January 13, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
MCALLEN – When he says they’re fast, he ain’t kiddin’. You’d better believe it, baby!
Coach Lucio Rodriguez, when asked what the key to his title-contending squad is in 2022-23, was quick to answer: speed, across the starting five, wheels to burn. Not the tallest team the SaberCats have ever had, and only intermittently the type of three-point shooting killer the program has enjoyed in the past. But these cats are 8-1 in District 31-5A now, tied for the top spot, and the engines were running super-hot in an ice-cold gym here Friday.
Rodriguez’ crew polished off fellow would-be McAllen Memorial, 55-37. Though the Mustangs boasted a nice-size lineup with some agile big men, the tide turned in Vela’s favor due to its quickness, crisp passing, defensive will, and again, flat out speed.
Junior post Axel Garza engaged in a terrific battle with Memorial’s postman and emerged triumphant, scoring 17 points all told. The visitor trailed 2-0 briefly, but never again, and opened up a 10-point lead at the half, jetting on past the Mustangs (7-2) in the latter stages. Every time the muscular Mustangs seemed to be gathering steam, the Sabes whipped the ball around, cut to the spot, and were quicker to all the loose balls. Quicker to trap, switch, you name it. Just quicker. Sophomore J.P. Olivarez was a live wire in the victory and so were teammates Sam Sepulveda and E.J. Avelar, as the Blue and Black played with cohesion and trust, confidence and flair. But fast.
The 18-point victory marked the seventh time in eight league wins that Rodriguez’ team has beaten a district foe by double digits, the lone scare coming in a 3-point triumph over Sharyland. And it also marked a chance to get even with McAllen schools: Vela has gone 12-6 against Shary and Pioneer in its 11-year history, but struggled a bit with its neighbors, as coming into Friday the Sabes were 9-12 against the three McAllen schools. Memorial, whose lone loss in the league had come against Pioneer – same for Vela – is always a tough out, especially at their freezing place, and going into that ancient building always evokes memories of Papito Gonzalez, D.J. Johnson, and for the viejos, sharpshooting Brian Molina and the Christian Brothers under Coach Mo Molina. Lot of fine roundball played there.
At any rate, this season’s Mustang bunch was 16-5 before the night but could not keep up with the rampant Sabes, who used their speed on defense as well as offense and thoroughly outplayed a quality opponent. Memorial has been a playoff regular, with six 20-win seasons in seven from 2011-12 to 2017-18. Last season the Mustangs captured a pair of playoff wins for the first time since 2015-16 and were flying relatively high in 2022-23 before the Sabes came to town.
The nimble Garza, who has become the center of the attack in many respects, had much to say after the stirring result. He sees the success the Sabes are having as the culmination of a process.
“We didn’t look like this in the beginning, really, but we have improved, coach was always telling us we have phases to the season,” he said. “At first, he was guiding us along, showing us everything. And eventually the next phase was us going out there and getting it done.”
Most of the rotation kids have played together for ages, Garza added.
“Right, since we were little kids, so we always had the chemistry, we just needed to learn it on this level. At first, we were a little shaky this season, it’s true. But after the first couple of district games we were like, ‘Ok, we got this!’ and have been playing really well lately.”
Olivarez, a step behind the others in terms of classification, agrees that the cohesion Vela has right now is paramount. So is the speed.
“Run, run, run, that’s us,” said the precocious youngster with dirty handles and crossover class. “Seems like we are always running at practice, up and down the floor, sometimes eight minutes at a time. And for the chemistry, yes, we played together all summer, hung out, went to eat at El Patio … we have been getting prepared, getting close. Maybe some people doubted us this season, we took our lumps early … what were we, like 2-8 or something at one point? But now we are experienced and we’re having fun!”
When Memorial scored off the opening tip, this battle was on, and in the early going it was frantic, both squads perhaps a little nervy and certainly not hesitating to lay some lumber. There were some wild skirmishes in the first period as the teams looked for their sea legs, Avelar and Garza each driving through the talls for strong buckets and a 7-4 lead. Garza was squaring off with Memorial’s 6-5 post, who is not slow, either. And they took turns blocking each other’s shot until Garza would pull away with superior skills to net eight points in the second.
First though, Olivarez showed his ability with a terrific lob off the dribble, to Garza, who presents so well at the tin. The sophomore speedster then canned a three-point shot but ran afoul of the refs for his celebratory kiss to the crowd, for which he was awarded a technical foul. As Rodriguez would later say, there was a playoff atmosphere at Memorial Friday, and while Olivarez was dinged with the T, his slick passing, herky jerky moves, and that three-ball got the traveling Sabe rooters more than fired up. Intense night, man.
Even with the T and free throws, Vela was up 14-9 after one, looking the more settled quintet out there, faster to ball, space, and spot, harassing the Memorial guards before they could work it down low to any number of plus-6-foot kids in the lineup.
As the second began, Garza made himself a target in the paint for a bucket and then Sepulveda – the X-Factor, as his coach calls him – floated in for a deuce. Faced with long arms and bodies, Vela didn’t worry, just kept moving the ball in the one-more-pass style Rodriguez always preaches. Sepulveda dealt an assist and Vela was up 10, timeout Mustangs and for that stoppage period, both coaches could be heard hollering out instructions, admonitions, and what have you, as the crowd bellowed right along with them. Playoff atmosphere, yes, tasty to be there.
Rodriguez has been building dependable depth as the campaign stretches on, and in the second, Ozzy Garza answered the bell with a sweet little runner in the lane. Vela was just too quick, too sharp, and Memorial was sagging. Sagging more after Garza, having figured out his defender, launched in a neat fadeaway J, followed by a stern defensive stop by Olivarez, who while decidedly lean will not give an inch, either end of the court.
Then came one of the highlights of the evening, as Olivarez drove to his right and held the ball out in front of him as he swooped to the goal. Keeping the defender at bay with his left arm, the soph star continued the slinky filth-full, underhand jam with a perfect snaky layup off glass. No! No, he di’int!
Basically, if your kid is making (taking, even, lol) that shot, in this game, against a top squad … well, you’re good. Game over, very possible.
Late in the quarter junior Diego Salinas got into the action with a powerful rebound and soon Avelar took off to the hole, cruising high to score. Not satisfied with this most excellent move, Avelar ran back down after scoring to step in the path of a Memorial marauder, drawing the charge. Halftime, Sabes up 10, and it might have been more.
Rodriguez says that Vela’s rise to the top of the standings – Pioneer (8-1) suffered its first debit in 31-5A Friday, against Rowe – has been hard work, a grind sometimes. But it’s paying off and the kids are kites in the clear azure sky right now. They accelerate when need be, yet slow it down at other junctures, such as to begin the third quarter Friday. It was Avelar with the bucket after not one, but two, teammates passed up solid looks to get the younger bro of Aidan a high-percentage one. Chemistry class in sesh.
Following a massive rebound by Sepulveda, Olivarez came down for another dipsy doo, a little runner off glass that Memorial could only swat air at as it eased past outstretched but tardy hands. Midway through the third, Rodriguez called for the pull-out again, and the Sabes handled that well. The coach noted that his team is getting better at managing leads, and Friday showed it, as the cutting, passing, screening, all of it was first class. And it wasn’t like Vela didn’t rebound the ball, as illustrated when senior Jonathan Campos pogo-sticked twice on the same sequence for boards, eventually grabbing the ball and firing to an open Sepulveda, who buried the triple.
By the end of the third it was puro done, honestly, 45-28 after another Campos assist and some hardy defensive work from Sepulveda and junior Aiden Lopez. Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the fourth came from the Vela bench, where Adrian Guzman jumped off the pine to come in and get some himself. He kept up a running dialogue with the Memorial student section, and every time he raced to get the ball, was serenaded by new friends; he even returned the affection with the classic “Shhh” motion at one point, and it must be said: the crowd members riled each other up in good-natured fashion (not always the case), and the extra spice gave the evening even more entertainment value.
The bow was tied nicely late on when Avelar, out front dribbling, suddenly lasered a can’t-miss pass between two Mustang saps, down low to a cutting Garza, a sort of Jason Williams moment, if you will. Having demonstrated their talent, solidarity, and dominance in performance, the Sabes were on top of the mountain.
Next up for Vela is the rematch with pesky Sharyland, which has climbed to within shouting distance at 4-5 as the first half of the long 5A slog reaches its halfway point. Between the Rattlers and the trio of Vela, Pioneer, and Memorial lurk Rowe and McHigh, both 5-3. After Tuesday’s match with Shary, the Sabes have Valley View at home, followed by a big try at Rowe, Jan. 24.
“We’ve got some tough ones coming up, and if we can get a few wins, we should be in good position,” said Rodriguez, who led the club to 30 Dubs a year ago but lost almost the entire roster to graduation. “We are playing better, and tonight we did well against a big and talented team, Memorial. We played our game tonight, we didn’t let them dictate anything, we used our speed and quickness, and we were able to manage the game when we got in front. Kids are playing well, man, no doubt, but there’s a long way to go.”