Feb. 17, 2021

By Greg Selber

Econ returns to the playoffs again this year, for the fourth time in six seasons, the most successful stretch in program history. In fact, there were only three such postseason trips from the school’s inception in 2000 to 2016, two of them early on (2003, 2004) and the other occurring in 2010. The ancient Jags with Pablo Cruz and Danny Richardson recorded the first playoff win, against Brownsville Rivera in 2003, but then died out in area against a CC Ray powerhouse that went all the way to state that season. In 2010, the Jags were defeated handily by Brownsville Hanna in bi-district. 

The fine crew led by Angel Salinas made three straight appearances from 2017-19, the best single-season performance coming in 2019 when Econ beat South in the first round before dropping out versus Laredo Alexander.

This season it’s been the Ray de Leon Show as the electric junior has been a stat machine, averaging 27.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 4.3 apg and 4.1 steals a night. Junior M.J. Barrientos is a double-figures scorer who also runs the offense up front, with leaper Orly Martinez providing a shot-blocking presence and several role players doing their steady thing. The Jags got off to a 5-0 start in district and had some impressive non-district results with wins over Harlingen South, McAllen Rowe, and McAllen High. They hit a mid-season lull but recovered to take four of five before late losses to Pharr North and Edinburg North dropped them to fourth seed. When they fashion a relatively balanced attack, they’re hard to beat; when it’s all Ray all the time, it gets tougher.

With Weslaco, the Jags get a rematch against a team they lost to at home, by five back on Nov. 28. The Panthers (20-4 overall), went 13-1 to capture District 32-6A, suffering an early setback to Los Fresnos but running the table from there, sweeping Harlingen and Harlingen South and avenging the defeat to the Falcons. 

Coach Gabe Valdez, a superstar at his alma mater of Weslaco in the late 1980s and then an All-Sun Belt Conference guard with UTPA, as always possesses a defensive-minded unit that held opponents under 50 points eight times in league play, under 40 four occasions. The Panthers lost to, besides Los Fresnos, Laredo Alexander, McAllen Rowe, and Laredo United South, and defeated Pharr North, Econ, Vela, and McAllen, among others, in non-district play.

Weslaco has had its stellar periods of greatness, from a state tournament berth in 1926 to the Bobby Lackey days of the 1950s and into the Tommy Barker Era in the early 1970s; they won 31 games in 1987 with Valdez as the MVP. In this century, the Panthers scored a Sweet 16 trip in 2007 and narrowly missed out on another in 2009 after a double overtime third-round loss against J.J. Avila and McHigh at Pan Am – in one of the greatest games in Valley history. 

The Panthers won 31 times in 2010 but dropped out in area, and then made it three-deep the next season, knocking out North in bi-district. After a low spell, Weslaco emerged from the Valley in 2017 to the Sweet 16 again, KO’ing Econ in the first round and not being eliminated (Westlake) until reaching San Antonio. In 2018 EHS upset Weslaco in bi-district and in the two most recent runs, Valdez’ team has taken bi-district bouts, only to lose in area (United and then Rowe).

North (15-8 overall) has been a streaky squad this season, starting 31-6A with three losses but then running off seven straight victories. The Coogs came up gold with a late season win against Econ to lead to the second seed behind La Joya. They hit five threes per game, are solid at the free throw line, and have a balanced attack. 

Only senior Ethan Garza averages in double figures and he also is the No. 1 rebounder. Frenetic senior Aaron Gonzalez scores 8.6 ppg and paces this senior-led unit in assists and steals while classmates Aaron Lopez (hit at least one bomb in every league game played) and Jacob Paez are steady contributors. Underclassmen Anthony Thomas, Christian Faz, and Eddie Gonzalez have been effective in 2020-21 and will form the nucleus of next year’s contingent.

The program history reveals nine previous playoff trips, starting in 1997 and 1998; in the latter season the Coogs finished in a wild four-way tie for first and earned the top seed. A drought then ensued from 1999 to 2010 but starting in 2011 made North eight postseason appearances in 10 years leading to 2020-21. Their initial postseason success as a program came in 2012 when they beat Hanna before losing to Martin, and the next campaign they recorded a pair of wins in the playoffs before being eliminated by Laredo United, final margin, five. 

The apex was in 2013 when North won three times in The Dance to advance to regionals, where they were clobbered by Converse Judson. The 2016 edition got past Harlingen South before McAllen Memorial knocked it out and that season marked the last playoff win, as defeats in 2018 (Harlingen) and 2019 (Los Fresnos) followed.

Opponent Harlingen has won 16 times this season and ended up 11-3 in District 32-6A, tied with Los Fresnos and getting the third seed. The Cardinals have beaten P-SJ-A, CC Miller, and San Perlita for some signature wins, and split with Los Fresnos while losing twice to league champ Weslaco. This squad has some size, with a 6-4 and two 6-1s in the frontcourt. Mike Castillo, a 6-1 senior, leads with 14.3 ppg while 6-1 junior Ian Solis gets 6 rpg. The Harlingen point guard is a mighty mite sophomore, 5-0 Ryan Sanchez, who leads the team in steals, assists, and three-pointers.

Long one of the Valley’s most storied programs, with six trips to the state tournament in the Ancient Era prior to 1956, Harlingen was top notch in the 1990s, hit a dry spell for a while, and then regained form, winning 132 times from 2010 through 2015, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2011. Recently, the Cards missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2017 but captured two postseason games in 2018, one against Edinburg North; in the last two runs, this club has gone out in bi-district, to Weslaco in 2019 and EHS last season.

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