January 25, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
With a defiant new coach as King Leonidas I, the SaberCats, aka Spartans, took the field of battle Tuesday at Thermopylae, rather Richard R. Flores Stadium, to try and duplicate the glorious feat of the Greeks a few years back. Like 2,500 years back.
This was always going to be tough sledding for Vela, a thin roster made even thinner by some missing kids for various reasons. Tuesday, J.D. Alonzo, who has taken the reins of a program that has been somewhat storm-tossed as of late, had no substitutes to call upon in a league match against a very dangerous North contingent. Just the starters. And after eight minutes, an injury further depleted the ranks. And halfway in, another Sabe went down, meaning that for long stretches of the game, Vela was a man (sometimes two) down.
Before it began, Alonzo had told his crew that they would have to lean on each other for 80 minutes. And this is what they did.
In a magnificent performance of grit and determination, Vela fought to the half just a goal down, having held the Cougars to one score, that coming in the last four minutes. It was a rousing performance bringing to mind the desperate bravery of an underdog, overmatched gang of warriors who faced the invading Persians down at a narrow pass back in 480 BC, a miracle that was commemorated on film in 1962, and then again in 2007 (300).
Leonidas fired his troops into a victory of a loss; though the Persians eventually broke through and took several towns, the delaying action eventually led to the Greek triumph at the naval Battle of Salamis later in the year, saving the Hellenic bacon at last. While the Spartans of 480 BC were tragically undone at Thermopylae by the information of a traitor, Ephialtes, the SaberCats of 2022 had no snitches. Instead, they had a bunch of rough and ready brawlers who were digging in, pounding and grinding, finding a way to hold off the quick and skilled Cougars.
The Coogs went on to record a 4-0 win with three second-half goals, after Coach Elias Moran practiced his unique and excellent brand of sports psychology at halftime. North appears to be one of the favorites to compete for the title in 31-6A, and after the guys settled down, stopped trying too hard to score against a depleted side, they let their skills take over and thus started to punish the net with goals. Moran was satisfied that his side had met an emotional challenge and eventually mastered it.
For the SaberCats, up against a difficult season, it was also a buoyant effort, the kind of night that helps harden the character and resolve it will take to overcome deficiencies and obstacles, and to emerge out on the other side intact. Brilliant theater this, because the uneven circumstances might have descended rapidly into farce. But didn’t.
Football pundits will tell you that it isn’t as easy as it seems to be up a man in a match. Can make the players complacent, or overzealous. They also note that a 2-0 lead is even more dangerous, although the logic there has never fully been explained, honestly. But the fact remains, when you have an advantage, the longer you go without scoring, oddly, puts the pressure on you. Get the early goal, smooth sailing.
As for the other side, the undermanned, the opposite effect can become reality. Though your team is running, struggling, filling holes and double-timing it – seeing waves of attackers advancing ceaselessly – the more time that elapses without a collapse can lend some drama to the affair. And confidence.
Midway through the match Tuesday, the Sabes were communicating.
“Hey, get back, remember, we only got 10!” one of the defenders hollered.
“We’re in zone, we got this,” yelled Alonzo, reminding his kids to stop man-marking and get to their appointed area. Though they were already tiring, the Sabes responded.
Even when North’s Jose Suares hopped on a goal spill to slot home at 3:20 of the half, Alonzo and Co. stood undaunted, the coach telling his guys, “We’re alright, keep going,” and believing it.
To that point, the Sabes – who started the league season with losses against Pharr North and La Joya – had proven themselves well, using their strength and hustle to keep the Coogs at bay. Though North had absolute command of the run of play in the half, firing off multiple shots, many of them did not hit the target. Again, for the side with an advantage, the goal starts to look like the Gulf of Mexico and this illusion can lead to overexuberance, quick shots from too far out, or attempts with prohibitive degree of difficulty.
The heroes of the first-half stand were numerous, especially in back, obviously. Keeper Job Juarez, who has been a striker in the past and a good one, has been forced into goal this season, where he compensates for a lack of size with catlike quickness and anticipation. He was to make a number of credible saves Tuesday, including two last-second punch-outs up high.
His mates on defense were a dogged lot, with football (de norteamericano) star Daniel Arce using his agility and barrel-chested strength to try and contain the fliers on the outside. In the middle it was Eduardo Valdez-Pina, an aggressive center back who was one of the most vocal men on the pitch, growling constantly, exhorting the Sabes to try harder, and making a nuisance of himself vis a vis the Coogs. Daring them to come on.
Then there was Irving Castro, who combined with defender Jose Reyes for a series of clearances, step-ins, and physical interventions. Those guys were bringing it from the opening whistle, playing physical and cutting the space between themselves and the more agile North attackers. Guys like Jonathan Meza and Victor Castro used their bulk and drive in the midfield to become part of the defensive gauntlet; it had to be that way, as the lines were compressed by necessity, the chances at a counter from Vela becoming terribly scarce.
Every time Moran’s forwards got into position, through slick passing and movement, one of the Vela stalwarts, often several, converged on the spot, cracking into ball and man and gumming up the works. There were a few instances of risky fouls just beyond the box, and when you’re a man down, or two, the margin for error is narrow as the pass at Thermopylae: you just don’t have as much help, and you’d better be right. And for the most part, especially in the first half, the timing was spot-on from Vela. The breakneck challenges, slides, and kickouts worked. Against the odds, the Sabes were hanging.
At any rate, the dam eventually burst, the pass was taken by the Persian Coogs, as nature and the law of averages held sway in the end. But all throughout what should have been a distressing night, the Sabes kept their spirit. And sense of humor.
At one point, as the second half started, another of the whiteclads from Vela went down, a cramp, it turned out. Instead of hanging their heads and pouting or giving up, the fellows took mirth from it, once they figured out their teammate was not seriously injured. A few of them stood around laughing and chattering as the cramp sufferer called out, “I felt like I been shot, man,” to explain how/why he had hit the turf with record speed a few second before. One of his homies then started a pantomime of how the incident had unfolded, whereupon everyone cracked up. Catharsis.
This sort of camaraderie, esprit de corps, or gallows humor – take your pick – was sort of the theme of the evening.
Vela knew it was in for it Tuesday, there was no way of getting around it. But with the guidance of a leader, Alonzo, who has always been known as a player’s coach – a cool cat who relates well to the kids – the squad was galvanized. They formed a unit that held its own with extra effort, willed their way into being competitive against the facts, and showed that sometimes, what counts most is not the outcome, but how a team faces the medicine.
Without bellyaching, excuse-making, or loss of poise, the Sabes went to war Tuesday, and although the New 300 eventually succumbed to superior numbers and firepower, they left the pitch secure in and proud of the guts they had displayed. If they can get back to something approaching full strength, it is possible to locate the forward path and begin searching for maybe wins, surely points in the table, and perhaps, the ultimate redemption of a Salamis, circa 2022.
Bravo to Alonzo, bravo to Vela.