It was like watching one of those ubiquitous superhero action shows with streaming stretches of brutal blows, clever countershots, killer kicks, and lithe leaps, all rapid-fire excitement.
The expected bi-district slugfest between Harlingen and Vela materialized in dramatic fashion Thursday, with the teams combining for 11 goals in a breathtaking display of offensive firepower. And though the Lady SaberCats ended up on the short end of the 6-5 double overtime result, they proved a few things to themselves and exited 2018 already dreaming of more in 2019.
For one, the girls proved that unlike last year – when they were bum-rushed rudely out of the playoffs 7-1 by Harlingen South – they can now take a punch. Seniors Ayssa Arevalo and Bri de Leon both performed their last against Harlingen, but they can say they weathered an early torrent and fought on.
“At first I was like, ‘Uh oh, this is just like last year,’” said Arevalo of Harlingen’s 2-0 lead inside the first 10 minutes at Vela. “But then when we scored, it was like, ‘OK, we scored, we’re OK.’ Then it became a battle.”
With Arevalo moving from forward into a defensive midfield role, the Lady SaberCats recovered to storm to three goals by halftime, and the lead. Sophomore Danya Selber subbed in at 20 minutes and immediately leveled one of Harlingen’s leading scorers, sending her to the bench in a trend-setting moment.
Meanwhile freshman phenom Taylor Campbell, on her way to yet another hat trick, was slipping and sliding through multiple defenders to create opportunities galore, and the team got a scintillating effort from sophomore Dayana Cantu. The latter got the Lade Sabes off the mat to pull one back on a miraculous toe-shot goal from her backside at 28:57, and two Campbell missiles – the latter off a penalty kick six minutes before the break – set Vela up with the ad.
Coach Americo Cortez scouted the potent Lady Cardinals to a tee, and switched things up to gain an edge. Of course, Harlingen had Vela studied as well, and the game between high-octane offenses (184 combined goals coming in) boiled down to two foes knowing each other, and throwing rounds for 100 grueling, crowd-pleasing minutes in a clasico that will be remembered for many moons to come.
“We came back, and I am proud of the girls for that,” said the veteran mentor, who took over the girls’ program this year after a lifetime of working with the boys at Econ and Vela. “We had to change our style a bit but so did they. This was fun to watch for the fans, a great game and we came back a few times, really showed what we are made of. We’re going to keep it going, and next year will be even better.”
The second half Thursday was extended mortal combat with de Leon coming forward to show her exquisite handle in midfield traffic, Cantu barreling into and through defenders, and Ashley de la Cruz working on and off her line, trying to stop the long-range howitzer shots the Lady Cards are so good at delivering.
The visitor tilted the field big to start the half, getting four nice maybes until breaking free for the equalizer at 31:55. At 21 minutes they countered against an inconsistent Vela D and reclaimed the lead, only to see the Lady Sabes rebound, Selber starting the fast break with a gutty shoulder/face block of a Harlingen rocket and Campbell ending up with the loose ball, eventually scoring from left across the keeper at 17:06.
With a 4-4 tie looming, Harlingen raged close to the winner but each time Vela had the answer, de la Cruz racing out for a sliding kick save at 4:30 and Arevalo alertly clearing one out of the deep box with only 15 seconds to go.
It looked like the Lady Sabes (20-8) had taken a huge step toward advancing when Cantu created a shot that the Lady Card keeper muffed, leading to an Odie Leal rebound score just a minute into the first extra session. Despite rugged defense from junior Vanelly Lopez, Harlingen once again leveled, at 5:53. On to the second OT and a brutal gut check to see who was toughest, mentally and physically.
De la Cruz parried a strong enemy effort at 8:16 with a winning collision against a striker and the team survived a corner kick to goal soon after. But the Lady Cards held run of play throughout the session and finally achieved the clincher on another long-range loft at 3:52.
It was just tremendous futbol all night, in front of a swarming and vocal crowd
“An awesome game, one of the best I have ever been a part of,” said de Leon, the slick senior who has been so important to program success for four seasons. “We proved that we are like a family, we came back. At first we were afraid that it was going to be like South last year, but we just kept going, we came together and we knew we could compete with them.”
NOTES: The North girls also saw their season conclude Thursday after a 2-0 loss at Brownsville against Rivera. The Lady Cougars rolled to the 31-6A title this year and should be ready to defend next time, with most key kids returning. Vela brings back nine of 11 starters, meaning that the city scramble in 2019 should be one for the ages.