Before his team took the floor for the debut of the 2016-17 season Tuesday, Lalo Rios ran down the lay of the land.

“Well, you take a look at it, and us being back in 6A, oh man, are there good teams in our region!” said the coach who took Vela to the Class 5A state tourney last season. “Westlake is No. 1, they’re in our region; Wagner, No. 3, Judson is somewhere near the top 10, all of them are in our region. I would say we have our work cut out for us if we want to get back up there.”

Rios, whose club began the campaign with a 22-point home win over visiting Sharyland Pioneer, added that though the SaberCats might face some terrific competition down the line, right now they are just worried about what is in front of them.

“We are at No. 21, so that’s good because it means that the rest of the state respects what we have accomplished,” he said. “But we need to just play our game right now, get better, work in a few new pieces, and let the future take care of itself.”

The Sabes start the Valley season ranked first in the area and that makes sense, given the fact that the club, 35-3 last year for one of the best runs in the history of the RGV, returns seven prominent kids off that amazing squad.

Though they did lose sharpshooter Hector Ruiz to graduation, Rios says that senior Chris Ochoa is a pretty excellent replacement.

“He is obviously not as big as Hector, but he is very athletic, quick, and can shoot the ball well from outside,” said Rios of the lefty, who scored 15 points against Pioneer and starred on both ends of the court during the first half. “So we like having Chris paired with Ryan out front, I think he will have a great season.”

“Ryan” is of course Ryan Garza, the senior All-Stater who recently signed a scholarship agreement to play at St. Edward’s next year. The top returning player in the Valley, the 6-foot veteran, a four-year starter now, was in usual form Tuesday with 17 points. Fellow senior Alec de la Cruz contributed 16 of his own, and dominated in the third period with eight points. The two teamed up on a nifty backdoor-cut alley oop in the second half and have been playing together for so long, those sorts of highlights will become even more commonplace this season.

The Sabes faced a long and tall Pioneer group that should be one of the favorites to win District 31-5A. The Diamondbacks hung with the home side for a quarter and a half before a quick Vela run keyed by tight defense helped Rios’ team establish a 42-24 lead by the break.

Rounding out the lineup for the defending regional champ for the opener were 6-5 sophomore Noak Sekinger down low and workaholic senior Carlos Azubell on the wing. The Sabes ran their usual Second Unit in at four-minute intervals and right now the leaders of that group are the Chavanas, Trey and Noah. The latter knocked down an early J to aid the effort and the latter, a bit behind in terms of basketball legs after his experience in football, will certainly be a valuable member of the rotation in 2016-17. Same for senior Jose Trigo, a tricky character who was super for the team in the summer league, and junior Vince Olivarez, who has experience as a role player and can always be counted to hustle and keep the ball moving to its appointed rounds.

Vela headed up to San Antonio as the week waned to try its luck at the Northeast ISD Tourney, which has been a proving ground the past few seasons for the Valley’s best. Tests against La Joya, McAllen and St. Joe lie in the offing for the next few weeks, as the SaberCats attempt to follow up last year’s dream season with some more hardwood magic.

“We’ll get a taste of some good competition this weekend, for sure,” said Rios about the trip to SA. “Everyone is going to be gunning for us once we get back but that’s fine with us. It means that teams around the Valley know what we can do and they want to take their best shot against us. It will only make us better.”

NOTES: Vela went 1-3 up in SA, beating Laredo Martin after suffering a series of narrow defeats. The Sabes lost a fast-paced opener to SA Stevens, 97-89 and then Jefferson beat them, 89-85. The third match was an overtime clash with Los Fresnos, which the Falcons captured, 65-57. Azubell was hot against Los Fresnos with 22 points but no other player scored in doubles. Garza had 29 against Jefferson and 26 versus Stevens.