March 30, 2022 (updated)

By Greg Selber

LAREDO – He’s got a strong and distinctive voice and yet it was hard to hear Americo Cortez on the other end of the phone Tuesday night. That’s because he and the Vela girls were out to dinner in a crowded restaurant to joyously celebrate a tense 2-1 victory over Del Rio in the area playoffs.

“It was tough, just like I thought it would be, we were losing at halftime, 1-0,” said the Lady SaberCat leader, who will now take his side into the regional quarterfinals for a Friday rematch in Corpus Christi with SA Brennan, which ended the ECISD school’s three-deep run of 2021 with a 2-0 result. “But we were able to come back and score twice in the second half, when we had the wind. We were on it during the second half, we had some chances come close, and we finally did it. We’re really excited about this game, and now looking forward to moving on.”

Del Rio, the champ from District 30-6A, connected on a free kick late in the first half but after the break, junior Crystal Palma converted a penalty to equalize, setting the stage for a dramatic ending at Shirley Field. Midfielder Natalia Cortez, playing closer to the front in the program’s 4-4-2 alignment, got the game winner with 10 minutes to go.

“She got a good pass from Alayna [Rodriguez] and turned and let it fly,” Cortez reported. “They had worked that play a few minutes earlier and it came close to scoring. This time it went in, boom, bottom corner!”

The victory brings Vela into rare air in terms of city history. The Lady Sabes have now made the third round of the playoffs three times, the first coming in 2015 and the second last season. In 2015 the Lady Saber were eliminated by Pioneer, 1-0, and in 2021, Brennan.

EHS has done it twice, back in 1999 and 2004, but expired in the regional quarters both years, against Harlingen South and Sharyland, respectively.

North meanwhile has set the gold standard for deep playoff runs, advancing to the third round five times, and winning that elusive quarterfinal match once, back in 2008. The Lady Cougars went three-deep in 2000, 2001, and 2007 before finally breaking through in 2008, when they beat Los Fresnos, Sharyland, and P-SJ-A to make it to San Antonio, where they were knocked out by SA MacArthur. In 2012, North also made it three rounds in, but lost against Sharyland to end the season.

The memorable 2008 squad under Danny Valdez was a powerhouse that won 25 matches paced by MVP Katy Lipscomb up front with defensive demons in Anissa Abrego, Esmer Hernandez, and Karina Trevino, plus a superb midfield featuring Paige Gutierrez, Jackie Cantu, Laura Badillo, and MariCarmen Valdez. Alyssa Granado was the Utility Player of the Year that famous season while notable youngsters helping the charge were Destiny Rodriguez, Claire Garcia, and Bianca Ramos.

Now Vela is chasing city history as well as school history and will have to defeat Brennan to make that a reality.

The Lady Bears won 14 of 16 league games to top its district against tough opponents such as Taft and O’Connor, both of whom are still alive in the region’s elite 8. They have lost just twice all season, to O’Connor in district and Johnson (also still kicking in the postseason) in non-district. Their other blemish was a league draw against O’Connor, which faces Taft after the former defeated Harlingen and the latter knocked off Juarez-Lincoln in area.

If they should manage a triumph against Brenna, Vela would be up against the winner of the third-round clash between Johnson and Reagan; both those sides eclipsed No. 1 seeds to reach the quarters, Johnson beating Lake Travis and Reagan ousting Vandegrift.

The Lady Sabes now carry the border banner forward as the last Valley 6A side still competing in the playoffs, which is a superb accomplishment. There are just two local 5As still alive in the Second Season, McAllen High and McAllen Memorial, meaning that Vela can count itself now in good and equal company with the perennial elites of the area, another fantastic feather in the program cap.

Brennan has beaten Laredo United South (8-0) and Los Fresnos (4-2) to reach the quarters and has scored 106 goals, allowing 20 so far. Last season the Lady Bears defeated United, Harlingen, and Vela before dropping out against Vandegrift to mark their best season ever. The program has been a consistent playoff combatant with nine trips since 2011, taking bi-district titles five times from 2011 to 2016 without a victory in area. The Lady Bears did not make the grade in 2018 or 2019, or 2020 when the playoffs were canceled, and now seek to duplicate their 2021 performance with a journey into the regional bracket.

Vela is 19-4 this season, its losses coming versus Taft, O’Connor, Lincoln, and North in PKs. Game time is 7 p.m. at Cabaniss Field in Corpus.

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