PHARR - For a district opener against an expected bottom feeder, this one was a good bit more important than the casual observer would suggest.

Though Vela was on the road against a P-SJ-A Southwest outfit that is going to have to hustle to stay out of the cellar in 31-6A, the fact is, after some unplanned rotation alterations during the holidays, the SaberCats needed to play this one. They needed to begin to integrate some new faces into the mix after the departure of the Chavanas – Trey and Noah transferred out during the break – and this they did well enough Friday afternoon.

Guys such as Jose Trigo will become more valuable moving ahead while Josh Diaz and Kaleb Coronado will no doubt see more floor time. Coach Lalo Rios even got to look at the latest Sabes, sophomore Nate Gomez and freshman Matt Arteaga. The 81-37 victory on the road was paced by the dynamic pair of Ryan Garza (19 points) and Alec de la Cruz (25, simply terrific Friday), but the experience gained by some of the newbies will stand the club in good stead for the future.

“No doubt we have had some changes happening lately,” said Rios, whose team knocked down 10 three-pointers to counter a poor 4-of-15 showing at the free throw line. “These new guys are going to get experience, playing time, so that’s the good thing about it. We’ll be fine, I think, we just have to work on new combinations.”

De la Cruz swooped for 10 in the first and Garza added seven more, and another good sign for the day was the long-range barrage from fellow senior Chris Ochoa. In a mild lull shooting-wise, Ochoa found the mark for four bombs in the third period and without the Chavanas, his production will be very important.

The Sabes can count on rugged battler Carlos Azubell (seven rebounds) and emerging post Noah Sekinger (five boards and three nice steals on defense) to do the dirty work. The development of youngsters such as Coronado and Diaz will in part determine whether Vela can win district. All of a sudden, the predicted champ is smaller and less deep than it was, and Rios knows it.

“We need that second group to come along quickly, get better,” he remarked. “But we have some leaders in that group, like Trigo and Vince [Olivarez, missed the game with a family obligation], so we feel like the young kids will learn what we need them to do and start to do that.”

Vela is now 16-3 for the year, and was to take on P-SJ-A Memorial Tuesday before a huge road test at Pharr North Friday. The Raiders (17-4) have one of their better squads in recent memory, an athletic and aggressive group that will be ready to compete against the Sabes. They defeated Edinburg North by 2 in the league opener Friday.

As for Vela, it’s time to move forward, and strike.

“We can count on our seniors and now we want to see the underclassmen keep progressing,” Rios said. “Guys like Noah, we expect him to be a big part of the future for us, and he is improving all the time. Trigo will do so many things out there, the little things, and when he’s hot from the outside, he is even more valuable.”

De la Cruz nearly matched his season high of 26, set against San Benito during the Craig Smith Tournament, while the unit pushed its winning streak to 15 games with the easy afternoon at the very nice Southwest gym. The only downbeat for the Sabes came at the onset, when the public address announcer called them the “Bobcats.”