February 23, 2022

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

Role player, huh … just a role player? … What role are we talking about? You mean like, MVP role sometimes? Ah, that would be Alec Mancillas. You mean like vital sparkplug in stretches, raging inside like an agile bear? That role player? Roland Rodriguez!

When the SaberCats could not quite manage to shake off a pesky challenge from visiting Brownsville Hanna Monday, Coach Lucio Rodriguez could count on his crew to provide what had made it the district champion in 2021-22: extraordinary balance, team ball, and whoever’s next, step on up and make it happen.

Mancillas, who started the season as probably the offense’s fourth option, has gradually grown into his uniform as a big-time point maker in the clutch. He was in absolute orbit midway through this bi-district clash at home, nailing a quartet of three-point bombs in the space of four minutes to send his team soaring toward the W.

Meanwhile, R. Rodriguez was also excellent in the 66-52 win that sets up an area round game test against Laredo United, which nicked SA O’Connor Tuesday, by 3. As is his pattern, the burly postman was quick out of the gates with a couple of early hoops, and in the fourth, when Vela (30-7 now) put the game away, he was on fire with nine points to finish with 13.

In between, the other usual suspects were doing their thing, though it was difficult sledding at times against a Hanna club (18-17) that played better than its record and made up for a lack of size with some streaky shooting. Jacob Rodriguez (19 points, 11 rebounds) continued an impressive late-season surge with one of his best all-around games, showing his ballhandling skills down the stretch with point guard Aidan Avelar saddled with foul trouble. And bouncy Tony Requena was dependable and savvy as always, finishing with 13 points and seven boards as Vela carved out a plus-10 margin on the glass.

Only four kids scored for the Sabes Monday but that was enough to stave off a spirited challenge from the Eagles, who led by 4 at the end of a period, fell behind by 9 at the half but made another run at the No. 1 seed after the break, narrowing the gap to 1 before Vela got it back together to seal the deal with a champion’s energy in the fourth.

Coach Rodriguez said that Mancillas and J. Rod have been scoring very well in recent weeks, after Avelar carried the club through the early part of the 31-6A slate with some great point tallies.

“No doubt he can shoot it, his percentage from three is over 40 percent,” said the coach of Mancillas, who averaged 5.1 ppg as a junior for the outfit that barely missed the postseason in 2020-21. “And Rollie, well, he came up big for us tonight when we needed it. Hanna was tough, they’re in the playoffs for a reason and they came to play. In this type of game, we needed some guys to step up and they all did, especially Alec in the second quarter.”

Mancillas ended with a game-high 21 markers, after getting 9.1 ppg during the regular season. He’s been waiting for the chance to show his offensive ability, and after netting 20 against Econ and 16 against La Joya in the latter stages of the league season, the 6-1 senior was flat killing it in bi-district. To say the least.

“My confidence has been rising, it’s starting to come for me,” he said, after his blitz of treys against Hanna. The fourth long one was a catch-and-shoot masterpiece that sent the crowd into hysterics as Vela had gone from two points down to six up in a flash. “It’s repetition, because when I shoot well, I come out the next time and just keep it going. The kickouts were coming to me, and I was feeling it. That last one, I didn’t even think about it, I just shot it.”

To that point, the Sabes had struggled in breaking down the Hanna zone, as Coach Rodriguez figured they might. He always says the guys have to master the discipline to pass up a good shot to get a great one. But the Extra Pass Mentality was foiled early on by the Eagles as they clogged the middle, cut off passing lanes, and jumped out to get in the Sabes’ faces, almost like a man-to-man effect while still in the zone. Not passive in the least.

“We wanted to come out and get to the middle, establish the paint,” Mancillas explained. “It wasn’t working at first but then it came around and we were able to get some looks.”

Requena, whose movements to the middle usually result in positive things for himself or teammates, praised the Hanna effort.

“They were pretty good and the refs were letting us play,” said the senior who leads the balanced attack in scoring. “We wanted to swing the ball around like we usually do, but sometimes we were running when we should pass, passing when we should run … we had some chances to extend the lead on them and we didn’t do it, but finally we were able to get ahead and stay there.”


As noted, R. Rod was hot off the bat with a couple of hoops inside but after holding a 6-2 early lead, the Sabes saw the Eagles race ahead, 13-7, the visiting fans loudly chanting “Defense, defense!”

Luckily, the rangy J. Rodriguez was ready to go and he chipped in six points as Vela crept to within 4 by the end of the first. The home total then rose to 16, 19, and 22 as Mancillas received the rock with a sliver of space and connected on three straight, all net. His fourth trifecta – off a killer pass from Requena – made it 25-19, Vela, and that was it for the Hanna fan holla, basically.

Requena then fed J. Rod on a drive and himself pulled up in the lane to hit a 10-footer, giving his club a 10-point advantage at 1:46 of the half. At the other end, J. Rod leapt for a defensive board against 6-4 Charles Thirlwall of the Eagles, tipping the ball to a teammate to start the break. Soon he was climbing the offensive glass to put in a Vela miss: 31-22 at intermission. Mancillas had stormed to 14 points in the period, keying a 20-7 gem by Vela after the somewhat slow start.

What is it about the start of a game or half that brings out the best in Rollie? He stepped in to draw a charge right away as the second half began and when J. Rod rained in a bomb, the charismatic vet pumped his fist and bounded downcourt like an antelope, passing the Vela cheerleaders, who screamed their approval. Playoff games: energy plus pressure plus atmosphere = the best!

Hanna rallied back into it after having been down 12, the valuable Avelar sitting with fouls. With time waning in the period the Eagles had cut the gap to 1 with a 16-5 run; they weren’t going away. But Mancillas assisted on a J. Rod hoop for some breathing room and the same combination worked again to give the Sabes a 44-40 cushion heading into the telltale fourth. Avelar had contributed a big play late in the period, crashing to the floor to draw an offensive foul on Hanna, and hopping up to fetch a mop to clean the hardwood as well. By any means necessary.

With the game and season now on the line, Requena coolly knocked in a triple to start the fourth and at 6:12, R. Rod barreled in for a layup and one, smashing some push-ups on the floor as his student section acted out rapture at his audacious and crowd-pleasing moment. It was now 50-42, Thirlwall exited with four fouls, and the Sabes began to surge ahead for keeps. Requena missed a shot but hit the deck to scrap for the loose ball, showing that the senior-laden crew was not going to let this one slip away. 

As Hanna started to trap and double, picking Vela up fullcourt, the versatile skills of the Blue and Black came to the fore. Each of them handled the ball with calm, getting rid of it at the right time, cutting to the open spot – Requena dashing to the middle as pivot – and the desperate visitor pressure did not bother the home five unduly. They were up 11 when J. Rod swooped to the tin for a slick lefty deuce, after Requena’s sweet pass had beaten the trap at midcourt. R. Rod went up for 2 again, off a Requena drive, and again, Requena turned in a workmanlike shift in bi-district. 

All of them looked like point guards as they beat the trap, set up, milked the clock, and engineered chances off the semi-stall. By now, the Eagles were spent after a very game effort, though they pulled to within 8 late, at 60-52. However, Vela was seasoned enough to hold on to the win, putting the last six points of the night on the board and heading to cut down the nets.

Having missed the Dance last season, the Sabes were determined to make it count against Hanna, and became the third team in school history to take 30 triumphs in a season.

The Vela freshman just topped off a 27-0 season and the JV was undefeated in district play. With all the mainstays set to walk the graduation stage in June, the youngsters will get their chance in due time. But for now, it’s on to the area round for the Sabes, and even though the face an underdog role in the second stage, they know all about roles of all kinds.

They’re all “role players,” really because they know what they have to do, and they do it.  And sometimes they’re stars. Either way, together this right band of brothers has rolled through the Valley and now gets to take a shot at what lies ahead. How about the role of spoiler? Sounds good, man.

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