April 5, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Her bright and light eyes, usually clear and alert, were a little cloudy now. Her uniform caked in dirt from a night spent diving around – on the bases and in the field – Victoria Rogers was weary. Worn down by a long and trying season. But not about to give in.
“Four more games,” she muttered, wiping a tear away. “That’s it, all that’s left … wow.”
She’s a senior leader of the Vela softball squad, and one of only three veterans with distinct ties to the winning ways of the recent past, meaning 2022 has been tough, with the Lady SaberCats winning just two of 12 District 31-6A attempts. This included an 11-1 smashing at the hands of EHS, the Tuesday game just completed.
“I knew it was going to be tough, with a new team basically, a new coach,” she said candidly. “But sometimes it’s just … well, I hate to lose, I mean I really hate it! It hurts! So this has been hard to take.”
Then Rogers did what she always seems to do, which is find a way. As the leather-lunged shortstop for the team, she is always the holler gal, getting teammates where they need to be, administering tough love, calling out several times an inning with some exhortation or another.
“Chill out, chill out,” she’d told the Lady Sabes before the first pitch, on a suddenly sweltering afternoon with temps in the 90s, humidity prohibitive. “Don’t let the heat get to you!”
So now, after another disappointing outing, in which Vela allowed seven runs in the second inning but rebounded to compete well enough after that, Rogers was having to channel her own advice and positive mindset. It worked.
“But you know, I am so proud of how far we have all come since the beginning of the season,” she said, brightening. “And I think that we’re getting something going for the future, I really do. The seniors may not be here to see it, but it’s going to happen. The group after us is going to get back to winning. We have a new team and a new coach, and the coach has done a lot for us, by the way. They will just have to work their way up.”
Coach Denise De La Cruz appreciates the way Rogers has hustled and practiced leadership all season, saying that the hard-nosed infielder reminds her of someone.
“That’s the way I was, many moons ago … the ‘90s,” she laughed softly.
And though the Lady Sabes have endured a difficult transition season and will miss the playoffs for the first time in what seems like ages, De La Cruz, like her fiery senior, knows what’s coming.
“We just have to have more consistency, that’s been the issue sometimes,” she said. “With a new team, we have started to come along, getting game reps as a team, playing together. I mean, my pitchers tonight, freshmen, my second baseman, same. We just have to hang in there.”
The first time the two teams had met, back on March 8, Vela walloped the Lady ‘Cats 20-1, taking advantage of a barrage of EHS errors off the bat to storm to a satisfying result. Now, after having played their rival for the last time for at least two years – the Lady Sabes will be a 5A entry next season and the one after that based on the newest UIL realignment – De La Cruz can see the future unfolding.
“When we played EHS the first time, our bats were on and our defense was excellent,” she said. “We’ve had to try and stay positive through all this because most of our girls will be back next season, in 5A, and I think they will be ready to show what they can do.”
There were sparks of light despite the loss to the Lady Bobcats, who still entertain hopes of finishing strong and sneaking back into the 31-6A race. At times, the newest Lady Sabes showed flashes of being able to become stars, as many before them have been when donning the Blue and Black.
Junior Sarah Cortez, who like Rogers was a prominent part of last year’s playoff team, is at home around second base but has also caught several times this season. Maybe she will end up being like Sarah Lopez, the terrific hard-hitting catcher back when the program first began a decade ago. She wears No. 13, same as another former Vela backstop star, “Doritos” Buenrostro.
Against EHS, Cortez provided the lone Vela run by golfing a low changeup over the fence in the first inning, to tie the game. The Lady Bobcats then pounded out seven runs in the second to take control, but Cortez, a quiet leader with unquestioned skills, will be a huge part of the push for 2023.
When it comes to outfielders, the program has had some fine ones, including Alyssa Alaniz, Elysia Pena, and especially the elegant lefty Gaby Villarreal. The heir apparent to their exploits may be Danika Jimenez, a rangy and athletic youngster who is out right now with a concussion. She’s got an arm and has hit over .500 this season to give ample offensive firepower. Another versatile prospect is freshman Gloria Salinas, who started behind the plate Tuesday and later moved to center field, making a couple of high catches. De La Cruz noted that Salinas has been solid on D all season long.
The Lady Sabes once enjoyed the steady production of a strongly built third baseman named Aly Cedillo. Now there’s a carbon copy at the third sack in Ciara Cantu, who is among the club leaders in RBI so far. With Rogers gobbling grounders at short and Cortez at second, the infield has had its moments in 2022. When the latter went behind the plate midway through Tuesday’s action, freshman Avrie Cantu stepped in at second. In the fifth she started a slick 4-6-3 double play with Rogers on the turn, and a batter later she dived to her left to snare a hard-hit liner off the stick of EHS senior Alynna Garza. Shows promise, for sure.
The rookie hurlers for the night, Briana Gamez and Jaylene Rodriguez, are two more kids with softball upside. They are chasing the legacy of such hill legends as Shay “The K” Abbott and Naomi “Monie” Reyes, along with the recently departed mound tandem of Bri Salinas and Karina Guzman.
Everywhere one looks on the diamond, there are potential difference-makers, which gives De La Cruz plenty of optimism heading forward. She hopes the new outfielders can come up throwing in the clutch, as junior left fielder Ava Perez did in the third, ending the inning with a bullet to the dish to nab an EHS runner. She hopes every one of the girls who has gone through trials and tribulations this season will be able to shine when the next opportunity arises.
“We’re getting better at execution and that is always the key to winning,” she said. “Sometimes I’m not sure which group will show up, and as I said, we are searching for more consistency. But I believe in this team, and I know we will improve.”
It was so hot by game time that ever-present Vela principal Michelle Pena was the hero when she carted a very large fan into the dugout, the girls gathering around to cool their reddened faces and dry some sweat.
“Hey, our biggest fan is here,” cracked assistant coach Desiree Dominguez, as fellow assistant Lisa Lancaster nodded and laughed. Both those coaches are ex city stars trying to help De La Cruz teach the newbies what it takes to work, compete, and win. Listen up, kids.
It wasn’t long, though, before Ramon Arciba’s club was on its way to league win No. 5 in 12 outings. The Red and Blue are a just a game back of North for fifth in the league, after the Lady Coogs were beaten by Pharr North Tuesday.
Two walks and an error got the Lady ‘Cats ahead, 1-0, but after a strikeout by Gamez ended the inning, Rogers let out a loud “attaway!” as she sped into the dugout.
The Vela spirit was further buoyed when Cortez, after having walked up to the brief strains of a classic from Fat Joe/Remy Ma, launched a one-out solo dinger … all the way up, and out of the park for a 1-1 tie.
Here it went sideways for the inexperienced Lady Sabes as EHS sent 11 batters to the plate in the second, drawing two more free passes and getting a single from junior catcher Karina Garza, a double steal, a pair of wild pitches, and the clincher, a two-strike rip to left center by the magnificent Sam Saenz that made it 6-1. Her triple was followed by a base hit from junior outfielder Ariella Ramirez, and at the end of the interminable frame, the Lady ‘Cats were comfortably ahead 8-1.
In the third came the great throw from Perez of Vela, who has been smacking the ball like a veteran, which she is. But EHS was not to be headed, as even after a throwing error, Ramirez showed her moxie by rushing in from left to back up a throw to third base, catching the ball in the air after it ticked off the glove of a teammate. Talk about heads-up.
Even when Vela executed, Arciba’s gang was there to thwart. After Vela first baseman Micaela Rivas got a great bunt down in the third, EHS turned an equally great double play, 3-4-2, to keep De La Cruz’ unit off the board. Each team turned in two double plays Tuesday, which is somewhat of a rarity on the high school level.
The Lady Sabes pulled off a twin-killing in the fifth after a leadoff single from Lady ‘Cat Shelby Celedon, the 4-6-3 gem already mentioned. After the inning ended, there was Rogers, roaring “Everybody up, let’s go!” as Vela prepared to hit in its half of the fifth.
But EHS would not relent as shortstop Hailey Vega, the volleyball standout, made a nice back-handed stop on a hard grounder, firing to first for the out. Salinas singled next, one of only three hits the Lady Sabes managed off the trusty lefty Garza; the little senior then retired the next two to close the frame. Cue Leeanne “The Little General” Hinojosa comparison here.
Late-game highlights include the indefatigable Saenz at first base, making a super catch at the bag; she had two other fab clips Tuesday, stretching like a yoga instructor to scoop a pair of low throws out of the dirt for putouts. And for good measure, the stellar senior finished the scoring in the sixth with a two-strike laser that left the yard in a screaming hurry, after infielder Aliyah Reyes had coaxed her second walk of the evening. Reyes, with older sister Amber watching, on duty as a budding coach-in-training, is steady and sharp at the plate; she’ll rarely swing at a bad ball. Speaking of city softball icons, does it get any better than Amber, she of the rocket arm, the deadly stick, and many outstanding accomplishments at the college level? Again, listen up.
But still, there was Rogers, who stomps around the field like she’s headed for a riot, grinding and clawing through the innings. She can also sing a slick rendition, word for word, of “All Star” by the way, while she plays, uh, Smash Mouth softball. Had to do it. Too choice to pass up. She reached base on a single in the sixth and last inning, only to have the Lady ‘Cats end the night with a second double play, as Garza fielded a shot from Cortez on the fly, then wheeling to nip Rogers at first, finishing the inning and the contest.
Rogers and her crew scooped their gear, leaving the dugout one by one. They will remember nights like this, all-out efforts but dashed dreams, in contests to come, and the seniors have done their level best to keep working, show pride in the jersey, and help the young bucks prepare for what everyone hopes will be a renaissance as 2023 beckons on the horizon.
“We are going to come out and try to put it all together in the next few games,” their manager promised. “We want to get some more wins before this season is done. And next year, well, we are going to have something to prove, and we’re going to do it.”