February 24, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
They have done it all, just about, in three magnificent seasons. Championships, deep runs in the playoffs, headline recognition, glory for the school, all of it. Pena, Palma, Ponce, Rodriguez, and of course, Cortez. No doubt but that they comprise the best single class of football girls Vela has ever been blessed with. And yet now the stellar seniors are breaking new ground, showing that they can rebound from adversity, face some hard times, and keep working, fighting to win.
For a while there it seemed as if the Lady SaberCats were actually going to do it, meaning run through their new 5A district without a scratch. But that was always to be a distant possibility: one, because very few sides ever do it and two, because there are so many excellent opponents in the 31-5A Murderer’s Row. After a super early run including first-round victories against Memorial, Sharyland, and Rowe, a blemish hit versus venerable McAllen, and soon the Lady Sabes hit a rough patch. They were later defeated by Memorial and Sharyland to start a slightly shaky second stage of the schedule, and found themselves not in the accustomed top spot, but instead embroiled in a fierce battle for the top four.
That’s why Friday was such a tonic. Valley View, to be frank, is not a competitive entity in 2023, having surrendered more than 70 goals in a winless league slog so far. And Vela had scored more than 70 coming in. So the fact that the Blue and Black marauded to a program record of 17 goals, to none for the visitor, was not entirely unexpected. It meant three points added to the district tally, standings-wise, ahead of a crucial bout against Rowe Tuesday. Not unexpected, but very welcome, indeed, considering recent circumstances.
Coach Americo Cortez, who has taken this talented crew to the regional quarterfinals two years in a row, suggested as much after the romp was complete Friday. It was a night of bombs, slick assists, PT for the subs; happy smiles from a team that has had to get used to an 18-game league slate, with all its wearying, worrying aspects.
“I think we needed a game like this to get some of our confidence back,” the coach said, as some folks were, postgame, still chowing down on a feast beyond the north end zone, courtesy of the annual Parents/Seniors night celebrated for the Valley View tilt. “We knew coming into this season that it was going to be tough, and we’ve been struggling a little lately, man. We had the lead in some of those games and we didn’t finish, we’ve been taking our shots but they haven’t been going in as much as they were earlier in the season. It’s just a tough district, and we knew that would be the case.”
Friday was almost surreal, as after 15 scoreless minutes, the Lady Sabes churned to five goals in a 12-minute span, sweeping the slower, weaker Lady Tigers of the pitch with the sort of quick-touch, snap-shot barrage that has made the program one of the RGV’s most consistent winners. How many goals did Natalia Cortez score? Four or five, or was it 75? With sister Carolina (her Lady Sabes went three-deep in 2015) on hand and with signage, Nat was sublime, picking her way past defenders and letting fly. With the side in a 3-5-2 formation, Cortez and fellow senior Aleyna Rodriguez had their way with a gasping, grasping foe, making it look easy. Up field, midfielders Nayla Pena and Crystal Palma were imperial, slamming through and around Valley View with ease and aplomb, setting things up and treating every 50-50 ball as a birthright.
In sports it’s called a “get well game,” the chance to get back on track after a hiccup and continue the charge toward the playoffs, and Cortez’ girls sure enjoyed some catharsis, collectively speaking. Despite the fact that recent stumbles have jeopardized their chances for a title, the Lady Sabes are not about to give up on the quest. They’ve put the past behind them.
“I guess we were kinda trying to do that [go undefeated],” said Pena, the lean yet hard-edged veteran who with Palma forms one-half of the engine room for Vela. “But I guess every team loses occasionally. I think we have used the losses as motivation for the rest of the season.”
Her middie mate, Palma, noted that after the Memorial and Shary results – the latter was puzzling, seeing that the Lady Sabes had wasted the Lady Rattlers easily during round one – the girls knew it was time to sort it out.
“We’ve been needing to get it back, that thing we have together, the chemistry,” she commented. “I think we did lose our focus somewhat, we had to get back to being level-headed, stop being frustrated and just start to play. We knew that if we could keep our heads, we could get back into the flow, and hopefully we’ll do that in the next games, too.”
Palma said that she and her crew know each other well, after so many seasons together.
“We know where each other will be, what they’re going to do next,” said the feisty leader. “Even down to knowing what we’re thinking, what’s on our mind, we know how to play together.”
Palma, such an adroit builder of play in the midsection, has decided not to pursue college soccer, though with her skills and work ethics, it would be there if she wanted it. Instead, the incisive senior will happily focus on engineering in college, having discovered the wonders of calculus last year. And on the pitch, she has a sense of vision and balance, precision and whole-field thinking that would please both the midfielder and the engineer.
Playing with their old pizazz, the Lady Sabes made mincemeat out of Valley View and could have had 25 goals if a few bounces had gone their way. Now they approach the rest of the story, a 5-game journey that includes the Rowe match, a rematch with McAllen and a battle against a tricky Pioneer outfit. Six points shy of the Lady Bulldogs in the standings and engaged in a heated and salty clash with several 31-5A sides for spots in the postseason, Vela has it all to play for. And the attitude of the seniors, as Coach Cortez would wish, has rounded into form as the stretch run approaches.
“This is just a very good district, so many good teams to go against,” he reiterated after the scoring festival had ended. “I think that this game will help us, and we want to finish as high as we can.”
Five matches to go, six teams in contention, and nothing is written in stone just yet. Rowe (24 points) and Pioneer (20) are on the outside looking in; two of six creditable contingents are going to miss the playoffs, and there’s still no telling who they’ll be. That’s how tough this league is: if Vela is among the contenders hoping to avoid missing the postseason bus, there it is, in black and white. Grind!
But based on the character and maturity of the seniors, not to mention their overall skill as a unit, the Lady Sabes will go forward from here to try and nail down a piece of the playoff rock. Friday mattered in that sense, as the club got back to its usual winning ways, in its usual fabulous style, and copped the usual three points. Victory against Rowe Tuesday is imperative as Vela stands on 30 points, tied with Memorial for second, Shary a step behind at 27, Rowe lurking
Waiting for the four 31-5A teams who make it past the regular season will be some dangerous opponents from over in 32-5A. Right now, it’s Harlingen South in front, closely followed by the trio of Donna North, Porter, and Brownsville Vets. Edcouch and Lopez are the Rowe and Pioneer of that bunch, two quality teams trailing the top four but still in range. The length of 5A schedules gives lagging units a chance to make up ground, but also threatens the leading teams with a late-season slide. Meanwhile, the 6A race continues apace, with six matches of 10 in the books. The Econ girls are neck and neck with EHS at the head of the charts, North fourth. The Lady Jags suffered a penalty kick loss to the Lady Bobcats during round one and had to go to PKs to defeat Mission. EHS was beaten by La Joya early but is looking very threatening as of late, making the rematch with Econ, Tuesday at Bobcats, a potential title-deciding evening. North, seeking to get past a slow streak of results, is still very much in the conversation.