March 24, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It’s become an unfortunate truism over the years, something that most people grudgingly admit when it comes to the soccer playoffs. In the Second Season, no matter how good the town sides have done in district play, bi-district’s gonna be tough. For years and years, the road to the area round has generally run through a few cities. On the girls’ side it has traditionally been Harlingen and McAllen schools as major obstacles, with Los Fresnos salty in recent moons.
For the boys squads in town, bi-district through the ages has presented the roadblock that is Soccer City, Brownsville. State champs, big-time players, stylish and yet hard, full of moxie. The Queen City of the Rio Grande, as Brownsville was once known has always been Futbol City, producing great players and teams. Siempre.
That’s why Friday was a special night in the world of Valley football, as the postseason began. Despite seeing five of seven ECISD entries fall by the wayside, local observers were thrilled to celebrate a pair of victories and a pair of programs moving on to the next stage of the dance. Vela played at home against Brownsville Veterans in what was seen as a very tricky first-round match from the girls’ bracket. And down in Brownsville, the North boys took on Hanna, long recognized as one of several Lower Valley programs that always seem to get hot in the playoffs and go-a-ways.
Coach Americo Cortez’ Lady SaberCats put on a display of speed and finesse that bowled the visiting Lady Chargers over, as they slammed four goals into the net in the first half – three from the relentless Alayna Rodriguez – and cruised to a showdown with powerful Gregory-Portland next week. Meanwhile, Coach Elias Moran’s North crew blasted past the Brownsville jinx with an overtime result that toppled the Eagles, the Coogs leading twice before Hanna equalized late to make it 2-2. The Old Gold was bold at the close, coming up with the goods in the second extra session to advance, 4-2.
In winning at Hanna, the Cougars made a historical statement, beating a Brownsville team on the road in the postseason for the first time in program annals, and will face Laredo Alexander at the next stage. Both sides will have to spring back into action soon for the area round, but they’re not too worried about that. Bottom line, success on the big stage, memories for a lifetime, and a chance for an extended run through the bracket. North of course was a Final 8 participant back in 2017, while Vela seeks a third three-deep trip in a row, or more. The city’s best, fighting onward.
On a night when the 31-6A girls were swept by their Lower Valley foes from 32-6A (18-3 aggregate score) and the boys from this neck of the woods went 1-3 against 32, the Cougars are the lone 6A still standing. As some might have expected but none was willing to guarantee, Vela’s 31-5A league rolled to four wins over bi-district opponents, with McAllen, Memorial, and Rowe also claiming triumphs against 32-5A.
MAGIC BREWS AGAIN
The Cougars came into the playoffs with a mission. Since the glorious run of 2017, they had been knocked out in the first round four times, including 2022 when a 3-0 defeat against Rivera ended the campaign. This time, though, Moran’s men were ready, getting a Jesus Martinez goal and a deflected shot-and-in from Jacob Roman to lead 2-1 at the half. When Hanna leveled things late, the Coogs battled back into the driver’s seat in the extras: a Roman rocket and a last-minute free kick from returning leader Kenneth Reyes, the latter an absolute earthquake of a goal at the end of the second OT that sealed the deal for good.
“It was a sweet victory over a difficult Brownsville Hanna team at their own field,” said a jubilant Moran. “Defeating a Brownsville team in playoffs, in Brownsville, this is a first in our history. It was a beautiful performance and I am beyond happy for these kids. They worked beyond hard to accomplish this goal.”
Ironically, North ended up a step shy of a league title after a regular season finale loss to Econ – which was beaten soundly at Harlingen in a surprising turn of events Friday – but the Coog coach, as is his way, had the psych angle covered.
“Like I told them after our last defeat, don’t worry about district championships,” Moran explained. “I will trade all of them for winning playoff games. Next we have Laredo Alexander and this is a serious opponent. We have one day to practice the plan to survive; these guys are the real deal but it’s gonna be fun.”
The Cougars had their issues in penalty kick shootouts this district season, going 0-3, so the format for the postseason – two 10-minute overtimes and then penalties if necessary – was made to order for the Old Gold.
“I would say that we were in better physical shape during the overtime,” Moran said. “It was a very intense game and Hanna players were cramping during the last minutes of regulation. This played a great factor towards the end of OT. In the second overtime, Jacob scored from outside the box and then Kenneth scored an ‘Azael’ kind of free kick to send Hanna home! It will be a really good memory for the team.”
Azael De Leon was a strapping defender who helped Moran’s side to four playoff wins in 2017, a sublime season that only subsided after a 1-0 overtime loss to Juarez-Lincoln in the fifth round. The Coogs beat Harlingen South, Laredo LBJ, Rivera, and San Antonio Clark before dropping out, and the fabled third-rounder over Rivera ended a streak of 10 playoff losses in a row to Brownsville teams, sending the club onto the road of greatness.
Moran has his kids thinking magic again, as they prepare to tackle an Alexander side that is very potent offensively and handily recorded a W against North back in January, at a tournament. Perhaps the success over Hanna – North lost to the Eagles in 1999 and 2018 bi-district action – augurs a similar adventure. Moran thinks Friday’s road warrior breakthrough – check the videos making the rounds if possible, because no match anywhere any time has yielded more spontaneous joy – should give an added boost of confidence to his side. In sum, he noted that, “playoff victories against powerhouses don’t happen very often.”
It was 98 degrees at about 6:30 Friday, but the Lady SaberCat weren’t sweating it, figuratively anyway. By the time the bi-district round was over, Vela had melted Brownsville Vets down into a puddle, and were preparing for bigger things to come. Before the match, Cortez told his girls to relax, that this postseason opportunity was just another game. These days, the coach knows that his experienced side is ready for all challenges, and he also understands that while once upon a time, Vela was the prospect, the underdog, pursuing the greats with zeal, now it’s different. After such amazing results in the playoffs the past two seasons, the Lady Sabes are now prominent among the perennials in the Valley, every bit as strong as the traditional giants. Now, underdog teams come to them – symbolized Friday by one of the few home matches Vela has enjoyed in seven Second Seasons – and upstarts now hope to unseat them, if possible.
Veterans came to town with 21 wins and a ferocious defense, which produced an excellent league season during which the Lady Chargers were just behind champ Harlingen South, dead even with Brownsville Porter. With 15 shutouts to their name in 2023, the Lady Chargers were going to find out what real offensive majesty looks like in person.
“It’s a new season,” Cortez said before the kickoff. “If we touch the ball, play as a team, we’ll be alright. We don’t plan on changing much, really, just go out there and play the way we know how, the way we’ve practiced.”
And happily, the pregame music was right on with the message, as in “You and yours against me and mine,” and “New season, we still breathin’,” or something close anyway. When the match began, it was obvious that despite being minus midfield general Nayla Pena, the Lady Sabes were calm, confident, and in control. Now Vets has a gigantic midfielder who slaloms through the defense with an odd, herky jerky style, and she ran to a couple of early tries from distance. But goalkeeper Julissa Echeverria, on her way to a masterful game in net, did not seem fazed at all. She was cold cash money all night.
With Pena out of the mix for a night, to return for area, the Lady Sabes installed defender Aly Santivanez in a key role, and she was to perform well up the field, making sure of her passes and keeping active. Sophomore Ava Monty was also destined to shine Friday, putting in the work in back, getting involved in the buildup, finding the pass, and getting stuck in on tackles in the midfield. Gradually, as the slight tinkering to the rotation solidified, Vela was off and running, seeking to add to its mammoth total of 113 goals for the season.
Before they could do that, though, they got some fine defensive work on the left from young Sofia Garza, whose leg strength and anticipation thwarted a couple of decent sequences from the visitor. In bi-district, Cortez was looking for zeroes, and the defense came through, with teammates hustling to cover in the moments when Vets won a 1-on-1. Interestingly, forwards Rodriguez and Nat Cortez – and lively winger Mia Ponce – were consistent in tracking back to help out, using wheels and conditioning to hamper Lady Charger runs before they could turn dangerous. Unselfish.
At one point, Monty came firing up to partially block a strong attempt from just outside the box, the ball skittering wildly to Echeverria in goal. She was true with the catch on 36 minutes. Next Monty clobbered an opponent per the rules, showing that even given the absence of the outstanding Pena, the club was going to war in the mids.
The first major moment for Vela came when Rodriguez rampaged in to slip a sweet little ball downfield to Cortez, and the interplay between these two was phenomenal in bi-district. Cortez now has 46 goals, Rodriguez 32, in a season where the Blue and Black have terrorized opposing goals with relish. Relentless.
On the left wing, Victoria Cardenas and Crystal Palma engineered a breakout chance with a smart and hard double team, as Vela looked for the run out. Palma, recovering from injury the past few weeks, was simply ridiculous in the first half, dancing on the ball with grace, shouldering her way free, and clipping super passes. Three times in the half she was to draw gasps of approval from the large home crowd, pirouetting on the ball, faking kids out of their socks, and churning her team goalward.
The work paid off as Vela, having weathered a solid storm from the 32-5A foe, registered its first goal on 25 minutes, after Cortez picked a pass with ease and Rodriguez steamed in on goal to beat the keeper from the rough right side, the ball whizzing past the Vets minder inside the far post.
For the Lady Chargers, uh oh, the 15 minutes of fame had passed, and they seemed to sag just a little after the score, Vela fans hollering to their heroes to get ready to pour it on. This is just how it panned out, too, but not Easy Street just yet. Vets pressed on but could not withstand some good defensive effort from Cortez, who was ubiquitous Friday, at one point racing back to her own 25-yard line to retrieve a wayward ball and come forward again. Nat brought the work rate in bi-district.
When impressive defensive stalwart Alma Gutierrez cleaned up a slight team mess in back, and Ponce KO’d a foe who was foolish enough to try, the Lady Sabes surged to a shot from Palma. Vets came back with a soaring attempt from their big kid, but it sailed harmlessly wide. As the Lady Chargers strained for the equalizer it was again ready rookie Garza on the spot with a smart defensive play, followed by a Monty feed into the attacking third, as Vela started to find the mesh between lines.
The second goal loomed on the horizon as Palma headed a perfect pass off a Vets throw but seconds, later, the visitor earned a free kick from a dangerous position. Nada, again, at 19 minutes, but the Lady Chargers were competing. It took trackback from Ponce, who like Palma has been on the mend these days after an ankle sprain, and then another timely intervention from Gutierrez to turn the Brownsville challengers away. A bit of a Key Juncture here, as Vela had begun to dominate in all phases, even though Vets was still fighting, having regained some composure now. The final section of the half was in the offing.
Vets bounced another free kick to Echeverria in goal, and the RVHS midfield was slightly struggling.
Santivanez started it with a careful pass to Cardenas, who quickly touched the ball over to Cortez, because, well, good things happen when you quickly touch the ball over to Cortez. The fabulous four-year starter then did what she is so adept at doing, lasering a perfect pass on the run to the onrushing predator Rodriguez, who, finding herself free, made no mistake at 12:18, for the all-important 2-nil lead. At this stage of the night, it still could have gone either way technically, because a 1-goal lead is just a bite away from a draw.
Palma stood up next, knocking a Lady Charger to her knees on a steal and shaming the next defender who came running over, using a neat shift of feet, poke of the ball, into open sailing. Crystal was transcendent at times.
Soon, Vela was jamming, a quick three-pass combination – the kind that Cortez the coach teaches and preaches on a continual basis – leading to another blast from the undeniable Rodriguez. Less than three minutes after Goal Two, it was 3-nil, and Vets was not sagging now, or dragging, really. They just seemed to intuit what was up. Defeat’s what.
Inside of 10 minutes, another cannon shot, as Cortez came down, shimmied slightly free, and unloaded a wicked left-footed strike from distance, ending up on her backside after scoring, such was the torque she applied to a veritable Goal of the Match. Slay!
If there was a flaw in the dominant first half, it might have been the tendency to make needless fouls in the defensive half. And Vets had its shots from the restart, including a free kick late in the half, but Echeverria, who was to receive a tumultuous cheer in the postgame huddle for her deft and dogged deeds, was never rattled. With 2:45 to go, she rose up to punch a mammoth kick off her line, and not satisfied, leapt into harm’s way, speeding out to grab the ball amid much congestion in the 6-yard box. Julie, truly!
Cortez and his team went into Friday knowing what lay in store if they could take care of business at home, Gregory-Portland having defeated Mission Vets on Thursday, 4-1. The second half against Brownsville Vets was low intensity for the most part, although Ponce came on strong and started to boss the right side with her breakneck runs and howitzer crosses from deep in the corner. Cortez the player smacked in another goal, that was disallowed, and all the while, Blue and Black consciousness turned steadily toward the next hurdle.
Ironically, G-P was the victim during the Vela program’s initial foray into the Rare Air of the bracket, as the Lady Sabes of Coach Hugo Leal knocked off the Lady Wildcats in the area round of 2015. Carolina Cortez was one of the bellwethers of that memorable side, and now her sister, Nat is the dynamo for the latest such run. Fams! If Vela is to reach the third round of the playoffs for the fourth time in school history, and third such instance behind the rugged and competitive Americo Cortez, the kickstarter match comes Monday in the Coastal Bend.
G-P ran second in its league, to a very fine Corpus Christi Vets side, and has excellence in skill, if not quite high quality athleticism. This season, Vela worked past the Lady Wildcats, 3-2 in a non-district match that was unknowingly a harbinger, and the upcoming area round tilt is replete with storylines. In the past, the Lady Sabes spent some seasons building strength, momentum, and belief. Now, they have it all, senior talent, trusty contributions from role players, and the sort of confidence that only comes from extended success. Years. Any side can spring an upset now and again, but only the best programs enter the field every night with true confidence. And Vela has it. It has arrived as a major power, none can gainsay that, but now it gets interesting.
“This one is over, you did a tremendous job tonight,” Cortez told his girls. After they clinched the win, there was no dogpile, no giddy celebration really, just a resolute band of sisters who had met the enemy and dispatched it. The coach even joked with them as they walked over to visit the stands, packed with happy, hoarse parents.
“On the jog, ladies, you’re not tired,” he cracked, all faux mad, and everyone laughed. Winners can do that.
Soon Cortez was talking G-P, noting that the upcoming opponent was dangerous but certainly beatable.
“We’re going to come in and watch some video tomorrow, you gotta be there,” he had told his team. “They have been using some different formations since we last played them, so we have to be ready. You’re faster than them, and you can do the job. We may have been shaky or nervous tonight for a few minutes, but there’s a lot of experience on this team … you know what you have to do.”
As the scene faded to black, goal hound Rodriguez spoke about the team’s progress and her timely hat trick.
“I had been having some issues putting goals in the last few games, I was getting my shots but not finishing,” said the senior striker, whose work ethic and performance this season have been off the charts. “But I have been working on switching the ball to my left, using that more, and it seems to be helping.”
Rodriguez, who spent part of the night working back downfield with Cortez to assist the midfield in its tasks, said that not having Pena, one of the Valley’s elite footballers, didn’t worry the club unduly.
“I mean, obviously she is a big part of what we do, on offense and especially on defense,” she commented. “But we had some girls in there today who were able to find their feet and compete in a big game.”
Cortez finished the evening with praise for his side’s victory, stressing that when Vela can hang zeroes against the opposition, it’s glad tidings.
“We keep on doing that and well, you will always be in the game, with a chance to win when you play good defense,” he remarked. “Our defenders were in the right spots tonight and they did the job.”
As for the overall program outlook, the coach believes that no matter what happens against G-P, Vela’s got the ship rolling high on some quality waves.
“Like I said, we are not going to change anything. I think the program has shown a lot of growth and progress in the past few seasons,” he said, and remember, this is a hard-charging mentor who doesn’t give out compliments like candies. Old School. “We’re experienced, the outlook of the program has matured. Back in the day we were just trying to get into the playoffs, try and get that first win, and now it seems we have confidence in ourselves, which only comes when you win playoff games. It’s happening for us, and we’re very happy about what we’ve accomplished so far.
Cortez is, always, Cortez.
“But also, hey … it’s a new season again, and we’d better get ready for G-P.”