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GROWTH SPURT: EHS WORKING TO GAIN STRENGTH AFTER 1-1 DISTRICT BEGINNING

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December 17, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

One can always count on him to tell it like it is, because he comes from the Old School and is never loath to let his kids know in no uncertain terms what’s what. These days, Zeke Cuellar is in the midst of a youth movement – with just three seniors on the 14-0man roster – and will praise them when he can, critique them when he must. Refreshing candor in a business that can sometimes breed a dearth of it.

And Friday’s road game at Vela gave the veteran coach a chance for assessment of the work in progress, as the Bobcats worked hard against a hot SaberCat bunch. Though they had some stretches of solid play, the ‘Cats in the end succumbed to lack of experience, and a deficit in strength.

Before the teams met for the 17th time since 2012, the ‘Cats had rollercoastered to about a .500 clip, while Vela, fresh off a pasting at North over the Cougars, were floating to the top of the league charts, along with the Jaguars of Econ. Cuellar, whose been in charge at EHS since 2007-08, has many kids on the roster who were toddling along in Pampers back then, and he hoped some of these callow cats were about to grow up under fire.

“I am a little worried, because we’ve played three tournaments, with a load of consecutive game,” he said. “We might be a little rough from wear and tear, and that’s probably my fault. With COVID we didn’t get the tournament play, so this year we went back to the tournaments, and though it was a good experience, these guys are not really big and strong, and some of them have some tired legs right now.”

Cuellar noted that with all that bang-bang action at tournaments, practice time for his club has been minimal.

“And that’s what happens, see, you play Tuesday and then Thursday-Friday-Saturday at a tournament, and you don’t have much time between games,” he explained. “The practice time is vital, especially for a young group of kids; yes, they learn from playing the games, but they also need to work on things in practice, and we haven’t had as much of that as we should have.”

Still, Cuellar has seen signs of life from his bunch, and recently, despite losing star junior Ian Garcia to an ankle injury, the rest of the ‘Cats have progressed.

“Ian’s back tonight but honestly he’s only about 60 percent,” the coach admitted. “But those other kids stepped up when he was out, I was pleased with that. Roly [Abrego] has come on and given us a couple of double-doubles, and as a group, they didn’t just give up with Ian out. That was a good sign for the future.”

After EHS began the 31-6A road with a solid victory over Mission Tuesday, Cuellar was true to form; remember, the Straight Talk Express.

“We didn’t finish the game very well, made a bunch of turnovers, make some mistakes,” he recalled. “So I told the kids, ‘Go ahead and celebrate, but I’m not going to.’ We can’t have that, we need to put teams away, we still have so much to work on. There are times when we can’t outrebound an 8th-grade team, we are still pretty physically small and weak. But that has to come in time as the kids get older and more mature.”

OLD AND NEW CATS

Friday night brought a friendly and familiar face to the crowd, as former EHS coach Joe Filoteo showed up for what he called a perfect situation.

“I got it both ways,” cracked the Hall of Famer who led the Bobcats to 553 victories before handing the reins to his top assistant, Cuellar. “I have Zeke here for the Bobcats and of course, Lucio, coaching Vela, is an ex player of mine, so there you go. Any way you look at it, I will be winning; I’m just happy to be at the game.”

Lucio Rodriguez, coach of the Sabes, was coming off the great win at North and suggested before the EHS tip that he and his staff had been preaching against complacency for this one.

“Rivalry Game, always different, always tough,” he stressed while watching his kids warm up. “We have to keep it going tonight, there can’t be a letdown.”

The key to the second half blowout of the Coogs had been defense, basically, as the Vela press ate up the Coog guards and forced a slew of turnovers, leading to a 15-0 third quarter run. Friday, the Sabes would attempt to do the same thing, against the youthful Bobcats, and eventually were able to do it. They were up 20-12 after the first, extended to 39-22 by the half, and coasted home with a 69-42 win that put them at 2-0 in league play and 16-6 overall. It marked the 8th triumph in a row for the program over the ‘Cats, who last beat the New ‘Cats back in early 2018. Lifetime, Vela is 14-3 against EHS with an average margin of victory of 25 ppg.

Missing starting post Rolando Rodriguez due to injury, Rodriguez plugged senior Matthew Cavazos into a smaller lineup and it went well, as Cavazos scored eight points with five rebounds. Seniors Alex Mancillas (13 points) and Aidan Avelar (12, 10 in a lights-out first period) were excellent.

But the man of the hour was Tony Requena, the hard-working veteran who pounded and leapt to 22 points. In almost eclipsing his season high of 25 – set against Laredo United early on – Requena was superb from the opening tip to the bell, scoring on searing drives or on pullup jumpers in the lane. He was too strong for the guards to hold, too fast for the forwards, and basically had his way with the ‘Cats, especially in a gigantic second period display when he put 13 points on the board.

This, after Avelar had dominated the first with a pair of threes and all-around play; after the half, Mancillas and Cavazos took over for nine combined markers in the third, subs Eric Trigo and Jose Balderas contributing seven total. With this sort of balance and distribution, the guys are starting to look like the Sabes of old, when waves of depth would wipe out foe after foe, night after night. Vela has P-SJ-A next, followed by Juarez-Lincoln, and then a potentially scintillating bout with Econ, New Year’s Eve.

But back to the Bobcats, who despite the final score gave a decent account of themselves in stretches. Abrego, the football QB, battled well against Jacob Rodriguez of the Sabes, ending with a team-high nine points and eight rebounds. Sophomore Ryan Rivera, who has come on strong from the outside as the season has developed, chipped in eight points, making two treys. Garcia, obviously still hobbled with the ankle, gamely fought his way to three baskets, and when healthy, he averages three times that much, or more.

Of the other ‘Cats, each came on and did some things well. Junior Joaquin Soto and sophomore Noah Garza had their moments, the latter canning a 3 in the third as EHS tried to hang on to the ball and set up the offense. Juniors Jahi Fagan (six points) and Gabe Negrete went to war with the bigger, stronger Sabes, holding their own and getting some necessary battle scars. The problem was, Vela is a senior ball club with some hard-nosed kids, including Requena, and many times the sheer edge in maturity and physicality went against Cuellar’s club.

HIGHLIGHT RECAP

In the first, Avelar presaged what was to come with a steal and rush to the hoop, and this is part of his game (defense/rebounding) that he is exceling at as a senior, besides his uncanny range from downtown. The Sabes really needed him to reach a new peak this year and so far, Avelar has done it in exemplary fashion.

Requena, the steady force for three seasons now, made a nice catch of a lob and a power move to the goal, but Rivera answered with a bomb and EHS enjoyed an 8-7 lead. But Requena scored off the steal and break, and Cavazos netted a hoop. The ‘Cats were working fairly well against the pressure, but it would not last.

Requena found an open Avelar for a triple and at the end of the period, Avelar followed his own miss for two; it was 20-12 after one, with Abrego dropping in a shot at the end.

Cuellar was clapping it up when senior Derek Guerra sliced in a three at the beginning of the third to clip the margin to 5, but Requena took over the process at this stage, gunning in seven quick points to reassert the Vela momentum. One hoop was a lane J when he elevated over the D for an 8-footer, another was a long arching 3-ball off an Avelar feed. The third was the play of the night, as the muscular senior drove from the right, went reverse as he has become adept at doing, and ended up switching the ball to his left hand for a twisting shot (in traffic) with marvelous elan and extreme degree of difficulty. TONY!!!

At this point the ‘Cats went dry from the field, starting to totter in ball-handling, and Vela went for the jugular, Trigo raining in a long one and Avelar again setting up a Requena basket. The upshot was a 19-6 run to end the half, pretty much putting the thing to sleep.

Now the ‘Cats at 1-1 will take on Pharr North (0-2) Tuesday at home, with a trip to La Joya set for after Christmas followed by the Grudge Match contest against North, Dec. 31. They finally wilted under the pressure defense Vela can throw so well, but this team has enough pieces and potential to imagine better days ahead.

“Too many mistakes tonight,” Cuellar noted after the loss. “And they capitalized on most of the mistakes we made. We just didn’t handle the ball well enough against the press, at times we were getting knocked around by bigger, stronger kids, we were too weak. And because we didn‘t get the ball upcourt enough, we never really got the opportunity to attack the basket much. They got a ton of easy shots and they turned our mistakes into points.”

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