March 29, 2022

By Greg Selber

It was one of the best collective first-round performances the city soccer girls have made in some time, as Vela moved on to the area round and North and Econ fought to the last, each expiring 1-0 against Harlingen and Los Fresnos, respectively.

The Lady SaberCats had their hands full at Harlingen South until a late second overtime goal from Alayna Rodriguez – a little more than two minutes from penalties – pushed Vela past bi-district for the second season in a row.

“It was a tough and stressful game,” said Cortez, who now leads his club into a second-round clash against 29-6A champ Del Rio, Tuesday in Laredo. “We were able to pull it out, but South was ready to play, they played their hearts out. It was a back-and-forth game, nothing easy. But the girls got it done.”

Cortez has cobbled together another winning contingent in 2022 despite massive injury problems. He noted that many of the walking wounded are back to action, give or take.

“Natalia [Cortez, no relation] is back now, she is about 80 percent, maybe, but she’s toughing it out,” said the coach about his talented midfielder. “Palma has really been the one in the middle, she has done very well … and she’s struggled on and off with a groin injury. But she’s the type who gets her treatment and just wants to come back and play, even in practices!”

He will need the excellence of Crystal Palma along with the magician work from Cortez if the Lady Sabes are to repeat last year’s journey to the regional quarterfinals. In 2021, they defeated South and SA Taft before running into SA Brennan in the third stage. A win against Del Rio might just net them a rematch with the Lady Bears, who play against Los Fresnos in the area round from the same side of the bracket.

With Vela having played Thursday, Cortez journeyed up to San Antonio the next day to see Del Rio knock off SA Harlan, 1-0, and he says that the impending matchup at Shirley Field, first kick 8 p.m. Tuesday, should be even Steven.

“They have some fast forwards, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “They’re district champs and they played a good game. I think we’re better in some spots, and they’re better in a few, too, that’s what it is, it should be tough.”

With his side having fought through the pain of a trying season, the manager feels Vela is set for combat.

“We’ve struggled, it’s true, but we are finishing well, and I point back to the Edinburg North game,” he suggested, referencing the side’s penalties kicks defeat suffered at the hands of the Lady Coogs Feb. 25. “After that, we started playing better, and got tougher mentally. Different mindset, some girls we had were not playing, they were injured or bruised up, some of them. But when we lost that game, it seemed like we just decided to get tougher and come back, no matter what.

“This a good team with great girls, and I think they needed that game to get them back to playing like they can.”

While his group is the last city team standing of the five – girls and boys – that rolled the dice in bi-district, Cortez gave props to the other girls’ sides, Econ and North.

“The Jags, they play hard, that’s a good team, same with North too,” he said. “We’re happy to be moving on, but man, it was not easy at all. Now I think that against Del Rio it will be an even match, and it will probably go down to the wire again. And when it’s close like, it usually boils down to who makes mistakes in the key moments.”

The Vela boss has confidence in his group, as well he should after its strong run through 31-6A to a close second, and the 1-0 postseason win away to a pesky South crew.

Last season, the program rode the merits of seniors Taylor Campbell and Ky Richards to the third round. After their graduation, the Lady Sabes have not skipped a beat.

“The thing is, we had a lot of returning girls who played in those three playoff games last year,” Cortez said. “And we have been telling them, ‘Hey, you guys have been there, you’ve been here, so you’re good.’ Against South that experience really showed up, especially in the tough parts of the game. So now for this game against Del Rio, same thing: they have the experience, they’ve been there before, so it’s time to come out and play a great game.”

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