March 21, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It seems incredibly difficult sometimes, a daunting task, to bring a program back from the wilderness after a down period, because as the old adage has it: winning becomes a habit, then an expectation, and in the end, success breeds on itself. And vice versa, too, as when you’re losing, things just seem to steamroll you, making it tougher and tougher to fight adversity and make progress in growth.
Objects in motion, though, tend to stay in motion, and that is where Denise De la Cruz is at right now with her Lady SaberCats. The second year softball coach has been working overtime to help her girls find a rhythm and comfort zone on the diamond, and it’s been a hard row so far, as Vela ended the first half of play in District 31-5A with two wins versus seven defeats.
De la Cruz, assisted by, among others, Alyssa Cherry – the ex North softball star – is trying to maximize the positives she’s seen from the latest edition of the Blue and Black, and working through the not so positives as she continues to resurrect the program. The Lady Sabes have been among the Valley’s most successful programs in recent times, but have hit the dreaded rough patch since a playoff appearance in 2021. De la Cruz is intent on jumpstarting the crew as best she can and can say that she has seen flashes from her admittedly green and inexperienced nine.
“We really could have competed better in many of our games,” said the coach as the team worked against P-SJ-A Memorial at home Tuesday. “There have been times where we just have the one bad inning, we make a ton of errors, and it’s over. I mean, any time you’re making 10, 12 errors in a game, as we have a few times now, it’s going to be super hard to win. But we’re starting to get our spirit back, pulling together a little more, and we are pretty excited about the second half of the season.”
That was her message to the Lady Sabes after they were bested, 14-2, by the Lady Wolverines, a squad that has gotten hot the last couple of weeks, and great, just at the time Vela turned up on the schedule. Still, the upbeat De la Cruz was ready to keep grinding.
“OK, this was the last game of the first round, we have to move forward,” she told the girls after the final pitch. “Let’s not focus too much on what could have been, what should have been. We have to move on and be honest with ourselves; what can each of you do to improve and help the team be successful?”
Midway through her postgame address, the coach seized upon a vital element to success on the diamond. And it represented a reset of sorts.
“I want you to remember why you started playing this game in the first place,” she said, and at this, some of the girls’ faces rose to look at her, intently. “I want you to have fun playing this game, like it was when you went to the park, or Parks and Rec, wherever. Maybe you liked to get dirty, diving for balls, sliding into bases, you know what I’m saying. I want you to have the energy that you had then, and I see it coming.”
At that, one Lady SaberCat remarked that even with the home loss to Memorial, the spirit seemed pretty high.
“Yeah, true” chimed in another. “Agreed, the energy was better, we did have that going today.”
The girls nodded in unison, and De la Cruz went on, her eyes shining a bit more through the mist of a difficult season. By the time she finished speaking with her kids, the mood was lightened, and it seemed as if the Lady Sabes might be ready to make a second-half push.
THE ROAD BACK
It’s not that Vela doesn’t have some talent in 2023, because there are a handful of good prospects, a few underclassmen who promise to come good in time. This campaign the youngsters were supposed to be able to benefit from the senior leadership of veteran Sarah Cortez. Unfortunately, the sturdy catcher/infielder was injured early on and has had to watch league games from the dugout, keeping score and cursing the cast on her hand.
“It was pretty bad: first district game, a foul tip, and bam, I’m out,” said Cortez, who has been a potent producer for three years, always a steadying influence out there in the fray. “So, yeah, it’s pretty sad for me, I was looking forward to this season big time, it’s my senior year … and what hurts most is that this was my chance to be a leader, help other girls, it’s been tough, really. I was doing good in preseason, thinking this was going to be my year, too.”
Cortez is hoping to get cleared in time to participate at the tail end of the season, but for now, she’s scorekeeper and cheerleader for the nine, and has dived into those tasks with the same determination she has always displayed on the field. A very bad break for the Blue and Black.
In her absence, De la Cruz has turned to the rest of the squad to step and make up for it, and strapping shortstop Danika Jimenez has done her part. The former outfielder is an imposing presence in the middle of the infield and swings a heavy stick. Center fielder Adrianna Salinas is also a solid, physical kid who competes hard, as the Lady Sabes seek to solidify the lineup heading into the second half.
Left fielder Keilani Garcia made a series of putouts against Memorial and uncorked a few credible tosses from the outer garden while Jaylene Rodriguez, a varsity returnee, started at first base and then came on to pitch midway through the Tuesday game. She knows how to play the game and at times was humming the ball in there.
The starter, slender righthander Brianna Gamez, befuddled the Lady Wolverines in stretches with offbeat stuff, throwing in a change here and there, the occasional screwball, and though Vela walked too many hitters and hit a few, the pitching shows potential.
The program has always been known partly for pitching, from the days of Shay “The K” Abbott, the memorable exploits of Monie Reyes, and the dynamic duo of Bri Salinas and Karina Guzman. De la Cruz is searching for that kind of stopper, and she has some kids to develop.
The newcomers of note this season include Liz Morales, a tall freshman who walloped a solid base hit Tuesday, and Maddy Cantu, the athletic basketball kid who has jumped in as a rookie and performed ably when called upon. Avrie Cantu, who got some healthy cuts at the plate against Memorial, is another of the Lady Sabes De la Cruz is counting on to help lead the comeback roll in the coming weeks.
Among the other veterans, versatile Gloria Salinas is in the mix, as is third baseman Ciara Cantu, a holler gal type with a lot of energy and a fearless mien at third base. Cantu will tote the lumber at the plate and is a squad sparkplug, as befits someone of her experience and resume.
Tuesday the Lady Sabes hung tough early, as Memorial plated a run in the first until Gamez was agile in slipping off the mound to locate a high pop to end the inning. Two walks and a double steal got the Lady Wolverines going in the second, followed by a long double for two runs, and a nice catch in left from Garcia helped stem the tide.
Unfortunately, the enemy had pushed seven runs across by the time the frame was over, illustrating the issues Vela has struggled with. Gamez was around the plate consistently, honestly, but her sweeping deliveries ended up just off the plate on many occasions. The Lady Sabes did not benefit from the strictures of the umpire Tuesday.
Avrie Cantu smashed one hard to the outfield in the midsection of the game, but Vela could not get enough baserunners to start a rally against Memorial’s fairly tiny but tricky pitcher Aleida Perez.
Despite the loss, it appears that the girls are eager to get started again, and the first assignment was to be P-SJ-A Southwest, at home Friday. De la Cruz said she has reminded the Lady Sabes that this is a team they have already beaten.
“We need to do that again, beat some teams we know we can beat,” she explained. “If we can cut out some our mistakes, there’s no reason why we can’t get up there in the standings, compete better. This year has been tough in some ways, but this year’s group seems more together, they are fighting through this, and that’s all a coach can ask.”
EHS-NORTH ON TAP TUESDAY
In other softball action early in the week, North clobbered Mission 16-6 to move to 1-1 in district so far, while Econ and EHS engaged in an epic struggle in the latest Arciba Derby. The Lady Jags led at one point, 4-2 and it was then tied at 4-4 and 6-6, with each team scoring in bunches, leading to extra innings.
The Lady Bobcats erupted for seven runs in the ninth to clinch a 13-6 victory, and are now 1-1, the Lady Jags 0-2. Freshman Catelynn Castillo was 3 for 5 with a home run and three RBI for EHS, with the Reynas, Eileen and Desirea, making two hits each. Desirea Reyna struck out eight in six innings of pitching work and for Econ, the workhorse Adri Tagle went the distance. Cassie Vega-Farias and Brianna Gonzalez smacked two hits each for the Orange, who are at Mission Friday while the Lady ‘Cats host La Joya.
The big one in 31-6A comes Tuesday, as North and EHS tangle in the timeless and thrilling Grudge Match. Shelby Celedon, hitting .473 with 18 RBI and 17 runs, is a dynamo for EHS while the Lady Cougars come into the battle with some new faces making the grade, the veterans trying to push the team onward to the playoffs once again. Tuesday North allowed a pair in the first against Mission but blasted out 10 runs over a two-inning span midway through to take command. Senior infielder Victoria Ramirez drove in four against the Lady Eagles while sophomore Kyla Rodriguez had three hits, three RBI, and pitched her way to the decision.
Tuesday’s clash is at North, and it should be something to see, as both rivals need to take a step up the ladder toward La Joya, which seems just a little too comfortable right now.