February 27, 2022

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

When you’re in a difficult situation, the victories may not be frequent, and might be symbolic to a degree. But they will come, these victories, with the right mindset and the proper dedication.

Given this, it seems like J.D. Alonzo is the perfect man for the job he has assumed this season. As Vela’s boys’ soccer coach, Alonzo has had to endure a trying campaign in many ways, with the side reduced, the subs few and far between, and the odds stacked against the team on a nightly basis. But the former three-sport athlete at Econ has remained upbeat, refused to be down, and brought his kids along with him to a comparatively promising place.

The SaberCats may be last in the District 31-6A table, but they are still battling, having fun together, and picking up plaudits when and where they can find them.

After the Sabes dropped a 3-1 decision to North at The Stadium Friday, Alonzo was able to make some relevant comments about his crew.

“We did good, I was proud of them,” said the mentor, who has coached baseball and football along with soccer, first at South Middle School, then at Vela, with a brief stint at his alma mater last football season. “I think our effort in the second half was good, they amped it up, despite the weather conditions.”

Vela started OK against the Cougars, shutting them down for 20 minutes but allowing three goals in the final portion of the half. But Alonzo’s kids then held North out during the second half and got on the board at the 11th hour with an absolute belter of a free kick from senior Jose Reyes, whose blast badly bruised the bar before escaping down into the net at 0:05.

“We lost the first half, made some defensive mistakes and they jumped on them,” Alonzo said. “But we did play better after halftime, we won the half when we scored late, so we’re making progress. To me, you have to think of it like that: take something positive if you can.”

The defeat did not obscure the fact that in recent weeks, the Sabes have gotten off the Ziggy with a pair of wins, in penalties over Econ and Pharr North. Reyes tied the match against the Jags with 2:30 to go, and Vela prevailed in PKs. Alonzo said that the result over Raiders was the team’s best performance so far, as the Sabes controlled possession and looked far the better side before settling for two points via the shootout.

It’s been that sort of rollercoaster in 2022, as Alonzo took over the helm of a job that has seen numerous short-time skippers since former boys’ coach Americo Cortez left to take over the girls’ program five years back.

Alonzo has helped steady the ship with his man management and patience, and the experience he has as a city kid turned coach means he knows the local drill.

“I was a free safety in football, on the team with Ryan Richardson, we won a playoff game that season,” he recalled. “I was a four-year guy in baseball, played about everything, second base, shortstop, pitcher, catcher, whatever. I even played tennis at Econ.”

And the former Swiss Army Knife has learned certain lessons about versatility during his first foray as a head coach, after a great assistant coach run. Sometimes it’s best to just not.

“I was interchanging the kids a lot early on, putting this guy here and then there,” he noted. “We were trying to find out where each kid worked best. But now I have just decided to keep players where they are and work with them in that respect. It seems to have helped their consistency.”

Overall, Vela, to contest matches against EHS and the Bears in the coming week, is getting there. And the kids who have stayed loyal to the effort, minus a few defections – expected in any program that hasn’t made the playoffs for six seasons – are improving.

“I would say we have a bunch of guys who are getting better,” Alonzo said. “And a couple we are very glad to have back in the program. Chase and Justin have really helped us, they played early on at Vela and then haven’t been out here, they concentrated on other things. But both of them have a lot of skills and they’re starting to regain those skills as we go this season.”

Speedy Justin Vega, who can play up front but slotted in at center back against North, is one of the players Alonzo was talking about. Also a standout receiver in football, “Ju Ju” is smooth and easy on the ball, his timing is perfect, and he can kick holy Hell out of the ball.

“And the thing is, Justin was down at Los Fresnos at a track meet earlier in the day, before our game,” Alonzo chuckled. “I was like, ‘Dude we got a game tonight!’ but he came back for the soccer game and he did well, JuJu is awesome.”

As for Campbell, the strong-armed football QB, same thing. Alonzo says the strapping senior is starting to shake off the rust, after not having played The Other Football for a few seasons.

“We really needed them, and I appreciate the fact that they have come out this season,” the coach reiterated. “When you don’t have a ton of guys, getting one or two back makes a big difference.”

The Sabes combated North without Jonathan Mesa, perhaps the side’s best overall talent. But many other cats made their presence felt in the loss. Sophomore Luis Garcia, an import from the Idea schools, looked very comfortable in defensive partnership with Vega, making eight header clearances and showing solid reading of the game back there. Then there was Sergio Partida, younger brother of former Vela star Ramon Partida.

“That guy has come on in leaps and bounds this season, and we really need his toughness,” said Alonzo of the hard-nosed, if somewhat small, midfield worker.

Though his bench is often lonely and bare, Alonzo knows what he has onfield. And in Lalo Valdez-Pina, he possesses a real weapon.

“He’s automatic, you know what you’ll get from him, he can play anywhere,” Alonzo said. “He has always had various jobs during high school but this year he has been able to come out to practice and games; he’s been a real plus for us. The guy is a hard worker and we are lucky to have him.”

Job Juarez is also the solid soldier type, as he has been mature enough to accept the goalkeeper role even though he has been a well-rated striker in the past. Second keeper Kayden Truitt, the football lineman, was supposed to be part of the GK puzzle, but due to a back injury he has been limited to just two matches this season.

”Everyone we have, they’ve had to adjust, coaches too,” Alonzo explained. “But this is what you have to do sometimes. The main thing is to keep a good attitude and keep trying. And even though we are not winning a ton, I think the kids have bought in to what we are trying to do. The games we did win were super exciting and now we are trying to keep close, stay in it, and have a chance to win at the end.”

Alonzo should know about keeping it close, because he was prominently involved in perhaps the wildest football game in city history, the 57-55 triple overtime madhouse pitting Econ and EHS back in 2004. Back and forth all the way, adjustments and surprises.

“I have come up in the city playing sports and now coaching,” he commented. “In baseball I was coached by J.J. Leija and Gene Shupe, played alongside Rigo Sanchez, and I think most people in town I have known or worked with or played against. And the folks who have hired me, given me a chance, I think they know that I work well with the kids, that I tend to enjoy coaching, seeing the kids improve, that sort of thing.”

So in essence it’s been a hard slog for the Sabes in soccer, but they haven’t stopped firing on what cylinders they have. Alonzo has taken over a difficult scenario and made it way better with his love for the game, rapport with the lads, and an optimistic side that marks him as somewhat different than many other coaches who have had to go through similar travails. 

Alonzo is the type who can make lemonade very well out of lemons. Even the little things get him fired up.

“Hey, all the schools will have turf for next season,” he laughed. “Finally! That will be very cool!”

If the football New Cats follow his ebullient lead, and it appears that they are doing so, better times should be ahead.

NOTES: The Coogs stayed in the playoff hunt with the win over Vela, and are now on 22 points, good for third in the league. EHS is at 21 and had its match postponed Friday. Lincoln leads on 24 points, Mission is next at 23, with La Joya at 20. 

Anthony Flores continued to shine as a scorer for the Coogs, hopping on an errant ball to roll to a 1-on-1 for the first goal Friday, at 18:37. After Carlos Gonzalez had a goal chalked off by an offside flag minutes later, Fernie Ortiz made it 2-0 with a deft steal and delicious chip over the keeper at 10:10. Late in the half, Jesus Martinez fired in the third after a couple of blocks by the Vela D in the goal mouth. Martinez let fly with a scorcher from close range, right of the goal, and it whizzed past the post, pinging it slightly as it bombed into the twines.

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