January 20, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
The year was 1976, and the Eagles released one of their myriad hits of the time, about the fleeting prospects of fame, the fickle nature of life and love. It was called “New Kid in Town,” and appeared on the glorious “Hotel California” album, which was full of timeless classics familiar, even now, to the current generation.
And the haunting, beautiful words, oddly enough, are today a decent summation of the 2022-23 district soccer scene in the top 5A league in the area.
“Great expectations everybody’s watching you,” and that would surely be a cipher for one of the new entries in the refurbished and quite crowded lineup of killer 31-5A sides. It would be Vela.
“They will never forget you ‘til somebody new comes along,” and the modern-day identity there is still for up for grabs. Who will it be?
“Everybody” is indeed watching Vela this season, as the Lady SaberCats have started their sojourn in the land of the giants with a flurry of impressive victories, including positive results against powerful programs McAllen Memorial and Sharyland, the latter coming by a lopsided score of 7-0 at home Friday. Coach Americo Cortez’ squad has launched in 23 goals in three 31-5A victories, and prior to that was highly successful up at a tournament in San Antonio, knocking off some outstanding opponents. With a seasoned lineup of veteran girls who have been the backbone of the side’s back-to-back regional quarterfinals performances, the Lady Sabes are roaring right now, and eager to continue.
That’s where the second Eagles line of rock lore comes in. On the next two Friday dates, we shall see whether the buzz will stay strong, as first Rowe and then McAllen High come calling upon the newly lain turf at RVHS. After the fortnight, the race will have become clearer, and right now, it isn’t beyond the realm of distinct possibility to suggest that Vela will be able to dump another pair of stud squads from Soccer City, which is McAllen in these parts, Harlingen of Brownsville/Los Fresnos further south. Everyone knows that McHigh has been one of the gold standard clubs in the RGV, for a long time, though not quite back to 1976 of course, because in those ancient days, there was very little soccer for girls, believe it or not, across the state.
This, basically, is what the Blue and Black have been waiting for, for years: the chance to square off against the best, take their shot at riches untold. Make the McAllens forgotten, so to say.
“So good, super good,” is how senior leader Natalia Cortez described the recent turn of events, particularly a tense but decisive 3-2 win over Memorial at home Jan. 17. “We have been wanting to play these teams, we are familiar with them from all sorts of club games. Our goals are big: win district, go undefeated, and go farther in the playoffs than we have before.”
Sentiments from the magician of a midfielder who is now spending ample time up front in the attack, using her unparalleled ball control ability and increased strength to become a devastating attacker. Cortez added that the team chemistry this season is intact and strong, an opinion shared by Nat’s forward friend, Alayna Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, in beyond tip-top shape in 2023 for her senior season, is off to a Haaland-ian start this season, having already bettered her goal tally from a year ago, 14, and showing zero signs of slowing down.
“We have gotten very close as a team, and I would say that this team has that good feel, chemistry,” said the former battering ram who has now become a more deadly scorer thanks to augmented quickness and endurance. “We are very good friends with each other, we’re all together and that makes a difference.”
Rodriguez, with her constant push and effort, often creating chances out of seemingly nothing due to indefatigable hustle and desire, was right at home in the hard-fought Memorial win, when Vela exploded three times inside the first 20 minutes and then withstood a late Lady Mustang rally to post the 3-2 triumph.
“That was just a dirty game,” cracked Rodriguez. “Everyone was playing hard that night, and I think we showed what we can do against Memorial, the stands were packed with tons of fans! We’re playing well, the goals are coming like crazy right now, and it’s a lot of people, not just one or two.”
So Cortez the player is a known quantity, potent always, and the emergence of Rodriguez to an even higher plane on the pitch has been a boon. Cortez the coach knows, too, that he can count on midfielders Nayla Pena and Crystal Palma, outstanding all-around players with more than 80 varsity games completed in style. And this season he has gotten some stellar contributions from another vet, long and lean Mia Ponce. Long touted as a prospect of some potential, Ponce has come good now, as illustrated Friday when she was probably Girl of the Match for her fantastic overall work against Sharyland.
The Lady Rattlers came into the match with an unbeaten mark in district, and left it with a loss, thanks in part to the relentless efforts of Ponce, who bombed gazelle-like down the sides, pinged in sizzling crosses in bunches, and showed her aggressive nature by winning just about every 50-50 ball that she saw. Stabbing a hard boot into tackles and then turning realfast into an offensive posture, Ponce made the defenders tired and nervous with her all-out assault on the final third.
Rodriguez agreed, noting that with Ponce, blink and you miss her.
“She can go through anyone, really,” she said in admiration of her teammate. “You give her the line, and she’s gone!”
For her part, Cortez knows that with Ponce playing at a high clip, her job is to try and find the racing horse wearing No. 13.
“We are trying to get her the ball more because we know what she can do,” said the graceful and versatile Cortez, who on a chilly night was bundled up in a fabulous long fluffy coat after the match, a garment that would have made Pep Guardiola grin. “She’s got great quickness and she is super aggressive.”
After Vela went up 3-0 against a fair wind during the first half Friday, Cortez the coach saw his girls smash through for an early goal to begin the second, putting the lie to any musings of a Shary comeback. He knows what he has this season, and it is a lot.
“Great win tonight!” he told his assembled crew after the final whistle. “Zero, that’s a good number. Seven to Zero … very proud of you girls tonight.”
Now Cortez is like any successful gaffer, hard driven and also somewhat superstitious, not the type to brag or boast. He reminded his squad that there are still many aspects of the game to improve upon.
“Choices, decision-making, that is a major focus for us right now,” he had said during the evening of excellence and was now repeating to his kids. Kids who had played 80 minutes full-throttle and still looked like they could handle extra time. Later, he told his Lady Sabes that sometimes they are trying to run when they might be better advised to stop the ball. Another example to ponder: Cortez is working on the team’s ability to touch the ball, always a staple mantra for him, and militating against players keeping the ball too long. He wants the ping-ping-ping, thru balls at times, quick passes to open the game up outside at others. And his girls have responded brilliantly to these teachings.
“We’ve done well so far,” Cortez had said, as he watched his charges warm up in the pregame Friday. “When we went to San Antonio, we were able to beat some very good teams, and we should have beaten Clemens, we dominated the game. The experience was really good for this team.”
The Lady Sabes went down early, surrendering two goals to Clemens, but fought back to a 3-3 tie before losing late. That performance, along with a victory over Gregory-Portland and one of the Klein schools out of Houston, assured that the tournament was worthwhile, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
“I told the girls that Gregory-Portland is one of the teams that used to beat us in the past, but now we have beaten them,” Cortez commented. “When you can do that, win games outside the Valley, you have to come back to the Valley and keep that going. These seniors, they’ve been around a long time and they know how to win, so even though we are now in a very tough district, I think they know they can compete with anyone.”
In the run-up to Friday’s match, Cortez was called up to the center circle to join his captains. As he did so, the rest of the bunch formed a circle and continued to psych each other up, offering words of encouragement, specific reminders, general good vibes. Pregame nerves are cool, in a way.
“We’re both undefeated,” one Lady Sabe offered, to which Palma, the hard-edged midfield boss, added, “and after this game, there will only be one undefeated.”
That seemed to do the trick, as Vela came out and immediately got to work, advancing downfield with alacrity against the visiting Lady Rattlers. They would spend the bulk of the night in the attacking third, and on the off chance that Shary was able to come or counter, central defender Alma Gutierrez was ready for it. She executed a slick body-up and turn to shed a Shary forward who had come close, sending the ball safely down the pitch after the slick on-ball pirouette. This season, Gutierrez is joined by right back Abby Carrizalez, a steady presence for several seasons who has slotted into defense in 2023-23 and been right at home. The regular goalkeeper, senior Julie Echeverria, was out for the match Friday, but underclass prospect Linda Moreno was to step in and acquit herself well, achieving the clean sheet. A few very solid catches from her.
Between the defense and the forward line is a new face, sophomore Ava Monty, who showed a delicate touch on the ball and superb anticipation in her role as a deep-lying quasi-midfielder – somewhat akin to a No. 6, positionally – and also exhibited the skills to get forward into the attack. With Cortez farther up the pitch, the addition of Monty gives the side cohesion between lines, steady link-up. Cortez has also become adept at holding the ball up as the target man, and then either turning/running into the box or passing to the wings. In the past she would often be the link-up, getting the ball from her defenders and running to midfield, dribbling into traffic and finding the open man like a point guard in basketball. Now, Cortez is doing even more.
“When I was a freshman, I was small and skinny,” she laughed. “But I have worked on getting stronger every year, and it’s paying off now. I have learned how to use my body out there to shield a defender, hold ‘em off.”
In the nascent stages of the match, winger Victoria Cardenas was active on the left, combining with the rugged Palma several times in getting the machine closer to shots. One sequence went Palma to Pena and then into Rodriguez, and shortly thereafter, Monty sidled up to take a solid crack at goal from 20 yards. As Vela kept the ball, Rodriguez crashed through a defender, a superb take using strength and quickness, and Shary was scrambling, all hands to the pump, as they say. At 34:40, the first goal resulted, as after the visitor saw its weak counter attempt aborted, Vela steamed back down to a Cortez maneuver, which eventuated in a 1-0 lead after the senior star avoided a defender and smacked one home. Deft. Smooth. Nat.
All the while, Pena continued to hold forth in the middle, with panther reflexes and a nice supply of grit; she’s an uber-agile kid with surprising long-limbed strength – especially in tight quarters – and is adept at winging passes into space, playing teammates in with flair. She shot a bullet down the right side now for the running Ponce and soon it was Cardenas on the other side, rocking a shot that went wide. Pressure pays: Palma provided an assist, at 27:32 for a 2-0 lead, as her tantalizing thru ball was picked up by Cortez, who again deked a defender and slotted home with no mistake.
Palma, so leg-strong and full of fire, is always in the action; after the goal she stepped in front of a Lady Rattler throw-in and rose high on one foot to tap it to herself and get going the other way. Compact and tidy in possession, Palma is another of the talented kids on the field who just makes Vela so tough to hang with. She hard!
Down 2-0, Sharyland was struggling to keep up, with Ponce tearing down the sides, occasionally popping up on the left, always bringing trouble. Meanwhile, Rodriguez, who never met a ball she wouldn’t fight for, romped here and there seeking to poke one free, nick a lazy pass from the enemy. At one point, when the endless attacking force slackened, Cortez tracked nicely back to stop a Shary counter, showing that she is now one of the best two-way players in the Valley.
Midsection of the half and the Lady Rattlers enjoyed a spell of possession now, coming down the green (the turf, green!! Still amazing, remember the Old Gopher Holes of the past, ha) and threatening to get back in. But Pena stood in for a sharp block 20 yards out, and back came Vela.
Cortez was simply bisecting Shary now, fizzing lasers through two defenders at a time and catching teammates in full stride, sliding from forward to middie without instruction, merely and adroitly finding her space as the moment unfolded. Cortez is an intuitive footballer, high IQ and instant four-wheel drive of the mind out there. She senses what is needed, and she provides it. She exemplifies the definite versatility of the team in 2022-23. Senior stars, rotations here and there, solid depth off the bench, it all adds up to this: Vela has a legit chance to win this district. This might be the best edition in school history. There, we said it, lol. Yet, proof in pudding.
At 16:39, Rodriguez hammered a vicious shot off a defender’s face and before the dazed and confused Shary bunch could regroup, there was Rodriguez, running onto a ball in the box and clipping one into the net. Alright, alright, alright! Three-nil.
The rest of the half consisted of a decent effort by the Lady Snakes, countered by some sharp D work on the left from sub Sofia Garza. Cortez the coach has a solid bench crew this season, including former North starter Meagan Leal, who would come on Friday to give some fancy footwork and toughness, after the interval. Miranda Mena also saw the pitch as an attacking option and modeled quickness on some clever runs into the area.
There are other subs who will become more prominent in time, but right now, it’s all about the first XI and what comes next. As stated, this side made the switch into 5A with high expectations, after having stormed to two playoff wins in each of the past two seasons. Cortez is confident in what his girls can do, and they also play with no little belief in their skills, abilities, and mesh as a unit.
It’s so far, so good for the Lady Sabes, who have knocked off two of the luminaries of McAllen’s Murderer’s Row. Next, ironically (after Tuesday’s road date with sluggish Valley View: 0-3, zero goals, 11 allowed) it is Rowe. Not Row. Eventually, the Big One, against the once and (they believe) future queens, the Lady Bulldogs.
Everybody’s talking about Vela this season, they’re the new kid in the district town.
It remains to be seen who will be forgotten in the wake of events still unseen, but the Lady Sabes are building, one match at time, toward a mammoth challenge, one they relish, to say the least. The tricky ones come happily at home during the first half of the schedule, meaning on the back nine, Cortez and his fine team will have to travel to McAllen fairly consistently. But first, let us see what the continuing first half augurs, as first Rowe and then McHigh advance into battle on Canton.
Drums in the distance …