It had all the intensity of a playoff game Tuesday, reminding one of a triple OT thriller between EHS and Santa Rosa to kick off the 2010-11 season. This time it was Vela, and the Sabercats, debuting a new crew and coach, outlasted a relentless Laredo United South club, 80-76, dominating the extra session after having trailed at various junctures at home.

In his team’s uber-entertaining opener, Coach David Keith watched as his kids struggled with defensive rebounding and in handling the athletic Panther press. But gradually, the Sabes asserted themselves and showed why they have been tabbed as one of the favorites to contend for the District 31-6A crown.

Paced by Trey Chavana early, Josh Diaz late, and Noah Sekinger intermittently, Vela notched a very solid result against a formidable foe, catching up to the Panthers in time to force OT.

“The goal was to stay loose and have fun,” said Keith, the EHS grad and long-time Sharyland coach who replaced Lalo Rios this spring. “Home opener, a big road tournament coming up, so we just told them to be loose, play to have fun, and not get all tight out there. I think we were able to do that, against a very tough team.”

Coming off a 29-2 season but without graduated stars Alec de la Cruz and Ryan Garza, the Sabes will use the early season – including the weekend’s trip to Pasadena for the annual McDonald’s Invite – to hone an identity, get to know the feel of the rotation, and work on areas needing improvement.

The United South test started the ball rolling, as the visiting Panthers bothered Vela with full-court pressure, forcing turnovers and hurried possessions. If not for Chavana (nine in the period), the squad might have been in trouble.

As it was, he scored well while role players Harim Diaz and Nate Gomez came on to give hustle and drive. Vela was behind until Vince Olivarez whipped a pass to Diaz, who connected from down deep to give his team a 33-32 edge. Then, Diaz fired one out to promising newcomer Bobby Espericueta, who nailed a jumper, and by the break of a fast-paced affair, it was Blue and Black up by 2 at 37-35.

Josh Diaz and Sekinger became saddled with foul trouble in the second period but the former sank seven points to start the third, leading to a 5-point Vela advantage; when the quicksilver guard went out with his fourth foul midway through the third, South surged. Sekinger (20 points, 11 rebounds) was a workhorse in the second half and Diaz returned in the fourth to compete for the last seven minutes with four fouls.

‘That showed me something right there, he had the mental toughness to come back in and play without fouling out,” said Keith, who knows from whence he speaks; as a star guard for EHS in the early 1990s he was known for such attributes. “Josh really gave us some leadership and poise, he was able to fight through it.”

The fourth quarter was an absolute war as Vela started to even the rebounding deficit and defend more adeptly. The free throw advantage the Panthers had established in the first half also went by the boards as Vela used aggressive drives to get to the stripe. Sekinger’s free throws tied it at 66 and there were knots at 68, 70, 72, and 73, the final deadlock resulting in overtime after South held for the last 33 seconds, only to miss the game-winner.

Josh Diaz (15 for the game, six assists) rang in a bomb to get the home boys rolling in the four-minute session and Olivarez knocked in key free throws. Despite missing an uncontested lay-up near the tape and inexplicably fouling South with five seconds left, up 3, Vela pulled it off.

“Hey we made some mistakes, it’s the first game and it’s really a new team with of course, a new coach,” Keith smiled. “But in all, I’d say they did a good job tonight. As we get deeper into the season I will be taking a different approach to this whole thing, it will develop as the guys develop, as our team evolves.”

NOTES: North blasted Santa Rosa, 76-44 in its opener, getting 24 points from Felix Aleman, while EHS defeated La Joya by 11 and Econ began with a 4-point win at Hanna. The North girls stomped Donna Tuesday, EHS got revenge from recent side-thorn Brownsville Vets (79-34), and Econ was beaten at home by Mission Vets.