February 2, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
They streamed in, haphazardly at first, some early and some more rushed, and eventually they were all in the end zone, underneath the scoreboard, getting ready to get ready. The girls’ match was wrapping up and now the boys wandered on to the pitch on a cold evening, thankfully dry. Banging the ball around and taking turns trying to score, laughing and joking while warming up, the SaberCats showed few signs of the wear and tear of a challenging season.
“Hey … ha, you missed, bro?” a player cackled to his buddy, knowing full well that he, the buddy had just scuffed his shot, the ball sailing wide and high into the night. Ha, long walk.
This was to be a makeup game, after Tuesday’s weather postponement, and Vela was eager to get back at it, especially after a rough recent stretch. In the early stages of its latest journey in 5A, the Sabes started with five consecutive losses, but has also been scoring some goals – eight in the first four fixtures – and at times has shown potential to get the engine cranking. Their last outing, against vaunted Valley View, was in some ways a microcosm of the season to date. Coach J.D. Alonzo commented on the situation, as the kids got serious in earnest preparation.
“We were tied with them 3-3, at one point, and then we fell apart,” said Alonzo, in his second season at the helm of the Blue and Black. “That’s been kind of a pattern this year; we’ll play well for a half and then have trouble keeping it going. We have also gotten a few cards, and that’s something we are working on, trust me. We ended up not so good against Valley View but the reality is, we’re a better team in some ways, than we were last year. It’s just we are in a tougher district, too, so we have had to adjust.”
Alonzo has good numbers this season, with 20 kids on the roster, and that is a direct contrast to 2021-22, when the Sabes, for various reasons including injuries, often went to war with few subs on the bench. Sometimes none.
“And we have pretty good lower level teams for the most part, numbers-wise,” he said. “We’re building, and that takes time. We want to control the things we can control, like the cards, we tell the guys to leave it out of the hands of the refs. And we’re learning that this season. You can’t play a man down, not in this district.”
The coach, a patient sort who relates well to his players, is also working on details during a match. Thursday, when each side was throwing an offside trap around for most of the night, Alonzo’s guys showed they are starting to understand the game better.
“Sometimes it just happens, being out of position,” he explained. “And of course, sometimes you don’t get the call, or you get the call you don’t think is correct. We just have to keep our cool, keep playing, and work on where we are when the ball is played. Watch the lines.”
Soon the warmups were done, and the focus became Pharr North, a squad with a couple of results to its credit – over Pioneer and highly rated P-SJ-A Memorial – and one that is perhaps a middle tier club in 31-5A this season. The Raiders had a couple of legit ballhandlers, some size, and brought the usual ferocious Tri Cities football attitude. It was going to be a struggle.
Vela worked well in the first half, as has been the pattern, holding the Raiders to a single goal. At the other end, the Sabes created their own chance and took it well, only to have the score chalked off. Still, down just 1-nil, the home guys were performing. The second half was trickier as Vela was able to level, fell behind again, and ended up on the short end of the 4-2 scoreline. In all, it was a credible performance from a program looking to string positives together and find a way into the race.
“We still need to work on shoring up the offside situation,” Alonzo said afterward. “That’s mental: get back, watch the lines, etc. But I think tonight we played very well at times. Maybe we watched the game a little at times, made some key mistakes, but this was encouraging overall.”
CHANCE TO IMPROVE
It wasn’t a piecemeal team sheet for Thursday, though one leading light, junior midfielder Matthew Mejia, was out of action. The Sabes lined up with some sturdy defenders, a hard-working midfield, and a frontline crew featuring a hot goal scorer in the deceptive holdup man Irving Castro-Martinez, who has five goals to his name so far.
The Raiders pressed the attack from the onset, working to a shot just three minutes in. Teams seeking to tally against Vela will run into a host of stoppers, including senior Eduardo “Lalo” Valdez-Pina. Firmly rooted in the back now after some seasons farther up the field, he has the size and strength to make a difference. Then there’s junior Luis A. Garcia, who has a strong leg and sure reactions, along with classmate Jacob Warkentine; both have real potential on defense. That group sits in front of keeper Travis Gonzalez, a sophomore who has spent the early part of the slate settling into the speed of the varsity game. He has upside.
This backline crew was busy in the first stages, as North came a-callin’ with regularity. Luckily, the visitor was cursed with the offsides tendency Thursday, as the Sabes hustled around, tried to catch the Raiders out and foil their plans. After Garcia defended with excellent energy, though, Vela botched a throw-in. Luckily, it was Warkentine, smashing a clearance far down the green.
Energetic senior midfielder Victor Castro-Martinez then got on the ball and sent one through for the speeding Irving Castro-Martinez, marking the first real attacking sequence, on 30 minutes. The latter fellow is very deft on the ball with nifty footwork and body control, as illustrated by one first half play on which he maneuvered around the box with the ball, dipping and faking while rolling past two defenders.
On the right side was junior Dimas de Leon, the fantastic football running back, and he would grow into the game using his quickness and dribbling ability, in search of linkup play with the midfield. He and scrappy Ozzy Briones were charged with that task, and gradually, Vela leveled the playing field and began to think upfield. Junior Briones is not a giant but plays with heart, unafraid to get stuck in on tackles against beefier opponents. De Leon has skills and he now located rugged midfielder Ethan De Leon, who gave Alonzo a warrior’s effort against PN. Final passes just missing.
On 24 minutes the Raiders came close, whereupon Vela countered, with Victor Castro-Martinez attempting to play in a teammate on the run. But back came North for a long-range effort that found the net at 20:25, and how would the home side respond?
Irving Castro-Martinez would carve out some chances now, as the Sabes did not let the opening salvo disturb them. Garcia came up for a couple of free kick opportunities and Vela started to plant crosses from the wings. At one point, hustling senior Daniel Vidales passed to Irving C-M but Vela, once in the box, could not find the mark. Still, promising body language, kids believing. Garcia found himself one-on-one with the keeper late in the half, and almost scorched the cords. It could have been 1-1, or even 2-1 Vela, but it wasn’t, by halftime. Still, Alonzo’s men had served notice: they weren’t backing down or giving up.
Early in the second half, Vela surged, as Ethan De Leon bombed a free kick that had potential, Briones almost getting on the loose ball. And at 35:58, all the hard work paid off.
Irving C-M found himself at the edge of the penalty area, against two. He dispatched the first easily, then outdistanced the second to the right side, angling over with the ball. Just when it seemed that the angle was too acute, endline close, the Vela striker rifled a shot past the keeper to level the match at 1-1. How now, a tremendous second half goal, and it shows one that while patterns might be what they are, they are also subject to change.
The De Leons, Dimas and Ethan, then paired up for some nice combination play and Vela was off again. But the Sabes were sporadic in possession Thursday, and faulty passing led to a North chance that came good at 31:30. Gonzalez leapted to his left to palm away an effort, but on the restart the Raiders rematerialized in the box, with the ball, and managed to punch one home for a 2-1 advantage.
Then a bit of gamesmanship, with a Raider nosing up to get in the way of a Vela free kick. At this, the official – having suggested subtly that the kid move – ended up hissing, “Get out of the way …” to a smatter of laughter.
Problem was, North was being nosy on offense too, and tallied a third goal on 28 minutes, with a sweet sweeping move ending in a pullback to the middle to produce the goal. At this stage it was touch and go with the Sabes, who had played well but fallen behind, 3-1. As Alonzo constructs the team’s culture and identity, these sorts of junctures are vital. He needs leaders like Castro-Martinez and Valdez-Pina to keep the collective calm and continue to fight. And though the match started to slip away, the Sabes were able to maintain their composure.
On 22 minutes, the side got lit again with a clearance of great distance by Garcia and then a free kick opportunity from the intense junior, Ethan De Leon. A good 25 yards out, on the left … Vidales danced over the ball, leaving it for De Leon … who crushed a laser beam into the top lefthand corner, narrowing the margin to only one again. Fight back! Pull one back!
Soon it was Vidales with a header pass and Briones also using his noggin, as Vela searched for the equalizer once again. But as had happened earlier in the night, the Raiders seized the moment with a counterattack, flying down for a fourth goal about a minute after De Leon’s rocket went off. These things happen when you’re trying to build consistency: one false move can short-circuit all the night’s progress, and that is just football sometimes.
The Sabes did not stop working: the right back/wing De Leon used a slick backheel to intercept a North pass and redirect it to a teammate. Later, he escaped a defender with a cutback and slalom forward. A track sprinter along with his duties toting the rock in the Other Football, De Leon should be a mainstay for this season and next.
It ended in defeat but one has to say that the effort overall was solid, the production not shabby either. The Sabes lost a goal in the first half, but every time the Raiders seemed to surge ahead, back came Alonzo’s group. After the match, the coach reminded his guys of some aspects of the game they need to keep working on. He expressed pride in their performance and insisted that they come back ready for more; in fact, less than 24 hours after the end Thursday the Sabes were to tackle one of the league heavyweights, McAllen High.
“We had a few mental lapses that hurt us tonight,” Alonzo said as he gathered up the gear. “But all in all, I think it was a good game. We’re getting there, we just have to find a way to get some wins.”