NATHANIEL MATA | STAFF WRITER
EDINBURG — Edinburg Vela’s group of senior boys basketball players have seen and been through a lot in their four years on the hardwood.
During their freshman year, they watched the varsity group turn a second straight sweet 16 performance into a Region IV championship and the school’s first trip to the UIL State Tournament.
The 2019 unit will face Cibolo Steele 8 p.m. tonight inside San Antonio’s Northside Sports Gym with an opportunity to continue writing their story.
Center Noah Sekinger didn’t see extensive action as a freshman for years ago, but he was a part of the playoff roster and watched the 2016 group reach uncharted territories.
“I got to travel with them, play with them a lot, practice with them every day,” Sekinger said. “It was a really cool experience just to see the amount of dedication and hard work it took to get to this point. The thing that I liked about it most is that a lot of similarities I saw in that team, I see in this team. The bond and the way we all play for each other. That’s why I knew at the end of this year we had the potential to go really far.”
The 2019 SaberCats are making history and earning revenge along the way. They’ve also suffered disappointment along the way.
Due to the use of an ineligible player, the 2016-17 season didn’t end in the postseason but instead, it ended through mediation and failed appeals to salvage a 14-0 season that became 3-11 after forfeiture of contests.
“Every time we come out, we just think of all the seniors and what happened to them…how we can pay them back and everything,” senior Josh Diaz said.
Diaz and fellow senior Nate Gomez knew that Sekinger, whose talents were on full display in his sophomore season, took the playoff disqualification hardest.
“It was kind of a tough pill to swallow, a lot of those seniors didn’t get to go out the way that they should have and make the deep playoff run they wanted,” Sekinger said. “It’s been a lot of motivation and a long time coming, just all the hard work and the hours we put in.”
Sekinger has been the engine that makes Vela go. In the bi-district and area round, he put in 21- and 19-point performances to help them earn a third meeting with Laredo United.
The Longhorns had beat Vela twice in the regular season, but the SaberCats wouldn’t be denied Tuesday in Zapata. Even after trailing and even with Sekinger, one of the Valley’s top offensive players, limited, Vela’s supporting cast of shooters kept the game close.
Gomez drilled two 3-pointers that put the SaberCats in position to advance.
Depth proved key because Gomez was called from the bench after Diaz was in foul trouble.
“That means a lot to this team,” Gomez said. “Just being able to even contribute to the game and come in there when coach needs me and playing my best.”
Juniors Bobby Espericueta and Kaleb Coronado have also been constant contributors for Vela. Depth in scoring is shining at a crucial time, when better defenses are able to key-in on top players.
“I believe in all my teammates,” Diaz said. “I got in foul trouble, coach took me out and Nate went in and I knew he was going to do what Nate does. We can all hoop, everyone on the bench can play basketball. Kaleb, he’s been playing great. Bobby’s been hitting shots, Austin (Garza) has been playing his role.”
Reaching the regional tournament is an accomplishment in itself, but despite being the largest RGV school left in the playoffs, coach Rodriguez is approaching this as another opportunity to survive and move on.
“That’s what we’re trying to balance that this is not the stopping point,” Rodriguez said. “We want to keep going. We can’t go up there and just be satisfied with being on that stage. We want to compete and ultimately we want to win at that stage to up the level of Valley basketball. We’re knocking on that door and we hopefully can tear it down.”
If Vela can get past Cibolo Steele it will play Saturday against the winner of Laredo Nixon and Austin Bowie.
Vela has already flipped the result on two Laredo-area basketball teams in the area and regional quarterfinal rounds. If the stars align after Friday’s action, the SaberCats could potentially face their third Laredo opponent in five playoff rounds, with Nixon being the first they’ve already beaten (a 69-59 win on Dec. 14).
“I think it says a lot about our team, the guys, the coaching staff, the community we have here in the program,” Sekinger said. “You’ll win a couple of games, you may stumble here and there but at the end of the day, it’s all part of the learning process. We felt really confident going into those two games (against United South and United).
Diaz said after a strong non-district schedule, a district battle and three hard-fought playoff wins, not to mention the past three seasons, the SaberCats are ready for anything.
“We’re prepared for games like this. That’s why we scheduled those games, to get us ready for moments like this – the crowd, the environment and everything like that.”