring to take their chances with the enemy in its halfcourt offense. But with senior Aneyda Chapa or junior Fey Vasquez flashing to the middle to receive passes – and then finding the open kid with quickness – the Lady Sabes looked distressingly comfortable. Lucio whipped a pass to Vasquez, who turned and scored and while she would net just four, Vega six, the proper unity was evident from the get-go. It’s just that Coleman and Lucio are so talented, they will always get their shots. Got to.

“We all have something we’re good at, and we have a nice mesh as a team,” said Lucio, who scored nine in the first to help her crew to a 19-12 advantage. “We worked on it during the preseason, coming together out there, everyone doing what they do.”

EHS, after seeming rattled early on by the vaunted Vela press, found some footing through sophomores Emily Carranco (10 points in the first half) and Maddy Martinez (led the way with 17, three bombs). Lucero Jimenez (nine points) came on in the second to lend some grit to the charge, driving the lane consistently to try and get Vela into foul trouble, another EHS strategy.

But with Coleman going ballistic in the second (13 points), Vela steamed ahead. With Vega in early foul difficult, freshman G.G. Betancourt gave the club some solid minutes, blocking a shot and keeping the offensive patterns going. Zarate explained that Betancourt started five tournament games earlier in the season when Lucio was injured, so she (Z) knew she could turn to the 9th-grader to come in and be steady. Which she did. Good prospect there.

Coleman has been on her game lately, with a 20-point performance versus Los Fresnos late in the non-league slate followed by 25 in the 31-6A opener against Pharr North. Tuesday she canned a pair of threes in the second and owned the boards against her former team. Her (the) best move of the night was a tremendous in-stride catch and 360 spin, into a mammoth drop step and layup that left the EHS defense helpless … the ref called a walk. Please find it within yourself to forgive that unfortunate soul for being unable to realize just what he was seeing, which was a superstar moment from a budding superstar. It was magic. Pure magic.

By the half, as stated, it was a 13-point margin, with Lucio having also displayed some sorcery. You have to watch her closely because she does not look 5-10 – plays in a speedy crouch and never seems to stop moving – and because the instinctive mischief she pulls off happens in a blink of an eye. For instance, midway through the second she sighted an outlet pass near midcourt. Turning to hustle to the basket as she caught the rock, Lucio stole the fastest of looks to her left – like a swooping hawk will do with a lightning click of its nictitating eye membrane – to speed-read both the D and her teammate map. In a heartbeat she was off and running to the goal, secure in a decision based on the data she had gathered, instantaneously.

Minutes later she ripped an offensive rebound right off a stunned Lady Bobcat and fed a pal for a layup. When Carranco came down to knock down a 3, closing the gap to 7, the Lady Sabes shrugged, marched back down, and got a trey from Coleman, who spent quite a lot of time wide open on the wing: swift ball movement from Zarate’s 5 time and again beat the lagging EHS defensive rotation.

Lucio again, to end the half (we digress, but so many telltale sequences). She barreled through three defenders at the basket to score, and again, she is so quick and strong that sometimes it looks unfair out there. They wanted to stop her but could not.

And yet, one imagined that the Lady ‘Cats would make a third quarter run, if they could be more  judicious in shot selection and get tougher on the boards. But, Lucio held the ball low at the hip on a graceful drive from the left side – giving the flailing defender no chance – and flipped in a deuce. Coleman took a charge, and like that, the Lady Sabes were off again.

Even when the home side entered a skein of sloppy play, EHS was unable to get any closer than 14, managing just three baskets in the quarter, firing up two more airballs.

The hustle plays went to the Blue and Black, as indicated when Vasquez loped to the sideline to defend and ended up knocking the ball off an EHS kid as she (Vasquez) sailed out of bounds. Forget about the enormous talents of the two newbies and the 1,000-point Kid, Vega, for a moment. Vasquez and Chapa (the latter palmed 11 boards and was a workhorse on D) were equally important, explaining what Lucio was talking about when she said everyone has their way to contribute.

And when Chapa held her ground to pick up an offensive foul against EHS, Coleman galloped to a pair of and-one conversions in rapid fashion. Just a sophomore, remember … how do you defend her? Play up tight, she can whip right by and score at the rim. Give her the jumper, and pray, because she will stick it in your eye more often than not. What a matchup nightmare but she can also wow you on D: a firm rejection of a Lady ‘Cat shot on the next possession showed that.

One thing this one-sided affair brought to light: with the loss of their two fine seniors to graduation, the Lady ‘Cats are a super young bunch, with three sophs as leading scorers. Some might have assumed that the pressure would be on Vela for this Rivalry Clash, given the results in the series the past four seasons. But the vets, Vega and Chapa, have been down many roads together, and were ready for the challenge.

“There are the seniors, myself and Lauren, and we have taken the chance to step up and be leaders,” Chapa said after the rout. “The younger girls, to their credit, respect what we are doing, and really, the thing is, none of us fight, or argue, it’s a good group. We’re on the same page, we just get together and we say, alright: understand it, fix it, and move on. And coach has done a great job with us all.”

All smiles in the postgame din, no more funny business with placards or social media – and here one chooses to mediate between the fan sides, loving them both equally for eternity. Laud them both for their positive contributions to the buzz, softly chide them for other offerings. And on we move. Everybody was hyped to the roof, but the downers did not in the end outweigh the plusses. As they sometimes do, regrettably.

Lucio said that all the action that had gone on in the lead-up to the Game of the Year (so far) was motivation for her, making her come out and want to play even harder, better. Such is her personality, it seems; she does not back down. Meanwhile, Coleman, who can surprise one with her quiet, soft-spoken manner after so many ringing, fantastic performances speaking volumes about her ability, provided the heady P.S. for a crazy week.

“I just wanted to prepare this week, as well as possible for the game tonight,” she said. “I tried to work through all that other stuff as best I could … but once the game got going … hey, I don’t look at the crowd, I’m there to play.”

Well played, young warrior. Well played, indeed. Remember, at the end of the day, we’re all under the same big Edinburg tent.

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