HARLINGEN – It’s always been about that, this season. Proving themselves, showing that they were ready to become great. Ready to turn talent and potential into wins and a deep softball playoff run.

And though Vela has done it, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever- as well as capturing 32 wins to tie a city record – this team wants more. That is the difference in 2018; the Lady SaberCats know they belong in the Rare Air, and they play like it, night in and night out.

Friday’s 5-3 regional quarterfinal victory here was a good example of what the program is about: opportunistic offense, sound defense except for a one-inning lapse, and the moxie to answer resolutely after receiving a good, hard shot from Harlingen South. In order to take the next step, into the upper echelon of the Valley softball scene, they had to get this one, to join city mates EHS and North as teams that have gone past the third stage, to the magic of the Sweet 16.

Again, that was the deal this season: take the journey farther, plow their way into the record books, alongside city rivals … and now it is reality.

 

A FANTASTIC NIGHT

It was a marvelous carnival atmosphere at South, with cars parking anywhere and everywhere, chairs of fans ringing the outfield fence in a dense, rowdy phalanx, and the dirt flying off the all-dirt infield from the word go.

Scoring the all-important first run was big, as Darissa Buenrostro, who was to drive in three of the five tallies, connected on a first-inning single. At the start, Vela performed like a team of destiny, cool and loose, while South looked a tad tight. In the bottom of the opening frame, third baseman Aly Cedillo barreled back behind the bag for a breathtaking, tumbling catch, and a bit later, RF Gabby Villarreal pounded a home run for a 2-0 lead in the third.

With senior hurler “Monie” Reyes dealing knee-high BBs and the Vela kids patient at the plate but strategically striking, it was 4-0 in the third, the Blue and Black dugout big bumping after Buenrostro slapped a two-run single.

Both the Vela catcher and Cedillo confirmed that the Lady Sabes were waiting for the outside pitch, a South staple, and Coach Jon Maples explained why.

“We had them scouted even before the playoffs started,” said the man who has a lock on Coach of the Year honors. “We thought we might play them in the first round at one point, so we knew how they throw, what they want to do. Against South you have to hit to right field, that’s how Weslaco and San Benito beat them.”

With Buenrostro and Kat Montero (Macarena) leading the zany dance routine, it was 4-0, and smooth sailing ahead. But at this round of the postseason, there will generally be a second act. That’s when the Lady Sabes showed their champion’s luster. A couple of execution lapses let the Lady Hawks back in and they scored three in the fifth, Reyes bowing up for a huge strikeout to dampen the fire.

An inexperienced team, one with less character and belief, weaker chemistry, might have sagged on the ropes and gone down.

Not Vela.

In their half, the Lady Sabes got a key sacrifice fly from sophomore pinch hitter Deandra Longoria, to get a run back for a 5-3 lead.

“That shows you right there where we have improved,” said Maples about his 32-6 club. “We answered back and we have been able to do that a lot this year, against Weslaco in bi-district, also we got down in Game Two against Alexander. But each time, we answered back in a hurry, we didn’t panic. “

An inning later, left fielder Alyssa Alaniz came up with a super running catch in foul ground to stop a potential South rally, and in the final frame, it was money time.

The wondrous workhorse Reyes, who sent her teammates an inspirational video last week featuring a college softball team that achieved great things against the odds, has been all about leading her team to the Sweet 16. Her goal since freshman year.

And with the chips on the table, she pounced like a panther on a South bunt to start the seventh, her laser throw just beating the Lady Hawk runner. It was a case of execution, and “Monie” made the kill, calm as can be, Play of the Day and probably the Year. Soon it was over, a game in which each team had six hits and made two errors. The difference was belief.

“When they scored on us, we got a down a little,” said Cedillo, an expert opposite field hitter who went 2 for 3 with a walk. “We just had to pick it back up; I knew we would come back and score, though, because that’s the way we do it.”

Reyes, who should be the Valley MVP hands down, also had faith despite the troubling fifth inning.

“I told all the girls just to keep playing, that we were alright, and when we got that fifth run, I felt good about things,” she said. “We’d had our bad inning and we were still up, 4-3.”

Maples has been saying it for weeks: it’s Vela’s time. He has all the respect in the world for EHS and North, who have ruled the softball roost for decades – especially North back into the earliest days of yore. And he and his team wanted to show that they belong in the front room, at the head table.

“We’ve been tested this season and we have come through,” he said. “We have talent and we have depth, sometimes it’s Doritos, sometimes Taylor [Chavez, scared the Lady Hawks so bad they walked her thrice Friday, intentionally] but so many of our girls can come in and produce. We’re going to the Sweet 16, and we deserve it, I think. We earned it!”

NOTES: The Lady SaberCats will oppose SA Warren for the regional round, a three-game series starting Friday at Texas A&M-Kingsville. Warren is 25-5 for the year, having beaten Smithson Valley, Lake Travis, and SA O’Connor so far in the postseason. The Lady Warriors have amazing pitching and have allowed just 71 runs in 30 ball games; they’ve scored 169, for a mediocre average of 5.6 per game, however.

Nationally ranked New Braunfels Canyon (23-1) takes on San Benito in the other regional semifinal, and has to be considered a huge favorite to advance to state. That team has given up just 28 runs all year.