February 14, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
WESLACO – It was shaping up to be a very interesting week for Vela, one of drastic contrasts, lessons, and important moments that the Lady Sabes will always remember.
First there was the business at hand, a bi-district road game against Weslaco East, and the hardest part about it would be trying to stay focused Tuesday. Having stomped past 18 straight district foes by an average of 48 ppg to set a city record on the girls’ side, per margin of victory, the Lady Sabes outclassed the Lady Wildcats in every way. There probably have been only a handful of first round bouts that promised to be this one-sided. East could not have beaten Vela Tuesday, even if the rules had been altered to allow the Lady ‘Cats to use a sixth player the whole time.
It turned to entertaining monotony (hello, oxymoron, but not) after a few ticks of the clock, something to get through without injury basically, as Coach Lottie Zarate’s dominant force wiped the floor with the foe, cruising to a 75-25 laugher. They were up 14-0 after rushing touchdowns from Emma Lucio and Janai Coleman (couldn’t resist it) and 29-5 after a period. Or was it 28? Truly, the only mystery about this blowout was the score itself, as midway through the quarter, an extra point magically appeared next to the Vela name on the scoreboard. Or was it two? History will record 75 as the final tally; those keeping the books will quietly shake their heads and wonder … was it 73, or 74? Because it wasn’t 75 … anyway.
With Coleman and Lucio reprising their nightly show of thrills, combining for 45 points, Vela won for the 29th time this year (yes, we know it’s 29) and prepared for next. In district, the Lady Sabes allowed 37 points or fewer in 17 of 18 games, and overall have now scored 70 points or better a dozen times. They’ve lost four times all year, and the teams that defeated them, way back when, had amassed an 81-19 record heading into the playoffs. Zarate’s crew last lost in mid-November, and the coach collected her 400th career win late in the regular season. All to the good, as the program has now advanced to the area round of the postseason for the sixth time, following last year’s 33-3 masterclass with a similarly glittering 29-4 mark.
Now, though. Now it gets interesting. The romp over East was little more than a practice session, in which the hardest part was confusion over colors. Folks watching Vela home games are used to the white jerseys, and so seeing the gals in dark togs – including a coaching staff smartly decked out in killer black dress threads – was odd at first. Kids could have worn jammies and won by 30.
But the playoffs roll on now, and Vela is in against a very solid opponent, Flour Bluff, which came third in a stacked District 29-5A and has size, speed, and experience, having captured three victories in the playoffs of last season. This will not be a blowout; this will be a test. And the Lady Sabes are ready.
None of them would stress it to the point of being uncool, but the fact was the fact: the players were getting a bit tired of easy nights and lopsided scores. Versus a drastically overmatched East squad, the Vela subs came shuttling in during the first quarter, enough said.
Coleman, who was merciless in her craft with 22 points, admitted that the district parade of poundings was sometimes trying, though satisfying. She knows the score, too.
“Coach has been telling us not to get complacent, she is always reminding us to avoid that,” said the scintillating junior, whose defense was, as always, a major factor in the win. “We have been waiting for a tougher game. Flour Bluff has height, and they will be in our face the whole night, we know that. We’ve seen clips of them and they’re pretty good.”
Lucio, who went for 23 against East in typically dazzling style, is soon to depart for college basketball in San Antonio. While the girls waited to take the court Tuesday, she talked about making the leap to the next level. The East boys were finishing their game against Brownsville Lopez – the Lobos are coached by former Edinburg North hooper Erick Quintero, btw – and the Firestarter was waiting.
“They’ve got most girls coming back next year, so it will be tough for me at the start,” she said, of the UTSA squad she will join soon. “They’ve got a big post who can score, so I think my job is going be to get her the ball, when I get into the games.”
But Lucio, who one must argue is among the greatest ever to play the girls’ game in the Valley, wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to high school hoops.
“We have some work to do, in the playoffs,” she suggested, and immediately one is struck by how pleasant and articulate she is in person, a stark contrast to the murder and mayhem, the intensity and desire to dominate, that she brings to the court every time out. “Frankly, district was sort of hard in a way … I don’t want to say ‘boring’ really. But we have needed a challenge for a while.”
The stars in the local stratosphere will certainly not be bored against Flour Bluff, and complacency shouldn’t be a problem. Not with Zarate ramming ahead without cessation, constantly pushing her talented team to get better. The coach was also honest about the past few months, when the list of no-problem outings blurred into a sort of vortex, vertigo-inducing at times. They … erased the 5A district. Outside of a nervy 46-42 win over worthy Rowe midway through the schedule, it’s been a dream sequence.
“The girls know that I am not going to be always on the clipboard, writing out X’s and O’s tonight,” Zarate smiled. “Right now, it’s just: go out and play the game, do your job. But the next round will be different. They know it.”
Too, Lucio understands that basketball will be different at the next level, i.e., the fabulous passes she has made in high school the acrobatic shots, all the halcyon highlights will become more difficult to pull off on a squad where every roster member was the Lucio of her high school. Such is life when you go forward to the rare college air, and the flashy senior guard intuits that there, spaces open and close quicker, the players are all bigger, faster, stronger, and the game moves not a snail’s pace but at a cheetah’s.
To a certain degree, this will be the collective case later in the week, as Vela prepares to try and advance to the third round for the first time. Tuesday, the Lady Sabes set a program record for points in a playoff game, topping the 70 they compiled back in bi-district 2015, against P-SJ-A. Flour Bluff has allowed a paltry 34 ppg this season, and though the Lady Hornets are not a state title contender by any means, they do represent a major step up, in terms of quality. Bout-time.
Weslaco always offers a contrast, great facilities alongside consistently draconian rules. As the boys’ game ended and the girls wandered toward the court, the PA reminded the fans sternly to leave the gym, or face being charged twice. Typical tight ship over in the Mid-Valley, and later, near the tip, came the announcement that anyone misbehaving in any way would be removed from the gym. Alright already … relax, Big Brother.
Some wags might suggest that the Vela girls might have been removed from the gym right off the bat, not for misbehaving, but for just taking it to the Lady Wildcats like the varsity scrimmaging against a junior high squad. They didn’t misbehave, but they sure were properly rude, for 32 minutes.
The early stages showed that senior Fey Vasquez was motivated for the evening, as she swoped to a high, delicious finger roll. On her way to double digits and a few emphatic blocked shots, the nearly 6-foot veteran was flying. So was Coleman, who barged to 11 points in the first period on an array of inside power moves and a long three-pointer, her defensive prowess cowing the East guards into absolute submission. Many kids play hard, and some illustrate their desire with the occasional facial gesture, body language. Watch Coleman any night and one will see she wears intensity; she and Lucio truly enjoy playing together, meshing their skills on both ends of the floor. Just watch her: Coleman’s expression is straight up hard, antagonistic in a good way, battler … she’s coming to get you, kid, and there’s nothing you can do about it!
It was 8-0 quick as Lucio drove the lane through traffic, stumbled briefly, but regained balance well enough to flip in a very difficult shot as she tumbled to the floor. Even when she fouls herself, she makes it. Ridonkulous.
With the guards dying on the vine, the Vela defense surrounding and hounding them, the Lady Wildcats now confronted what they had feared for several days. They. Had. No. Chance.
Coleman was owning it inside, outquicking East to rebounds, launching back up instantly for putbacks. Like EHS post of old Liz Olvera, she never brings the ball down. It’s hard to teach kids to do that: keep the ball high, set, and shoot. Coleman does it easily, every time. One of the best low block players in recent memory, but with a downtown stroke to match, by this time next season Janai will be the Emma, finishing out a glorious high school resume and planning for the next level.
Now it was Vasquez again, scoring at the rim after Lucio had raced out of bounds to save one. The play was memorable for exquisite balance and timing, as Lucio reached the ball on the endline, holding it aloft for a nano-second as she went airborne, waiting for body and brain to sync. At the last possible moment, she fired it two-handed, back over her head, past a dumbfounded East defender and right into the mitts of the blackclad gazelle waiting for it. Are you kidding me?
Later Vasquez was to put the ball on the floor en route to the rim, and if there is an X Factor heading into area, it may be 23. It may be that Flour Bluff will concentrate on stopping one of the Twin Terrors, throwing double/triple teams at either Lucio or Coleman, only a fool wouldn’t try it. That means that kids such as Vasquez, and sophomore guard G.G. Betancourt, will be front and center for the second round. Depth has been an issue for the team this season, really, and one wishes the Lady Sabes could reach back into the successes of the past for a tall and rugged forward type, a la Teri Garza, for example.
As it stands in 2023, Karsyn Hackerott is on the scene as an excellent shooter who pleased her coach Tuesday with some dogged shot-blocking and rebounding. At 6-foot-1, she might find herself in a prominent role for the pending Flour Bluff Challenge, and all signs and indications are that Hackerott is ready to make her mark.
Or perhaps it will be Gaby Tijerina off the bench, who can hit a shot and like Hackerott pounded the boards against East. It will be all hands on deck Friday in Falfurrias, with Vela looking to extend its season beyond round two.
THE TERROR CONTINUES
Late in the first period, Coleman waited for an East guard to drive and when the poor kid started to shoot, Vela’s intimidator just wrapped her strong hands around the ball. The East gal was flat stopped, never even followed through with the shot. Gimme that! On an ensuing sequence Coleman did what she does better than anyone, grabbing a board and releasing an outlet pass without hesitation. She’ll loop some serious feeds downcourt, to Lucio on the fly or sometimes Betancourt seeking the run-out. One of the reasons Vela averages nearly 70 ppg this season is that Zarate has them push the ball, without fail. They’re always looking for the break, and when Lucio gets the rock in her own half of the court, you know that in an instant she’ll be zooming forward, fooling folks with nonpareil handles and vision.
In the second period, East, down a ton, went to the motion offense, but most of the movement was from Vela, whose defenders took turns, sometimes in packs, zeroing in and striking for steals. Inside, Coleman elevated to an offensive board, and when an East player got a hand in, the ball was momentarily up for grabs, literally. Instead of having a problem, Coleman just relied on her superior athletic coordination, clutching it back again, and coming down with it. Before any of the East defenders knew what time it was, Janai had spun into a power move to the goal for two. Not fair, 33, lol. Beautiful.
It was 43-11 at the half after Coleman, in one of her best performances of the season, stalked a Lady Wildcat guard, stole the ball from her, and went gunning to the goal. On one of her rare misses for the night, a teammate came to the rescue, as Lucio – always opportunistic – raced in for the follow. Tag team, back again.
Just halftime, wow. What to do with the game over/not over? Enjoy the stars. East shuffled back onto the court after intermission like a line of condemned prisoners. Vela licked its collective chops, especially the 2’s, who have gotten a healthy amount of playing time this season thanks to the endless string of obliterations.
Coleman’s leaping catch of a high lob was perfect, and next Lucio – harried by two defenders at close quarters in the backcourt – executed a difficult maneuver. As one Lady ‘Cat reached for the ball, Lucio made sure she swiped only air, pounding the ball down a beat ahead of the normal dribble, doing it again as the second kid reached in. Bomp-bomp rapid fire, textbook half-dribbles and no you don’t, suckah!
Watching the best team in the Valley do its thing. Appreciate, tuck it away, this rare team with its once-in-a-generation tandem. Smiling at their excellence, this could go on forever, and that’s what East must have been thinking Tuesday night. Dang, come on, buzzer.
To cap the night, Lucio showed that she can whistle while she works. When a teammate reached three-plus seconds on the inbounds without getting it in, Lucio shot over with hands out.
“I got you!” she hissed, and she did, which she does, and will do. She got them, and she got this, and they’ve got the challenge.
If Vela does not advance to the regional quarters, and this is always a possibility, it will not ruin a monumental season. It will, though, be a downer. Having run through the Valley like a downhill Olympic skier the past two seasons, Zarate’s destroyer has given its fans on land a lifetime of memories, with 62 wins during the stretch. Everyone expects the Lady SaberCats to come out and put together a terrific performance against Flour Bluff, and this unit has plenty of experience against out-of-Valley outfits. If they can past the latest test, Friday in Fal, the Blue and Black will get the winner of the area round tangle between Victoria East and Brownsville Vets.
Bet on the Lady Chargers there to cop their 30th victory, against four losses. Third round clash in the RGV, gotta happen! Shades of February 2010, when the North and EHS girls advanced to the Sweet 16 after the madcap doubleheader win over the Harlingens at a packed Pan American Fieldhouse. Greatest ECISD girls’ hoops night ever, still.
The truth is, a Sweet Sixteen appearance for this massive monster of a team, the Lady Sabes, is nowhere near beyond the realm of the possible. It gets harder in the bracket with every step, but right now, Vela has to be considered a solid bet to get past the hurdle ahead. No guarantees, but with Coleman and Lucio being Coleman and Lucio, and the rest of the gang doing their bit, Zarate relentlessly pushing the buttons … who knows what excitement lurks in the future?