This was never totally about the parts – each game leading up to the crunching final on Saturday. No, for Vela it was more about the whole, as the sum of the parts added up to a real breakthrough, one that the program has been building on for many seasons.
The Lady SaberCats captured the championship of the newly resurrected ECISD Tournament with a penalty kicks triumph over Los Fresnos. When veteran keeper Ashley de la Cruz stopped the third Lady Falcon try, and after freshman Natalie Cortez has slipped in the final dagger to clinch it, Vela had something special.
In defeating Valley powers Harlingen South, Sharyland and Los Fresnos in succession during the weekend, the Lady Sabes sent a message: we have arrived!
Coach Americo Cortez noted that after topping the Valley’s top teams one after another, using the type of football he has been preaching for years – touch, touch, touch – the sum of the parts speaks loud and clear.
“Right, we beat all those teams,” the coach said in the joyous postgame atmosphere. “So that means we are one of those teams … put that down in writing!”
The Lady Sabes have every right to be satisfied with the performance and now will turn their attention to the district fight ahead. They have come close in the past, and now they want to win it. Based on their showing at the tourney, they just may do it. A diet of hard-headed defense and smooth midfield connections by Katarina Carrizales and the talented Cortez, combined with the hard-charging force of senior Dayana Cantu and the brilliance of junior Taylor Campbell in the attacking third, means that Vela has never had a better chance of making the ultimate grade.
Junior Odessa Leal, whose deft and tricky moves down the left side helped energize the team to an undefeated run through the ECISD field, commented that now things are going the way the girls planned.
“This season we seem to be a little closer than in the past, the bond is very good,” she said. “And on the field we are moving the ball quicker, playing the right way, sort of like in club ball. It’s boom, boom, boom, the ball is out and gone and we run onto it.”
PATHS OF GLORY
In the early round win over Harlingen South, Cantu was a monster with her strength and perseverance, creating multiple chances, which Campbell finished with quality for a 2-1 victory. The defense held firm, with a 45 mph wind to deal with along with the Lady Hawks, long one of the great teams in the area, a group that went to the 6A regional final last season. It seemed like penalties until six minutes remained, score tied at 1.
But it was Cantu speedily breaking through on the right to force the action until Campbell got the ball in the box, buffeted by a pair of defenders – and South’s defense was huge, looking more like the Swedish rowing team than a football side. The finely skilled junior touched the ball between the defenders and in the same motion followed the self-pass, slipping a left-footed worm-burner past the keeper to the bottom left-hand corner, a simply sublime goal in the clutch.
This sent Cortez’s side onto the semis Saturday morning against Sharyland, another of the gold standard clubs in the Valley. The Lady Sabes got past the Lady Rattlers with the same sort of plan: passing, finesse, opportunism, and strong D from Ky Richard and Danya Selber. Fullbacks Dee Cantu and Kassandra Rodriguez turned in huge plays as Vela won it, 1-0, and winger Jaleina Carrillo was active on the right side in the match.
The final later that day saw Vela get off to a flying start, only to lose some steam as Los Fresnos came on in the last 15 minutes of the half.
“You are in a final, ladies, and you have to play like it,” Cortez told his kids at the break, exhorting them to get back to their winning ways, touch the ball, and break down the D. Later the coach would say that coming into the tourney, his group did not have a lot of big-game experience but added that each win in the ECISD gave them more confidence that they could hang with – and beat – the old lions of Valley football.
And that is how it turned out, as the Lady Sabes gutted it out after intermission, coming close on a few chances and defending like tigers at the other end. Los Fresnos threw some huge and feisty girls into the midfield for the half, but Vela, long known for style and grace, dug in and pounded away with Los Fresnos.
Once the penalty session went their way – with specialist Lauryn Guzman coolly slotting her try as expected, Leal and Campbell making theirs too – the bedlam was deserved. One by one, the kingpins had fallen before them, and though they understand that the die will be only be cast for real in the 31-6A slog ahead, it was time to celebrate for now. Cortez’s crew is playing the beautiful game the right way, and the weekend’s happy results reflect that perfectly well.