February 3, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
About 20 minutes before her team was to take the floor against Econ Tuesday, Lottie Zarate looked up, into the steep bleacher panorama at Vela. But she saw her alma mater, and she saw her past, which has led to the present.
“Right up there, that’s where she used to make us run steps,” laughed the Vela coach, shaking her head. “And she made us do it with a girl on our back the whole way, I am not joking. We had to carry a teammate up those steps!”
Then Zarate pointed to the black foam mat against the wall, behind one basket.
“And here, this is where she would have us pick up a teammate on our back, and do calf raises against the wall. Back then the weight room was really small, so this was where we did a lot of ‘training,’”
Zarate was referencing her time at EHS, which as many folks know, used to be located where Vela is now. And the “she” the highly successful Zarate was telling stories about, that was Nora Zamarripa, the RGV Hall of Famer who made a truly saintly name for herself as the leader of first, the Lady Bobcats of Edinburg High, and later, the Harlingen Lady Cardinals. A winner of a basketball coach and person who, as the colloquial saying goes, didn’t take no mess from nobody.
So for anyone seeking the secret behind the exploits of this year’s Vela girls’ basketball edition, here is where the answers start.
Yes, the Lady SaberCats have a tremendous starting five, a talented and versatile bunch that has helped guide the program to a record-setting 32-2 season, with one game left in the campaign before the playoffs. Talent is part of the recipe. But the other ingredient is pure Zarate, or rather, distilled Zamarripa.
“Coach was tough, and I mean tough,” Zarate said earnestly. “She was very, what’s the word … demanding, she was very demanding, all the time. She had high expectations of us, and she pushed us constantly, was always on us about this or that. I think what I got most from her was a competitive mentality. I was always like that anyway, for whatever reason, but Coach reinforced that idea, hard work, accountability to the team, etc. I think a player always takes certain things away from the experience of being coached, especially if they eventually get into coaching.”
Zarate, who would graduate from high school in 1991, played on some excellent Lady Bobcat teams, including a winning group her sophomore year that included such older stars as Cindy Hernandez and the amazing athletic specimen, Michelle Martin. The latter is still considered to be one of the top female athletes in the history of Edinburg along with the likes of Leigha Brown of Econ fame, among others.
“I think, like Coach Zamarripa, I am the type who treats everyone the same, even if they are the best players,” she explained. “Nobody is above the rules, everybody has to work hard and be committed. I haven’t changed my approach since I started coaching, it’s always the same and the girls know it. I hope they respect that. We can have 31 wins or none, it will still be the same work ethic, dedication. It has to be.”
Though she definitely is a hard taskmaster who refuses to accept excuses or complaints, Zarate says she can never match the Old School, almost Biblical fire of her high school mentor.
“Heck, if we wanted to get a drink of water during practice, we had to go run and jump, touch the net, every time,” she said. “That’s what it was like with Coach, she was super hard. We had one kid who was really short, and so she couldn’t reach the net.”
Zarate paused for emphasis and smiled sadly.
“That kid just never got a drink, not in four years.”
And yet, Zarate will say that back in her EHS days, the coach may have been a hard-nosed drill sergeant, but the girls all knew she cared.
“She treated us like we were her kids, and it was like family,” she recalled. “You knew she was being hard on you, not to just be mean, but to teach you lessons about work and commitment that would later come into play, in real life. And I find that I use a lot of that competitive mentality with the girls at Vela. I think they understand the way I am, just like we all knew what Coach was up to, back then.”
There is no question that it’s been a banner year for Zarate and Vela in 2021-22, as the program is undefeated in district at 15-0, ranked No. 1 in the Valley, and has entered the state’s elite echelon with a top 10 ranking. The Lady Sabes have absolutely destroyed the competition in District 31-6A, doubling up, score-wise, most opponents from top to bottom of the league. They last lost on Nov. 19, basically.
Against the overmatched Lady Jags Tuesday, Vela played without two starters as super sophomore Janai Coleman was nursing a sprained ankle and senior Lauren Vega continues to recover from a nagging foot injury.
Still, it didn’t seem to matter for the depleted roster, as any time Emma Lucio is on the floor, it’s going to work out alright.
The junior lefty has taken the city by storm following her transfer from Pharr North, averaging north of 20 ppg with 15 games of at least 20 points, her season high of 34 coming against a McAllen Rowe squad that is also carving out an awesome record this season.
And in the fiery and skilled Lucio, Zarate cannot help but see a little of herself.
“I think it’s her intensity, her grit out there, the way she wants to perform – and win – so badly,” the coach said. “When I was a player, I was very hungry to play. When I was young, my dad rigged up a homemade basket for me to shoot on, it wasn’t much but it was all I needed. A little plywood here and there, he found an old hoop somewhere, it was very basic. But I worked and I worked and I worked, by myself out there, and I was hungry to compete. Emma has that fire, that hunger, and she has very well-developed ambitions as far as basketball goes.”
After high school Zarate went to what was then called The University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV). And though she had been an excellent guard for Zamarripa and the Lady ‘Cats, she decided not to go further with her hoops career.
“They wanted me to come out, I talked to the coaches and all that,” she remembers. “But at the time they were in a mess, probation and all kinds of problems … I decided to just go to school and honestly, I sort of regret that now.”
As for Lucio, her coach notes that the supremely gifted junior has definite plans.
“She is talking about getting out, going to school to play, maybe even going overseas some day,” Zarate noted with pride. “She is going to use this, I can tell, and I think she has what it takes to make it. I also think that Emma could have made it with us back in the day, she’s got that determination, that drive. Back in the day there wasn’t all the training, the specialized year-round stuff they have now. We just played, at the park, at our house, wherever, and the thing is, sometimes when you just play, in that unstructured setting, it helps you see the flow of the game.
“It’s not that training is bad; of course it helps develop skills through repetition, that sort of stuff. But you also want to go out there, as an athlete, and just play. Play the game, compete to win, and see the flow. Emma has it, she has the vision, the understanding, the basketball smarts. She sees things happen and she just plays into it. It is a pretty rare ability.”
The Lady Sabe dominance this season is not just Lucio, however, though she must be considered the best player in the Valley, hard to argue with that. And it’s not just the superb Coleman, who – frighteningly enough – is just starting, as a 10th-grader, to recognize and hone her fantastic natural athletic talent. In terms of upside, the former EHS star Coleman, who averages 13 ppg and eight boards, is a shooting star who will ascend exponentially higher as she matures and progresses. Limit = sky.
Those two have benefited greatly in pairing with the program vets who have helped them settle into the Vela way.
First, senior Vega. Although this has been a difficult season for her, injury-wise, there is no question of what Vega has accomplished at the school or about the fact that she is the bona fide face of the program, a four-year starter and scorer of more than 1,000 career points.
Fellow senior Aneyda Chapa has modeled what it looks like to work, improve, and get the best of herself over time. She has upped her game in every aspect, has the powerful forward, including passing the basketball and increasing her offensive output.
And by no means is rangy starter Fey Vasquez anyone’s Fifth Beatle. She dominated the game at times on Tuesday, running the court, one-twoing perfectly with Lucio on the break and scoring at the rim (16 points against the Lady Jags). Most teams would have Vasquez as option One or Two; it shows how good the Lady Sabes are that they count on her to rebound, block shots, and hit the open shot from time to time. She has become an excellent passer, too.
Having blown through the Valley like a bomb cyclone this season, the Lady Sabes know that once the playoffs get here, all that will become yesterday’s news. It all starts over in bi-district, and Vela understands that despite a glittering record, high rankings, and copious amounts of media attention, they had better not get the big head or rest on their laurels. They cut down the nets as 31-6A champs after the conclusion of the boys’ nightcap game on Tuesday. But that was then, this is now.
Lucky for them they have a coach who came up in the Old School, where respect, accountability, sacrifice, and hard work were not suggestions. They were Coach Zamarripa’s law. And they are now Lottie’s Law.
“We’re not worried about how far we go, anything like that right now,” Zarate commented. “We want to finish district on a high note, prepare for bi-district and see what happens. I was always taught to concentrate on what’s in front of me, control the things I can control. We can control how hard we practice, how hard we play. The rest will take care of itself.”
And just for the record, there is no indication that the hard-charging ex guard will be asking her kids to take a teammate for a ride, up the daunting steps of the old, kind-of-new gym. As far as we know … old habits die hard. But in 2022, the gals can have a drink when they need it, without having to touch the net.