December 13, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It has come to be expected at Vela: the hard early slogs against tough competition, followed by highly successful runs once district play begins, partly thanks to hard lessons from prior trials. Often the team’s non-league record may surprise some people, but for those who check the strength-of-schedule, it’s OK, they get it. Preparation.
Lucio Rodriguez’s latest edition has certainly taken some lumps in 2022, having played 14 of its first 20 ball games against schools from out of the Valley. But the fifth-year coach has been steady at the helm, guiding an entirely new group into uncharted waters.
“Have we grown a lot? Yes, I think we have,” said the former EHS all-star before his SaberCats were to take on Sharyland at home Tuesday, in the District 31-5A opener. “Our schedule has not given us any room for error; in some games we have had to play nearly perfect basketball to have a shot. I’d say overall, we’ve played well given our inexperience, and we definitely have been able to see where we’re at, as a team.”
The Sabes carved out nine wins in those 20 non-league tilts, Rodriguez praising his kids for their speed and athleticism, components which allow Vela to press well at times. The rest: IQ and moxie, cohesion on the varsity level: all will come in time for a group that cruised through South Middle School together and whose members have been successful hooping buds for ages.
“We have got high expectations, traditionally, and so we are working on experience right now,” Rodriguez added. “These kids have the talent, they just need to play, learn how it goes, and sooner than later, we hope, the experience comes.”
Work in progress. With all major hands having graduated from a 30-win juggernaut that grabbed the district title and a bi-district Dub in 6A, the coach is looking to a series of promising new faces to keep the program in the money. Tuesday’s 3-point win over the Rattlers showed that the Sabes will most likely be a contender for the crown down in 5A, even with a whole new gang.
Junior Axel Garza, long touted as a leading talent, was fantastic in the victory, which by the way was the 100th for Rodriguez, who was an assistant at Vela before landing the head spot on Canton. Bravo, maestro! Garza, with an array of slick post moves and a terrific touch from anywhere out to 15 feet, motored for 25 points as the Sabes held off a late rally by the visitor to post a 45-42 decision.
“We really need him to be a consistent scorer, and he’s done that so far even though he missed a bunch of early games with an injury,” said the fiercely competitive Rodriguez. “With Axel, the key is, can he impose his will on the other team? That’s what we want from him.”
At 6-3 and possessing excellent fundamentals, Garza did indeed impose his will on the Rattlers by scoring eight points in the second quarter, seven in the third, and eight more in the telltale fourth. When he sat out for short stretches of the game, the team struggled to find high percentage shots, such was his importance to the Vela attack.
Rodriguez likes the looks of the supporting cast alongside Garza, who has now scored 20 points or more six times. He said that junior E.J. Avelar, whose brother Aidan was one of the leaders of last year’s outstanding club, plays with tenacity on defense and has been one of the team’s most consistent all-around players. Classmate Samuel Sepulveda is a guy who plays bigger than his 5-9 height, and against Sharyland he was active and effective on defense, chipping in with six points and five rebounds.
Then there’s J.P.
Back in the day, when his dad was coaching Econ’s boys, J.P. Olivarez was a burly little cherub who used to entertain the crowd at halftime of the Jag games, show-dribbling like a wizard prodigy and showing an intense love for the game. Smiles. History records that phenomenon time and again, from little tykes such as Lalo Rios or Phillip De la Rosa, precocious urchins with obvious ability, just waiting (trying to wait) for the time to get down, on the highest level. Lalo handled better than some of his dad’s backups at E-E. Phillip’s super long hair!
Years down the road, Olivarez has leaned up and skilled up, and he’s got superb quickness, astonishing handles, and the right kind of cockiness out there. On the pass, he will try anything, not scared. Rodriguez said that Olivarez, who went off for 34 points against EHS at the Vail Tourney, is somewhat like former Vela point man Josh Diaz, another quickster who used to make fools out of kids trying to guard him, his jukes and shimmies always good for a visual thrill. The latest lead guard at RVHS is working on consistency, knowing when to get fancy and when to stay meat and potatoes, but it’s clear that he got game. In a close loss to North at the Vail, Olivarez dished off for eight assists, as Vela has taken its shots against two of three city rivals heading into a district that does not include the town teams.
The final piece of the puzzle right now is junior Aiden Lopez, a rugged inside guy who is workmanlike on the court with considerable strength and a will to defend. In all, the Sabes – while still searching for adequate depth – should be in for a fun campaign. The first part has been bumpy, as it often is.
“We did three tournaments, lots of travel, we haven’t been playing at home at all, barely,” Rodriguez said. “But we have done some real team bonding, on and off the court during all the trips. We’re ready for district.”
OLD FRIENDS REUNITE
It’s been a while since the Rattlers and Sabes tied on to each other, Tuesday marking the first such collision since 2016. At inception, Vela was in the same district as Shary, and the squads split eight games over four seasons, the obvious memory gem there being the triple overtime win at Sharyland back in 2013-14. To be exact: 3 January 2014. That was the mythical Ryan Garza Game, where the Beatle-mopped freshman sensation careened onto a loose ball in the waning moments and improbably but indubitably nailed a 25-foot game-winning shot for a classic 82-79 victory.
These days the Rattlers are lesser, bumping along under the radar for the most part, but they came to compete for the lid-lifter Tuesday with the word “War” scripted onto the back of their black jerseys. Interesting. Shary was up 5-0 before Olivarez was able to spin sweetly in the lane and find Garza for the layup; soon after, the mercurial newcomer lofted a tantalizing pass far downcourt, just out of the reach of a racing teammate. Learning curve.
It was a slow start for both schools, the feeling out process in progress, but Avelar, who was to finish with 11 points, connected on a driving try followed by Sepulveda’s deflection on defense. Sepulveda then ran out for a bucket after a steal and at the end of a period, it was 11-8, visitor, Vela still grinding the gears a smidge.
During the break, Rodriguez fussed at his troops, reminding them to work on seeing what the Rattlers were running.
“Guys … they’re in man! What are we doing?”
The Sabes got the message and improved their recognition and adjustment as the second period started. Garza got the momentum going by putting the ball on the floor and subsequently launching a soft pull-up in the lane. He’s got the size to shoot over you, and the skills to get by you; he’s got some shakes and bakes, despite being a post, and a few fakes. Garza seems to be adept at using his body to ward off defenders, and also exhibits the proper timing when it comes to: nudge, look, fake or spin, and then shoot against multiple defenders. He might just be the top boys’ performer in town this season, though Econ’s Sebastian Lopez has been tremendous in the early going, as have a few others.
Garza next showed off a turnaround jumper from 12 feet, Olivarez and Sepulveda leading a defensive charge that started to halt the Rattler push. When Lopez made a free throw, it was tied at 13 and on came the Blue and Black. Avelar converted a three-point play for the lead and then he made a steal, leading to a nice drive from Sepulveda for an 18-13 lead inside of three minutes to go before the half.
The Sabes would be up by 9 when the break arrived, courtesy of a smooth up-and-under move from Garza and an unstoppable fadeaway from the same kid. A 10-0 run put Vela in command, Garza finishing the display of excellence by bouncing to the goal off the dribble.
In the third, Rodriguez’ group held serve, with Lopez on the boards and Garza ruling it down low; he has patience inside to score at the rim, after waiting for a defender to expend himself too early and illustrates footwork by often maneuvering his man into a foul. Very sound basic skill-set, explosion when needed, and the ability to finish from various angles. Kid can go!
Vela was up 11 when Garza took a deserved rest, 6-2 Jonathan Campos, one of two cats on the roster who saw game time in 2021-22, coming in to hold the fort. Campos is a sometime starter who knows the game and will not hesitate to give sound minutes. Also has a first-class chin beard working these days.
With Sharyland looking lost and tired, Vela continued to play, Avelar notching a three-point play. This year’s gang is more likely to count three at the line rather than from downtown, as it shoots just 29 percent from behind the arc.
It was a 10-point lead heading into the final section. Here is where it got a tad wobbly, as Vela worked on pulling the ball out, passing it around, and getting good looks inside. The Sabes did not quite finish that formula, however, and the Rattlers came back with a raucous rally. Later, Rodriguez would note that his new team has often shown the chops to get out to some healthy leads in 2022-23, but is still practicing the sequences that will allow it to keep that lead. All about game experience, in district games. No way to get it, but to get it.
By the 5:31 mark, Shary had raged to within 1, and Garza was back in, diving on his back to save a ball in the backcourt as the Rattlers pressed the pressers. Olivarez stepped in to draw a charge soon after and that was a key moment. It was also Olivarez who was able to help break the press, slipping in twice on the same sequence to nick a dangerous loose ball away from the defense, and to a teammate; like a football striker tracking back to nick it away and stop the fast counter. He is, at times, lightning.
Garza the thunder then made a strong move to the goal for some necessary cushion, and for the first time, the crowd was into it, making a ton of noise after a relatively pedestrian night, as far as madness was concerned. Hey, it’s early. They got after it when it counted, as did their team.
Sharyland, off a 15-4 stretch, soon tied the game again, and went up three after a three-pointer from downtown. Hadn’t led in forever but wait, what … here’s Shary, dang. Thankfully for the home boys, after two hoops from Garza – the second an off-balance and lengthy leaner in traffic, degree of difficulty off the charts – Vela led by 1. Crowd wild. The teams then exchanged bombs, Avelar sinking it for the Sabes, and where is Ryan Garza these days? What a hero. Crowd wilder.
Crunch time now. Up 1, Vela committed an impulsive turnover at 0:45 while trying to freeze it and look for something easy, and this is the juncture Rodriguez had spoken of. Young teams have to figure out when to go for it/when to hang back, and the Shary game was a perfect illustration that this crew is starting to get that memo.
The Rattlers inbounded amid intense pressure: at 0:28, Sepulveda tipped it away and Olivarez jetted over to try and save it, ending up plopping into in an empty chair at the end of the Rattler bench, all the while shooting a hopeful glance at the ref … hey? … oh, out! Seconds later, Garza, showing that he’s not just a scoring machine, slipped over his own endline to save one and was alert enough to fire it, as he sailed toward the wall, off the Shary kid who had followed him. Boink! Heads-up, bro. Beautiful.
It came down to the wire, as Vela-Shary encounters tend to do, and Garza (Axel, not Ryan) was Sphinxlike at the stripe, his two tries not even seeming to hit the net as they dropped through for a 45-42 margin. Got. This. Shary came down for one last shot and could not connect. But they played hard, did the Rattlers.
As they now look to a road game at Valley View Friday, the Sabes have passed a big test early in the 18-game district journey. Looking around at the new loop, one sees a Memorial team that has been very good in recent times but lost much to graduation; a McAllen club that started poorly but then won the title at the City of Palms; and a Rowe group that is off to the most sluggish start anyone can remember from that powerhouse of many moons. Pharr North has managed a winning record so far, same for Pioneer, though neither has been extraordinary. The lesser grebes of the 31-5A flock would include the other Tri Cities outfits besides North, Southwest and Memorial, and Valley View.
The upshot is that despite massive grad losses, Rodriguez and Co. can bank on having an opening to vie for a trophy, if all goes well. Right now, Rodriguez is not even thinking about that stuff. He’s working a play at a time with a group of talented kids who are ripe for maturity, lessons.
“You can see where we struggle, when Axel goes out,” the coach said after the game had concluded. “What do we do? Who is going to pick it up? I think Samuel was a sparkplug for us and so was E.J. They all did some good things when we needed it, we just had to weather the storm when Sharyland made a run. I think we faced some adversity tonight, and we were able to maintain what we had built.”