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THE RETURN OF THE QUEEN! ALL-TIME LEGEND GUZMAN TAKES REINS AS LADY COUGAR HOOPS COACH

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November 16, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

And there she was, tight and fit as a drum, animated as always, loving the game and showing her kids how to do this, or that. During timeouts, she was active, demonstrative, full of energy, and worked the refs like an old veteran, which she is not.

Yes, despite the Old Gold instead of Red and Blue, there she was. Marah Guzman, the greatest of the greats in city basketball history, a four-year college starter, and legendary figure. Now a head coach, and at North to boot! This world is priceless for the beauty it gives.

Guzman, ex Lady Bobcat and assistant at three Valley schools before taking the vacancy with the Lady Cougars, still looks like she could play the game, though one imagines she might not quite average a triple-double, which she nearly did as a senior in 2005-06 while leading EHS to the Sweet 16.

But instead of straight-up shaming defenders off the dribble, knocking in arching threes, or driving to the hole with unrivaled elegance, she’s now teaching the game. And before her Lady Coogs took on La Feria at home Tuesday, the queen of the city cage spoke about this very thing.

“We started with the basics, really, the fundamentals,” Guzman began, in the same clear and articulate way she used to do interviews as an All-Valley MVP. “Liz and I are teaching the concepts of the game, through repetition; these girls really want to learn, so it’s been great so far.”

Liz is of course Liz Olvera, the former Econ assistant who was a terrific teammate and bestie of Guzman’s in the days of yore, a powerful, agile post who never saw a rebound she wouldn’t grab. Together, those two Lady Bobcat exes are intent on bringing the Lady Coogs back to prominence after they’ve endured some down moons.

“Shot selection, fake a pass/make a pass, that sort of thing,” Guzman said, clicking off the concepts she learned during her career that included two seasons as a starting guard at The University of Texas-Pan American, which is now UTRGV. “Don’t pass through a defender, get back on defense, some basic things, and the girls have been very coachable so far.”

In her first head coaching gig, Guzman notes that she is somewhere on the spectrum, temperament-wise.

“I have had some coaches who were always in your face, and some who were pretty lenient,” she explained. “I am somewhere in the middle, I guess. The girls were late once, and now they know what that’s about. Being a head coach is different, you have more responsibility, paperwork, etc. When you’re an assistant, you don’t make the plans, you help execute them. So now, I am making practice plans and I really like it.”

The Lady Coogs were 2-4 this season heading into the La Feria game, having played well at times and struggled at others. Their mentor expected it.

“It’s a process. Nothing happens overnight,” she stressed. “So, we’re being patient and trying to get the girls to understand what we’re doing, what we want. We want them to be confident, play hard and not be afraid to play. Nobody has the red light out there, they can shoot when they’re open.”

As for her pedigree as one of the finest players in Valley history – one of the few who went on to considerable success at the next level – Guzman is keeping it low key.

“I haven’t emphasized that much so far,” she explained. “I tend to establish credibility by demonstrating oncourt. At first, they were like, ‘Can you play, coach?’ and I just said, ‘Well, let’s see.’” She could.

The truth of the matter is, Guzman is a fitness fanatic who is lighter than in her high school years at EHS; she was a dominant fixture on the women’s league scene for years. Still looks exactly the same as she did 15 years ago.

“The only difference now is, yeah, I can still play,” she laughed. “But it takes me like five days to recover!”

THE MATTER AT HAND

The La Feria team that came to town Tuesday was a solid 4A outfit with some size. Though North competes two classifications higher, it is admittedly in rebuilding mode, so early season has more been about internal improvement than outright comparisons to opponents. For instance, the Lady Coogs began Guzman’s debut season with a great overtime victory on the road at Pioneer. A series of losses followed, including to Econ.

“We lost to some good teams such as Los Fresnos and Harvest,” she said. “Against the Jags, I was a little disappointed because we lost by a lot, and I felt like we should be able to compete against them. But again, this will take time, the girls are working hard and learning the game, so we’ll get better in time.”

There were similar highs and lows against the Lionettes, as North edged into the lead by the end of the first period and held it into the fourth. Once in the stretch, however, the Lady Coogs were hit hard with fatigue while La Feria seemed fresher, coming on to clinch a 50-40 victory. Despite the result, there were positives moving ahead.

Hustling junior guard Jayli Rivera was on fire from the opening tip and fired in 19 points in the first half on her way to a season-high 24. Scoring on jumpers, drives to the basket, and off turnovers, the little firecracker was outstanding at times, inconsistent at others. A microcosm of the collective performance. But when 2 feels it, she can really go.

The club got some rugged inside work from senior Raven Dykes (five blocked shots) and the pair of senior Elizabeth Garza and junior Izabella Hetzel. Junior Jemma Castaneda produced some strong defensive moments as did senior Valeria Zepeda, while junior point guard Zoey Gaytan provided steady ballhandling and leadership as one of the most experienced returners.

At the outset, Rivera made a steal and then forced another turnover as North bowed up with some man-to-man defense, but as La Feria started to dominate the boards (plus-13 for the night) the Old Gold fell back into a zone, designed to try and neutralize the active Lionette bigs.

Rivera hit a bomb off a Gaytan feed, after the offense was patient and moved the ball, with Guzman up off the bench and clapping as her kids executed. With 1:50 left in the first, Garza pounced on a loose ball down low and scored on a stickback for a 13-12 lead. It was 15-12 after one and then the home side got into a groove.

Hetzel showed her skills by putting the ball on the floor on a drive, and soon Rivera was ringing the ball again, a pass from Zepeda finding her open for an 18-16 lead. Dykes converted a power move inside and Rivera made a lefty drive for two after a Dykes block, and the lead widened to six at 4:38 of the second. At this point, North was D’ing up at one end and working the ball around at the other. The passing game found Rivera again for an open look after smart ball reversal, and North led 30-20 late in the half before La Feria cut the margin to 7.

Anyone wondering if the Lady Coogs are having fun under the new coaching crew should have seen Dykes and teammates dancing in the huddle before the third period began. Wow, kids still lock and pop and break, although that might be nostalgia speaking. At any rate, the latest North edition appears to have ample supplies of camaraderie.

Early in the third period, the Lady Coogs boogied out to their largest lead of 10 at 35-25 as Gaytan plinked in free throws and Rivera made a layup after she and Gaytan had hopped into a halfcourt trap to force a wayward pass.

But here the effort flagged, as La Feria climbed back into the game with sharper passing and better movement, of ball and girl. The Lionettes also continued to clean the glass without a hitch; Hetzel and Dykes grabbed five boards apiece Tuesday, but this is a guard-heavy bunch without any true forward-type kids in the mix. Even the bigs ain’t that big.

The visitor outscored North 13-4 to end the quarter, as the Lady Coogs were winded, moved and passed more slowly, and perhaps began to overthink matters. All too natural for a new team feeling its way in such situations.

The final eight minutes were all La Feria, as North went five minutes without a point and the Lionettes seemed energized, grinding their way to a 13-1 period. One of the drawbacks for Guzman’s squad was inaccuracy at the free-throw line. For the game, they were just 10 for 25, including 1 for 8 in the fourth, and that was partly a conditioning issue that the coach and kids will no doubt address in the coming days. North does not play again until next week, giving Guzman and Olvera plenty of hours to sort through the pleasant aspects from this one, and pinpoint the elements they need to work on.

Though the final score went against the rookie leader, she had a few super snaps afterward, in the time machine. Former EHS coach Rachel Carmona greeted Guzman after the final whistle, as did her sister Miranda, a Lady Bobcat sharpshooter back in the day. Everyone is fired up about Guzman getting the opportunity as a head coach, and Carmona helped her develop into an all-time great – a 5-foot-2 superstar who had outlandish skills but also possessed an indomitable killer instinct enabling her to dominate much taller opponents.

In discussing what will make her protégé as good a coach as she was an athlete, the venerable Carmona smiled wisely and pointed to a present she had brought for the occasion. It was a T-shirt, emblazoned with “For the Love of the Game.” No one ever loved the game like Marah Guzman, and few ever played it as well around here. Her old coach said that Guzman will be a great leader because she has the desire it takes to commit, achieve, and progress. And it seems that the kids at North are starting to latch on to the mantra little by little. And if they could watch her old glory vids from ‘06, they would see exactly how it’s done.

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