December 13, 2022

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game gallery

New district, unfamiliar foes, an 18-game marathon schedule, pressure after last season was so great, everyone’s gunning for them, etc. Keep going, try and find the low spots and best of luck. You’ll need it, because when it comes to Vela hoops 2022-23, the Lady SaberCats are simply galactic so far. Having blown through three 31-5A opponents by an aggregate score of 239-69, Coach Lottie Zarate’s fearsome squad has served notice that while it may be a difficult assignment to run the table in a 10-team league – some dumb something always happens, some time, they say – the odds are in their favor, somehow. Having two of the top five players in the Valley, and just maybe the two best, will do that, to the odds.

The latest team to try its luck against the Lady Sabes was Sharyland, Tuesday, and it was ugly. At least from the standpoint of the Lady Rattlers, who had won 13 of 19 ball games, including two blowouts to start league play. After taking a 4-0 lead early on, Shary was almost helpless as Zarate’s killers ran off 17 straight points to slam into overdrive and absolutely decimate the enemy with a smothering fullcourt press. It was 30-10 at the half, 54-15 after three periods, and 71-29 to finish. The deadly duo of Emma Lucio and Janai Coleman combined for 45 points and 14 rebounds and Vela improved to 3-0 in district, 13-4 overall.

Their first foray in the 5A wars had been a record-setting event, as the Lady Sabes hounded poor P-SJ-A Southwest for the most lopsided victory in program annals, a 90-3 result in which Coleman erupted for 38 points. Then Vela hammered a solid McAllen Memorial outfit, 78-37, leading to Tuesday and Sharyland. The combatants had squared off 13 times in the past, Vela winning nine, and this one was no contest. No contest.

In Lucio (averages 24 points per game) and Coleman (15.6, 8.9 rebounds), Zarate has a tandem, she does, super players who seem to have as much fun defending as they do offending. At times against Shary, the pair was beyond formidable, jumping the Lady Rattler guards rudely, out of a zone press that gave the visitor nightmares from the opening tip. Guard G.G. Betancourt was equally adept at clogging the passing lanes, doubling at the slightest provocation, and turning the ball over to Vela with alarming consistency.

Sharyland managed three baskets in the second period, just two in the third before getting 14 points down the stretch, mainly against the 2’s, as the Lady Sabes sent shockwaves through the league with a very easy win. Betancourt ended with nine points, senior Fey Vasquez with eight boards, and it was just a one-sided affair.

Zarate has taken to finding statistical metrics to guide her squad, asking them to increase their rebound total, or shoot better from the free-throw line. Details, and yet important, as the coach is having to get creative in finding things to complain about. That’s how good the girls have been so far in 2022-23, and that includes some signature wins in non-district.

Lucio has scored at least 20 points in all but three of the games, and her 34-point masterpiece helped the Lady Sabes upend vaunted Weslaco Nov. 22. Coleman has put together a string of double-doubles: 25 and 11 against SA Lee; 22 and 11 against Antonian; 24 and 12 against Los Fresnos; 38 and 13 against Southwest; and 17 and 16 against Memorial. Not to be outdone, Vasquez went off for 24 points and 12 rebounds versus Laredo Alexander and added 19 markers in the Memorial win.

Anywhere you look, the stats are startling, and even though Vela has four losses (twice to SA Stevens, once to Laredo United South, and once to a home school group from San Marcos), the stage is set for another banner season, after last year’s 33-win ride. And the stars, Lucio and Coleman, continue to carve out their niche in school history.

If one were making an all-time Vela team, these two would have to be starters, right? The Azubell Sisters have to be on that honor squad, with Emily up front and Daniela in the backcourt. Bianca Cortez would be there as a post/forward, and the other guards would probably be a combination of past brilliance; choose from between Ariel Rodriguez, Jaida Muhammad, Andrea Molina, Kayleen Rios, and Lauren Vega. How?

And yet, tell us how you could keep Lucio and Coleman out of the program’s career starting 5. After last season, when Lucio broke Em’s record for points in a season, scoring a whopping 682, and her acceptance of a college scholarship (DI, baby!) … if people are talking about the elegant lefty slayer as the best gal ever to wear the Blue and Black, how could we protest?


And yet, nothing is written in stone, so as Vela gets the league season under way in earnest, every game is what it is, another step along the path toward a possible title. Friday promised a trip to Valley View, and then there’s a home game Tuesday against Rowe, a group that has been highly competitive the past few seasons.

Of course, Vela will undoubtedly be favored in every match it plays from here to the playoffs, which of course brings its own kind of pressure on a nightly basis. Which would you pick, though? Underdog always fighting for respect against the odds, or dominant No. 1 team having to deal with being a target for the rest of the schools? No choice.

The real danger of such a schedule, the old folks say, is the tendency for complacency to creep in, unwanted. Trust Zarate to be resolutely on the march in that battle.

When Tuesday started, the Lady Sabes showed that they are human after all, missing no fewer than seven pointblank tries at the rim during the first half. But the press was so earth-shattering it didn’t matter much, as Lucio and Coleman, with superior quickness, made the Shary guards look like a JV group out there, honestly. And this was a tight little squad that will probably end up in the playoffs when all is said and done. Three good seniors.

Though Lucio was to ring up the bigger numbers, with 29 points (her fifth such night, stuck on 29 it appears, ha, OK), Coleman was equally devastating, perhaps more so. She slams from foe to foe, defending with real tenacity and Tuesday was like a hustling football player as she blocked on one level, and then slid off to get a hand up in the shooter’s face on the second level. Watch her defend, racing here, muscling there, and you will be exhausted. She is, however, generally not, and is indefatigable against any enemy with the ball, giving the crafty Lucio all kinds of openings to slice in and steal. With Betancourt at the top, using her height and wingspan, it’s tough to get the ball up, to say the least. And in the back, waiting to strike, is Vasquez, whose long arms and anticipation are shot-block mechanisms.

In the first period, Coleman fired a sizzling baseball toss to a streaking Vasquez, and if she is fantastic on defense, versatile and aggressive on O, Coleman is also a very underrated passer of the basketball.

Amid the carnage early on, Shary’s coach called her guards over for a quick chat. What could be said, really? Very rare to see a solid team undone so completely. It was astonishing.

To start the second period, Lucio made two free throws and a steal for a one-on-none, swooping in for the basket with a stylish flourish. Like Coleman, Lucio plays sorta mad out there, as the best kids will do, and her intensity seems to flow organically. She jumped an inbounds pass now and drove for the hoop, making it 17-4 and at this point one could see the Shary shoulders slumping, heads hanging, shaking this way and that, quietly but desperately. What can we do? Nada, that’s what.

Betancourt then lofted a ball down on the blocks to Coleman, who elevated off a bounce and plinked one in off the glass. With superb strength and quickness, the junior is almost impossible to guard, especially by a smaller defender. Hope she misses. Right, but the thing is, Janai will more than likely be charging to the basket to follow her shot, which again, is what all the best kids will do. She is a perpetual motion machine with all the tools, and she’s only getting better.

On one second period sequence, she left the universe for deep space. First, she just flat ripped the ball away from a Lady Rattler, steaming downcourt with it to find Betancourt open for a shot. That girl’s face, tho, when 33 just straight-up took it from her. Look away.

Late in the half it was showboat time, but really not, as lefty Lucio went to the basket for a right-handed layup, followed soon after by Coleman, a righty, flipping in a left-handed shot off yet another Vela fast break. Like they were happily competing for it. No, I’m better, no me, hey, wait, we’re both awesome … break!

Up 20 by the half, Vela continued to churn, and this is a mark of a champion, no let-up or letdown, 32 minutes of Hell. Coleman was fire when she stole one, missed a shot, but instantly snatched the loose ball back and put it in. Relentless. Then she found Betancourt again on the run-out with a super pass.

Soon, Lucio was at it again, rebounding a teammate’s miss to score, and later she lobbed for Coleman down low, and you know what happened. Near the end of the third it was the opportunistic Betancourt again, running the floor to receive a beauty of a look from Lucio, who nightly comes up with new angles and spins of the ball. Every now and then, Emma will jam to the tin and find herself in way too much traffic: usually she will find the open kid and deliver, occasionally she will attempt the sublime, sometimes converting. Challenging and creating, as all the best kids will do. When you have that much jazz, the quest to do more is always there. Most of us will never know what that feels like, which is why we love to watch the chosen few who do.

With the Lady Rattlers trudging along like a pack of wilting zombies, the Blue and Black finalized the transaction, Coleman still hurtling from enemy to enemy, blasting her way around. She’s adept at physical play and without piling up the fouls, which is not that easy to do. A lot of players can brawl and push, but they usually hear the whistle and thus are forced to the bench, muttering. Coleman exhibits uniqueness on this count in that she will pound you but good, but in a way that satisfies the rules and keeps her on the court. Moxie.

Lucio now showed more highlights, making an acrobatic move into the lane for two but later adding a drive on which she smartly initiated contact before rising for a short jumper. Any way you need it. Finesse, power, whatever.

At this rate, it seems only a matter of time before Zarate’s fine crew starts to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack in 31-5A. Of course, you won’t hear her talking about anything beyond Valley View, and that is as it should be. As all the best coaches will do. The toughest part of having a really top squad is keeping the kids’ feet on the ground, their heads out of the clouds, eyes off the newspaper/social media. There will be nights, assuredly, when Vela plays poorly, and that includes the big shots, because that’s just life. Finite. The areas which could give one pause, such as depth and free-throw shooting, will have to be addressed and surely are being addressed, on a daily basis.

No team is perfect, ever.

But wow, right now, Vela is freakin’ flying. FLYING!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: