March 2, 2022

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

The game was less than 30 minutes old Tuesday when Denise De La Cruz brought her Lady SaberCats together. The youthful bunch had been booting the ball around, throwing it away, and making life way easier than it had to be for the visiting softballers from North.

“Hey everyone, relax,” said the new Vela coach. “And freshmen: take a breath, this isn’t your first game.”

It was definitely a rattled start for Vela, which committed a whopping seven errors in the first two innings and fell behind 8-2. But De La Cruz saw her kids get it together as the night wore on, and though the eventual 16-3 defeat at the hands of the Lady Cougars dropped them to 0-3 in District 31-6A, the coach noted signs of improvement.

“It’s a very young team, for starters,” said the former Nikki Rowe coach who played at McAllen High. “We have a lot of new girls out here, and really, these are the first games they have played together, as a team. I know we have talent; we just need to hang in there and get to know each other better.”

De la Cruz took over a program that graduated the lion’s share of a talented bunch that in a four-year span won 98 games and lost just 23. She knew what she was in for.

“It is definitely a challenging situation right now, but I would rather not say we are ‘rebuilding,’” she commented. “In fact, I can see the maturity level of the girls grow with each game, and tournament. They’re babies, and it’s hard: we have freshmen at the corners, pitcher, right field, tons of girls who have never played at this level. What we are telling them is that they need to get used to being varsity athletes. And that’s what they’re doing, settling in and learning how this is done. And when we come up, it’s gonna be the best!”

De La Cruz has seen glimpses of the team’s potential, as at the Mission Tourney the Lady Sabes captured a couple of big ball games. She said that the kids are getting used to one another, and to a new coach following the departure of ex mentor Jon Maples. Process, in progress.

“They’re receptive, they’re open-minded, and they’re learning,” she said. “And I can see the improvement even though, wow, what a schedule to begin district! Overall, I am very happy to be in Edinburg, my mother’s family is from here, but we were always like, ‘McAllen, McAllen,’ where I was from. But I Iove it here; everyone had been very welcoming.”

Back in 2012-13, when the Vela program first started out, it took consistent lumps from Richard Tressler’s Lady Coog dynasty, losing the first six encounters between the two rivals. After a two-year sojourn down to 5A – which will be reprised starting in the fall based on the latest UIL realignment – the Lady Sabes got on top of the series with six victories in seven attempts from 2018 through 2021.

Tuesday, the Lady Coogs improved to 2-1 in district, following a W over Econ and a loss to a pesky Mission nine. This year’s North group is paced by stellar shortstop Kaylee O‘Bryan, and like Vela has integrated some new faces into the mix. Leslie Tamez at third, Jade Guerra in left field, and pitcher Jo Mancha are the other returnees for a club that seeks a playoff spot every season as a basic birthright.

And against the Lady Sabes Tuesday, the veteran group was strong, as Mancha went all the way on the hill for her seventh win of the young season, adding a powerful line-drive homer and an equally massive double off the wall, good for four RBI all told.

North got out to a 4-0 lead after one, added four more tallies in the second, and repeated the cuatro in innings four and five to complete the run-rule blowout. Guerra was 4 for 4 and O’Bryan 3 for 4 while Tamez got two hits as did Emily Palacios. North came in hitting just .233 as a team but upped that ante well after collecting 14 safeties on the night.

Many of the runs North got early on came partly due to mistakes from the home side as Vela continually tossed the ball waywardly behind the runners and looked a step slow in knowing where the play was. But gradually, the Lady Sabes patched it together, aided by seasoned leaders Victoria Rogers at short and Sarah Cortez at second, along with left fielder Ava Perez. Those girls are the main holdovers from last season, when Vela went 15-5. 

The hard-nosed Rogers knocked two of the team’s five base hits against Mancha and Adri Salinas also had a couple. The Blue and Black scratched out single runs in the first two frames as North, too, was slightly faulty afield. But in the third came a missed opportunity to cut into the lead as not one, but two Vela baserunners were called out after being hit by a batted ball. A very rare occurrence and the sort of accident/mistake that De La Cruz will count on her girls to learn to avoid for the future.

“We’ve hardly begun to get together as a team, and wham, we’re into district,” said the coach, whose club has faced off with La Joya and Pharr North and now Edinburg North. “But like I said, no complaints. I think we will be getting better and better, most of the girls have bought into what we are doing and it’s only a matter of time before we start winning some games.”

Some of the promising prospects for the future include outfielder Danika Jimenez, who has a strong arm and some wheels. Catcher Kaylee Vega had her moments Tuesday behind the plate while 1B Bri Gamez looks to have some solid skills.

Tuesday, the Lady Sabes will be at EHS to try their luck, this after a trip to Brownsville for a weekend tournament.

EHS is off to a 2-1 start in district, having beaten Lincoln and Econ but been plastered by Mission Tuesday, 14-0. The Tri-Cities schools are looking good at 2-0 each, while La Joya and Mission are 2-1 in the early going, with Econ and Lincoln winless in 31-6A so far. 

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