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‘D’ UP, SHUTDOWN: VELA STIFLES SCORING KING TO REMAIN UNBEATEN IN DISTRICT

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December 31, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game gallery

In a way it was the epitome of sportsmanship, a bit of camaraderie after the fact, as the two adversaries met at halfcourt near the scorer’s table. They’d just spent the last 32 minutes tearing each other’s eyes out basically, in a monumental duel that highlighted the day’s activity of hooping out east.

Midway through the showdown between Econ and North, an early boost to first place in the league on the table, the atmosphere had threatened to become slightly unsportsmanlike, with the natives restless and the players starting to get heated, wonky at each other. One fellow rooting for the Orange insisted on reprising his Rumpelstiltskin impersonation and was off to a credible start; at one point, as he stamped his foot on the bleachers so loud that it sounded like gunshots, it appeared that he might go right through the floor, per the 1812 folk tale penned by the (in)famous Brothers Grimm. He did not, much to the chagrin of the Vela faithful, but his constant raging helped define this most testy of Rivalry Games.

And yet, though there were semi-iffy moments, including a double technical and no shortage of woofing back and forth, the two young gentlemen now embracing after the game had managed to pull back some sanity and decorum.

They were both wore No. 2, Jacob Rodriguez for Vela and Ray de Leon of Econ, and right now, they were chain-pulling each other about what had just gone down. Watching them, one did not need the usual cartoon captions to decipher the gist of the gab.

“Nah, man, you were like this!” one of them complained, mimicking the way his opposite number had been, by his estimation, grabbing, holding, hacking away, etc. on defense.

“But really, bro, you were all like this,” crowed the other, making an exaggerated pantomime of a footballer, maybe Neymar, practicing the Dark Arts and trying to draw the referee’s attention to a supposed foul.

Back and forth they went, laughing and slapping hands, faking like they were going to duke it out, and generally redeeming the more controversial moments during the night, when neither senior star was giggling or playing the dozens. Reliving a memorable challenge of high-caliber athletes vying for their piece of the rock in town, hoping to lift their teams into the catbird spot.

The backstory is that Rodriguez and de Leon have played against each other for many years, both in high school and in various summer leagues, tournaments, on travel teams, and so they have a history, so to speak. Having just gone toe to toe for the duration, given it their best shot, they were able to kick back, josh each other about this and that, and enjoy the memory. Which is in essence what we ask of our student-athletes: that they work hard, give 100 percent and bust their hump trying to succeed, and at the end of the day, have respect for the game, their schools, and themselves. Act like you been there.

It could have been ugly, and at times it was borderline, as one might have expected from such a power-charged situation. Econ and Vela have played some mega-tight ball games in recent times, including a late February bout back in 2019 at the SaberCat gym that ended with the Jags and Sabes tied for the district title after a narrow Econ win. But despite the occasional animosity Friday, the incessant stomping of one fan base or the other, this one came off without a hitch, more or less. And though one team eventually steamed to the victory, the two kids commiserating following the final buzzer made all the right moves when it counted most.

And made winners of us all.

GAME OF THE YEAR SO FAR

The afternoon started with a startling sight as Vela trotted in for the warmups. The Sabes looked pretty skimpy with just 10 kids suited up due a COVID outbreak that had raged through the locker room and claimed half the roster. Most notably, Coach Lucio Rodriguez would go to war against the Jags without senior Tony Requena, one of the leaders of the show in 2021-22. Luckily, the rest of the rotation, give or take a guy, was intact, and Rodriguez, while obviously pained by the turn of events, was not overly concerned.

“We have some guys here who have had big games for us,” he said before the tip. “So we are feeling like we can still compete today, even without Tony.”

The bigger problem was, of course, Econ’s high-flying senior de Leon, averaging nearly 28 ppg and coming off a masterful 43-point performance against Mission Tuesday afternoon. That is where we join the Duel at its onset, as from the opening whistle, he and Rodriguez were flat scrapping. His coach would later say that in terms of length, athleticism, and desire, Rodriguez was going to have to be the guy. And based on what was parsed earlier about the long years of their competition, makes all the more sense.

Though de Leon was sharp in the initial stages, scoring eight in the first, Rodriguez was with him every step of the way. Eventually, with some well-timed assistance from his teammates, the 6-2 veteran was able to stay in Ray’s pocket. And increasingly, his head as it transpired. Following No. 2 all around the court, waving long arms and well using his feet to slide into position, Vela’s No. 2 was equal to the task. He played the pest.

At several junctures midway through, Rodriguez and de Leon got tangled up, the latter hitting the floor no fewer than four times, ushering in a battle within the battle: which of these important cogs would be able to withstand what would be a closely called affair by the refs?

Though the home side took an 18-13 lead after a period, Vela rallied into the driver’s seat by halftime, up 6. Then the Sabes seriously outplayed Econ in the second half, cruising to a well-earned 70-57 victory to keep their 31-6A record spotless at 5-0. De Leon finished with 21 points and guard M.J. Barrientos chipped in 11, but the Jags were sloppy after the break and missed too many shots, while Vela, meantime, came on with some first-class basketball.

Senior Aidan Avelar was amazing Friday with a career-high 27 points, while classmate Alex Mancillas ruled a vital stretch of the third period with eight points on his way to 13. And while Rodriguez put in nine points and aided the Sabes’ plus-10 rebound margin, he was most prominent through the toil and sweat he expended against the dangerous de Leon. After the pair picked up a double tech in the second, following a warning for each after they got too physical for the liking of the blues, Econ’s star went scoreless in the second. He picked it up with eight in the third and got five in the fourth. But every time he got the ball, Rodriguez was there, making sure he would have to work for every inch of daylight.

Afterward, player and coach Rodriguez discussed the way the event unfolded. Both were pleased.

“I have played against him for a long time and I know what he does,” said the player, who outlasted his opposite No. 2 – Ray fouled out with less than three minutes to go. “My job was to get on him and stay on him; I had to make him earn it, make sure every shot was tough.”

Coach Rodriguez said that the decision to largely eschew the trick defenses many teams have thrown at the scoring sensation was an easy one.

“It was Jacob really, he asked me for the assignment,” said Rodriguez, who also threw some cleverly disguised bits such as the mysterious Rover defense and a little Run and Jump into the mainly man-to-man mix. “Not my decision, because Jacob knew what we needed, and he stepped up.”

Rodriguez the player said that he had been preparing for this battle all week, and that having been in so many games with de Leon before, he had a pretty cogent idea of what works and what doesn’t. His coach believed in him

“I trust the guys, especially the seniors,” noted the intense fourth-year mentor, who always gets into the games as hard and fast as his charges. “Jacob has the length, athleticism, and the desire for it, and so does Ray, it was a good battle. This was a crazy game and you know what, halfway through it I was getting frustrated with everything. But the guys, Mancillas especially, he was like, ‘We got this, coach,’ and that was cool. I think it shows that a good team can put the coach in his place sometimes. Even though we were down some guys with COVID, I thought the kids we had did a great job today.”

Cool also was the balance displayed by the visiting Sabes. Mancillas was averaging just under 8 ppg as the consummate role player, but against the Jags he picked a great time to emerge as an offensive weapon. Econ had closed to within 2 early in the third when the lanky swingman knocked in a pair of threes to jumpstart the Sabes.

Avelar, who hits for 11.1 normally, was a ballistic missile in this key tilt, scoring 18 of his 27 after the break; he went 11 of 12 from the free-throw line, drawing contact with strength and composure, and converting at the stripe. Vela was a superb 18 of 19 from the line with Mancillas going 5 for 5 in the fourth; he netted all 13 points after halftime, by the way.

“The balance of this team, that’s something I am proud of,” Rodriguez the coach said. “All the kids stepped up, we got some rebounds, we played tough D, and we made our free throws. Aidan may be underrated for some people but not on this team; we know what he can do, and he’s been doing it all year.”

THE TASK AT HAND

The Jags had been doing some gaudy scoring lately, hanging 90 on Juarez-Lincoln and 79 on Mission. But Vela came in having eclipsed the 70-point mark six times, including a season high of 84. So when the game began with sharp offensive output, no one should have been surprised. Barrientos connected on two threes in the early going – one on a quick assist from de Leon – but Avelar hit a long one and went for seven early points. De Leon worked to the basket as best he could with Rodriguez dogging his every step, and importantly, denying him the basketball at times by picking him up practically from the Econ inbounds.

The Jags led most of the first and it was 16-13 after senior Orly Martinez swooped in for a sweet finger roll. Vela kept close with senior Matthew Cavazos scoring to cut into the lead to 18-15 at the end of one. De Leon was saddled with a pair of fouls, one offensive, a sign of worry.

After sitting out the final minute of the first, de Leon came back in to try his luck against the Sabes but was just not getting any decent looks. Eric Trigo got a few of those for Vela off the bench and came through with punch to give the Sabes a 20-20 tie, and later his basket knotted the game again, this time at 23. Martinez hit a couple of free throws to put the Jags up, 25-23 but Vela went off for the last eight of the half, Rodriguez raining in a triple off an inbounds pass, Avelar drawing a charge against Econ and blocking a shot, Trigo connecting from downtown for a 31-25 halftime cushion.

The quarter had started with a hot mess out there, the warning, the tech, and copious amounts of fan input, so to say. It ended with Vela coming out of the collective fog to play better ball down the stretch, passing and cutting, defending better, the Jags meanwhile starting to falter in concentration and thus, execution.

To start the third, de Leon bounced in a J and Rolando Moreno drove for a hoop, cutting it to 2 at 31-29. But then Mancillas went electric, Avelar followed with a terrific stretch of skill, and Vela was up a dozen, 50-38, heading into the final turn. Rodriguez sprinted around the court without pause, seeming like a veritable extension of de Leon, one No. 2 inseparable from the other. He frustrated the Econ head honcho because he just refused to stop. Even when he was charged with inbounding the ball, Jacob ran at full throttle to the sideline, the ref eying him with a small smile. This dude wants to PLAY!

By now the Jags were fading, misfiring, and turning it over as Vela got stronger. This, in contrast to the way the two meetings had turned out a year ago, when the Sabes led in the fourth quarter on both occasions but failed to hold the advantage. Having been swept by Econ last season – and missing the playoffs by a slim margin, no coincidence there – the Sabes were not going to continue that trend.

De Leon pulled off some stunning and acrobatic moves – the best two not finding the bottom of the net – but was unable to stem the tide. He had to resort to very difficult tries to get cranking versus the Rodmanesque defensive posture of his adversary.

Things arrived full circle as Vela pulled away, as a police office and an administrator sidled over to have a discussion with The Stomper, who seemed momentarily taken aback. A very interesting sideplot to the game at hand, free country and all that.

The real plot had more to do, though, with stellar performances such as the one Avelar produced. He has the knack of racing into a knot of players with great timing to steal the ball and run forth. And in the fourth he showed off his dribbling skills by single-handledly breaking the Econ press with a sublime spin and a dart between two defenders.

At the other end de Leon was called for a walk and could not help but remonstrate loudly; it was a taxing afternoon for him and the Jags. They just didn’t regain the momentum they needed.

Even when Rodriguez jammed a thumb late in the day, he didn’t quit working. Leaning against the wall behind the basket, he doctored the injury himself, and after a brief sojourn to the bench, returned to his task. What a workmanlike effort. He did what he had to do.

At 2:40, de Leon was history, banished to the bench after picking up foul No. 5, and he received a measure of respect from the crowd after having weathered a series of obstacles. This wasn’t Mission, to repeat, it was Vela. And as fine a player as he is, Ray hit the immovable wall that the Sabes are turning into as 2022 begins.

To put a final punctuation mark on a riveting afternoon of clutch play, Vela tallied again when Avelar zoomed in for another steal and went for a short runner in the lane.

With the victory, the Blue and Black (and Silver, technically) advanced to 11-7 lifetime against the Jags. While in prior days, EHS-North used to be the prime Rivalry Game (taut 4-point win for North Friday in the latest installment), Econ-Vela has given its fair share of entertainment also. Five times have the two rivals contested closely fought affairs decided by six points or fewer. After winning by 1 in 2014, the Sabes had dropped three of four nail-biters to the Orange (by 2 in 2018; by 4 in 2019; and by 2 in 2021). This was one was sweet, erasing the sting of last year’s sweep and setting the club up in solid shape as the meat of the slate arrives in earnest.

Econ, working on a stretch of four playoff appearances in five seasons, will get back to work and advance down the road. Nothing says that the Jags will not end up near/in the top spot by the end of the schedule, because this is still a quality group with high expectations. But Friday was just not going to happen against an inspired, shorthanded crew from Vela that proved its worth with a fantastic exhibition of team basketball.

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