Nov. 17, 2020

By Greg Selber

He’s a coach who knows many things and yet also one who is always open to learning new ones. His Lady Bobcats have been the gold standard in town for a long time now, but J.D. Salinas knows that they should never take anything for granted.

Take the beginning of the latest girls’ hoops season for example. EHS, which was a record-smashing 36-4 last season and nearly achieved the glory of the Sweet 16, started at Harlingen last week and though it hung tough against another perennial Valley power, finally dropped a 52-40 decision to the Lady Cardinals.

Salinas was divided about the result, unsatisfied but patient, and used the first point on the new curve to teach his bunch of girls – seasoned vets leavened and livened by a seriously excellent freshman group – how to approach the next outing. Prior to Monday’s home arrangement against McAllen, Salinas discussed the doings so far.

“We were showing a lack of conditioning and we weren’t really in sync, and the thing is, Harlingen had begun their season well before us, they’d already played a couple of times,” he said. “But no excuses, we just weren’t able to get it done. Now, with a game under their belts, I am anxious to see how they respond.”

The answer was, brilliantly, as the Lady ‘Cats knocked in 13 threes, dominated for a 21-rebound edge on the boards, and made mincemeat out of the Lady Bulldogs, more than a week ahead of Thanksgiving.

The senior stars shone well, as Daysha Tijerina canned a dozen points, found six rebounds, and passed for seven assists. The sublime A’nnika Saenz, working her way back from a second knee injury, brought the ball up general-style and found the open teammate, hitting a pair of threes to boot. And those callow youths, whom Salinas said had been a little nervous against Harlingen?

They balled, bro. Dayam!       

Start with immensely strong and deceptively quick Janai Coleman. She was fierce from the opening tip, scoring five points and muscling down five rebounds in the first eight minutes, after which the home five led, 19-9. Then it was fellow 9th-grader Kimora Fagan – whose father Chris was a fine forward for the UTPA Broncs back in the day – who took the limelight. On her way to 17 points, the quick-footed newbie sank three treys and ran the court very well, showing zero trepidation about becoming involved in the offense. 

All along, the steady freshman was slim point guard Madison Martinez, who also scored 17 points with three bombs and exhibited a cool, unrushed presence out there, finding teammates and cutting with precision without the ball. Her basketball IQ is obviously extremely high for a rookie.

Other than that, the future looks pretty dim for the program, giggle.

“I think they came out here and just said, ‘OK, we’re ready,’” Salinas said, after his Terrific Trio played a considerable role in an eventual 82-38 romp of a victory. “We looked at video of the Harlingen game, and we saw we were outhustled, we didn’t box out, etc. The young girls said that they had been somewhat nervous to get going, but tonight, well, I think they showed what they can do. They didn‘t think too much; they just went out and had fun playing.”

It was certainly no fun to be Mac High Monday. The once-proud dynasty of former coach Teresa Casso has become a middling crew these days, and as EHS pounced from the get-go, the Lady ‘Dogs were simply outclassed.

Showing less rust in Game Two, the Lady ‘Cats scored twice off inbounds plays to start the night and led by 6 after Tijerina grabbed a defensive rebound and rumbled all the way down for a lefty lay-in. Then she penetrated and found soph Tara Moreno for a three-ball. 

A minute later, Coleman got to the line after a strong offensive rebound, and when she missed a free throw, alertly chased the ball down to retain possession. The 5-foot-9 newcomer spotted up on the next possession, rifling in a trey in catch-and-shoot fashion. Salinas says that all three of the new kids can do that, shoot in an instant without needing a dribble, and as a trio they made an absurd eight of nine from downtown. Further, a weapon like Coleman – comfortable inside and out – will give 31-6A squads a defensive headache for the next four seasons.

The elusive Martinez then benefited from a Bill Walton-like outlet pass from Coleman to scoot downcourt for a layup/and one, and the rout was on. Adding some spice to the night was softballer Patty Davila, who played a smart inside game with eight points, six boards, and a number of sharp feeds.

It really is a wealth of riches for EHS this season once again. Junior Genesis Hall turned in a series of hustle plays while Lucero Jimenez was part of the rotation out front, as she begins her sophomore campaign. It was 39-25 at the half and in the third, EHS ran off a 20-8 streak, Tijerina chipping in eight points and Larissa Martinez (nine boards, yeoman’s night) battled to keep plays alive inside. Keep in mind, the squad is without two volley kids yet, experienced utility player Julissah Santa Maria and promising 9th-grader Emily Carranco; the latter is said to be right up there with the other freshman prospects; surely a new Fab Four is in the cards for this storied program.

The impressive Coleman came with a few big blocks in the half; her best was whistled for a foul and let it be said that there was zero contact, except strong palm on ill-fated shot attempt. Stuff! Fagan was happily unconscious for part of the fourth, netting nine points, and her last three, from the left corner, was a looping moment of perfection.

So, there it is. A team with some of the best seniors in the Valley, girls who have led their team to the rare heights of the state playoffs. And a bevy of talented newcomers who look every bit the real deal. The second point of the EHS curve for 2020-21 starts to etch a line of skill and athleticism that should have the Lady ‘Cats at the top of the local rankings before long. EHS plays at Rowe Friday and at Pioneer Saturday, with a grudge tilt at Weslaco Tuesday leading into the Turkey Day break.

“We had a good feeling that these freshmen could come in and contribute, we had seen them in junior high and we were like, wow,” Salinas noted. “Now they have gotten started, they played with a lot of confidence tonight. And when we get our full group out here, get some more games under our belt, I think we’ll be alright.”

Alright is a relative term. This team has a super chance to win the league, though the matches with ever-tough Pharr North will be superb theater, and the other city units are no doubt looking to put a damper on Lady ‘Cat dreams, particularly crosstown rival Vela. It’s a long way to the finish line, the race has barely started. But good gravy, the potential of this old-new EHS contingent … off the charts!

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