November 9, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

Admittedly, momentary depression at an EHS roster without stars A’nnika Saenz or Daysha Tijerina for the first time in a zillion years. Those two program legends are now knocking in threes in bunches in college hoops these days, leaving their former teammates to carry on the legacy of greatness.

This task they set about doing in the season opener at home Tuesday, with Coach J.D. Salinas expecting nothing but the best, in time, from the latest edition.

“Lot of new faces out here, we’re starting a new journey and the girls all know it,” he said before the Lady Bobcats took on Brownsville entry St. Joseph. “Nothing is ever promised to them, and they understand that, it’s always this way with the program. We never think that because we’ve been successful in the past, it’s automatic now.”

Successful for sure, with 150 wins the past five amazing seasons with three trips deep into the playoffs. The Lady ‘Cats hae played in 12 playoff games during that span and are looking for more now, despite the graduation of the twin cogs in the machine.

“I think the thing is, everyone seems to know their role already, which is good,” Salinas said. “The upperclassmen know what they are supposed to do and the sophomores, well, they had impactful minutes last year and they know that the ball is going to be in their hands now, with Daysha and A’nnika gone. What I have noticed so far is all the girls seem to know that they need each other, it’s been very fun so far to see this team start to develop.”

St. Joe brought a tiny but scrappy squad with some quicksilver guards who also hit the boards; although they fell behind early and never got closer than five at one point in the second half, the Lady Bloodhounds gave EHS a decent first challenge, before the Lady Bobcats hit the road for a tournament or two. The final score of 65-44 was indicative of the edge in talent to Salinas’ crew, but St. Joe pushed the tempo, hit some shots, and left the gym having made a positive impression.

“They had a good record last year, I know that,” Salinas commented. “And they did a solid job against us. We had a few first game jitters, I guess, but this program has always been the type that doesn’t get rattled. We are going to shoot the ball, all the girls know if they’re open, shoot it, sooner or later it’s going to start going in. We got a lot of girls into the game tonight, which is always good.”

Along with the graduation tears, EHS also lost freshman phenom Jenai Coleman, who transferred to Vela, but the squad retains three-fourths of the excellent cast of 9th-graders that helped the team to within a whisker of the Sweet 16 in 2020-21. And each of the returners chipped in with key moments in the opening win.

First it was the swift Kimora “Kiki” Fagan, who banged in a pair of three-pointers to start the night in style, and later whipped a bounce pass to Genesis Hall on the break for a 14-5 early lead. The Lady ‘Cats were up 7 after one, as St. Joe rallied behind athletic guard Regina Tovar, who has superb quickness and dirty dribble-drive skills.

To start the second period, EHS sophomore Maddy Martinez followed her own shot and scooped in the miss, and then senior Larissa Martinez stole one and dished to Fagan for two. EHS got out in transition very effectively but at times was a tad tardy in getting back, something the team seemed to improve on, after the break. Rebounds were even at 35 for the night, interesting.

The lid-lifter gave some veterans a chance to show they are ready for more meaningful minutes, and Hall and junior Lucero Jimenez were comfortable on the court, particularly the latter. Jimenez would loop in 14 points to tie Fagan’s output, M. Martinez contributing a game-high 17.

It was 29-19 at the half and M. Martinez began the third period in another realm, scoring the team’s first eight points, canning two threes – EHS hit 10 for the game. Soph Emily Carranco was as always a workhorse in all phases. On her way to eight points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and four steals, the 6-footer operated on the perimeter at times, where she showed she can handle the rock just fine. Early in the quarter, she saved a ball from going out of bounds, making a behind-the-backish pass to Martinez for a layup. Later Carranco hustled downcourt to block a shot at the other end. She works, man. Stat sheet stuffer.

Still, St. Joe kept fighting, and connected on its shots to whittle what had been a 13-point lead down to five midway through the third. But as Salinas suggested, the Lady Bobcats don’t get flustered, they just re-focus. Martinez sank a bomb, Carranco provided a steal, and then scored on an offensive rebound to reestablish momentum.

The home side also turned up the D as Fagan and L. Martinez cornered an enemy guard and forced a perfect pass … to the ref. At the end of three, Jimenez flipped in a runner near the horn for a 45-34 lead and again, that kid looks like she is ready to rock this season.

Pretty competitive ball game all told, but EHS kept pulling away gradually, as Carranco blocked a Tovar shot and then made a nice high-post feed to a cutting Jimenez for the easy layin and a new 13-point advantage. Then Fagan exploded again with a pair of treys, following the program mantra. Open? Do it.

With Carranco doing more ballhandling – she even wears Saenz’ former jersey, No. 10 now – the Lady ‘Cats are going to need some help inside. L. Martinez is equal to that challenge and she barged to six rebounds Tuesday, while classmate Marliza Mendoza hit the glass with relish and also executed a sweet give-and-go basket with Jimenez in the fourth. Tara Moreno is another kid who is going to see some duty down low; she’s also a sweet shooter who knocked in a killer 3 late in the game, eliciting raucous applause from her friends.

So in essence, though Salinas and Co. suffered a number of losses from last season’s 21-5 crew, they are undaunted by the season ahead. In fact, they’re super happy about the prospect.

“We are going to get to go to tournaments again and that’s cool,” the coach remarked. “With COVID everything was different last year, but right now we have the girls for way longer in the course of the average day and week. Of course, now we also have JV and freshmen playing: that means way more coordination on our part but it’s also vital for the young kids to get some experience, that didn’t happen last season.”

NOTES: Speaking of Bobcat icons, Marah Guzman started her head coaching career with North Monday, leading her gals to an overtime victory at state-ranked Pioneer. Though the Lady D-Backs were without some key stars because of the volleyball playoffs, the Lady Cougars are still fired up and should be. Sam Aguilar and Jayli Rivera keyed the narrow result for a coach who won plenty of money games herself back in the day.

Econ began its season over the weekend with a 4-point loss at home against Edcouch-Elsa, but should be a much improved quintet along with North. That leaves Vela and one will have to travel to see the Lady SaberCats in the early stages, as they are on the road for most of the preseason slate until 31-6A play begins at home Dec. 7 against Pharr North. That should be an awesome test for both teams, and the race is shaping up as a real brawl, with the Lady Bears of P-SJ-A also sure to be right there in the hunt. Hard to call right now, of course. But much fun on the horizon.

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