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Dec. 18, 2020

By Greg Selber

LA JOYA – Halftime here Friday night, the Bobcats down 11, and a whole lot of school was in session as they gathered in the corner of the gym. As Coach Zeke Cuellar worked the whiteboard and his assistants blistered their clipboards, the kids looked on, trying to drink in what was happening. The faces of the pupils were either youthful, new, or both and that is why every possible instance is a teachable moment, by necessity for EHS.

“We’re awfully young, it’s basically a new team,” said Cuellar, after his rookies hung tough in spite of a 72-50 loss to La Joya that dropped them to 0-3 in District 31-6A. “And frankly, we just don’t have the experience right now, our IQ out there is low, and we just haven’t been in these scenarios before. They’re coming along, but we have a lot of work to do.”

After last year’s excellent showing, with a playoff trip, the ‘Cats lost their entire rotation to graduation save for senior Josh Gonzalez, and Cuellar has been breaking in the uninitiated as best he can, given the COVID circumstances. 

“We’re not making excuses, but we had very little preparation for this season,” he said. “We were quarantined and then it happened again, it’s been a mess, so we are just now starting to figure things out. With a bunch of kids who haven’t played at this level, the last thing your program needs is the COVID thing, it has hurt us a lot.”

Case in point on the inexperience factor. The Coyotes have a very solid squad this season and burst out to a quick 7-0 lead, hitting shots and owning the glass against an EHS group that is exceedingly small, height-wise, in 2020-21. But sophomore guard Joaquin Soto sank a three-pointer and scored off a steal, and the ‘Cats crept to within 3 after one period. In the second, they took the lead at 18-17 on a long stroke by senior Eddie Sepulveda.

“At that time, we didn’t have the concept of what to do with a lead, how to keep it,” the veteran coach explained. “It’s hard enough to get a lead but even harder to stay on top. You cannot expect your kids to just know what they need to do; they have to learn it over time.”

Sure enough, La Joya forged back on top by 11 at the break and was not seriously challenged the rest of the way. That does not mean, however, that the callow ‘Cats backed down.

Sophomore Ian Garcia, son of EHS assistant George Garcia, missed most of last season with an injury. But he has some upside and showed it against the Coyotes, exploding in the second half with a series of slick and smart drives to the basket, ending with a career-high 24 points. The rest of the gang hung in there as well, not allowing the Coyotes to make a mockery of the evening. On the road, against a playoff contender, EHS took steps along the growth curve, and in time, Cuellar’s bunch will be better for the lumps on the head.

“I tell you what, it’s a funny thing,” he said. “You take it for granted when you have a senior team, you look around and every kid has been there before, he knows what to do; he might not do it every time, but at least you know he’s experienced, that matters. Right now we are just trying to keep our head above water. I felt like we played decent basketball tonight for about two-and-a-half quarters. The goal is to do that for the whole game.”

Garcia was the standout Friday with his slicing drives, conversions in traffic, and heads-up defense, but all the ‘Cats showed flashes of promise. Senior Frank Ramirez is a stocky battler who jumps out on defense while junior Darren Guerra – who had 22 points in a loss to Vela – can shoot it. Senior Justin Gonzalez is an athletic lefty who had some strong, aggressive moments against La Joya while Sepulveda hit two bombs and ended with eight points. When Josh Gonzalez, who came late to hoops after the football season, gets back to his dependable ways, this team will improve, because he has done well in the past.

“The other thing is, we have a bunch of young players and they’re just not physically ready, they’re very weak still,” Cuellar noted. “We’ve been getting killed inside so far this season, we don’t have any true big men in the post. But we’re doing the best we can and I think the kids are improving,”

The Bobcats were set to make up a postponed game versus Mission at home Saturday, and then prepare for a Rivalry Game Tuesday against North, which has also struggled to a 0-3 beginning in a balanced league. The Cougars (4-7 overall) lost a slugfest at Santa Rosa Friday, 74-66, but got bruising senior Jacob Paez back in the lineup last week after a football injury. He scored 10 points in a loss to La Joya Tuesday.

Tuesday also brings a real clash between Vela and Econ, with the Jags running to 3-0, 9-2 overall with a victory over Mission Friday. Rey de Leon continues to tear up the Valley: he’s averaged 30 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in the early going, and shot a mammoth 63 percent from the floor. The junior leaper helped the Jags roar to 28 points in the fourth Friday to break a deadlock with the Eagles. Vela is 2-1 now, having beaten North and EHS but fallen against P-SJ-A. 

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