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A RAY OF BRILLIANT LIGHT SHINING FROM ABOVE: ECON’S DE LEON AN ALL-TIME GREAT, YET WITH WORK STILL TO BE DONE

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December 30, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game gallery

Patience is a virtue, though notoriously elusive. But please to bear with it.

Begin. There have been many outstanding basketball players in Edinburg history, from the early glory days in the 1920s and 1930s into the title-winning era of the mid-1960s, and from the exploits of the Fab Four of 2011 into great players from a North Sweet 16 team and the state tourney club of Vela under Lalo Rios.

Accordingly, there have been stars of each epoch, including three Winningham Brothers that were part of back-to-back state tourney Bobcat teams in the early 1920s, and also Cats from the 1930s who were among the region’s top kids. Feisty Johnny Serota was Valley MVP in 1932 while a generation later, speedster T.J. Worbington was the leading scorer on the border.

Edinburg standouts from the 1950s: a dominant 6-6 post named Edsel Wise; a tremendous all-around athlete named Jack Bloomfield who became a professional baseball player; and an All-State big man, Homer Inlow. In the ’60s, Wesley Taylor was a pointmaker of some fame, and from 1963-65 EHS won three straight district crowns paced by the Alaniz Boys, Rene and Robert, plus the hard-nosed J.J. Avila. Bobcat Gary West was a trailblazer as one of the first blacks to attain stardom in Valley hoops, while Fred Garza led the 1970 team to a district title.

The 1980s was a relatively quiet time in town, although transfer center Mark Sobosle was an excellent forward and Robert Espericueta also a top hoopster. The dynamic Rios dominated the scene for the Bobcats in the mid-1990s and then came the two-time Sweet 16 group with Cain Garza and George Olvera. Other notable Bobcats of that period were the Twins, Rodger and Roy Rodriguez, and then came a return to the Sweet 16 in the mid-2000s paced by the gutty Estevan Arriola, among others. Quite a list of fine EHS players, with superstar Aaron Olvera and Stevie Guerrero guiding the EHS ship to great success, while later headliners included the imposing Gabe Rivas, steady Jesus Cantu, and of course the mercurial lefty Antoine Woodard.

Now everyone knows that the Bobcats have been joined in recent times (comparatively speaking) by some competition in town. Of the early North ballers, Peter Salinas and Gabe Pedraza were among the best, some would add Louis Alamia to that list. Surely the Beltran Boys, particularly Brian and Lico, belong on the Cougar honor roll along with the Marvelous Mexican, Jonathan Ramos, among others. Though Vela has played just 10 seasons, one has to make room for some of the greats it has spawned, most prominently the kid with the astronomical baller IQ, Ryan Garza, tricky Alec de la Cruz, and additionally, sharpshooter Hector Ruiz, agile giant Noah Sekinger, and recent star Bobby Espericueta.

And then there are the Jags. As Econ opened 21 years ago, the hoops program eventually corralled some horses, with a powerful post in Pablo Cruz and an athletic scorer in Danny Richardson. Yes, the East Side has had its luminaries, such as John and Johnny Barrientos, J.J. Velasquez, Angel Salinas (son of Peter) and the unforgettable Teo Arreola.

So this list of great Edinburg basketball players is pretty comprehensive though not exhaustive; one can find more material about the matter in the two volumes of Hardwood Heroes, which are available on this web site (shameless shill of a Selber product now complete).

But the reason for this history lesson has to do with a contemporary character who has carved his way onto the Mount Rushmore of local hoops, plain and simple.

Because of all the aforenamed ballplayers, from the beginning when they used a peach basket to the modern era, no one has put up the amazing numbers that Ray de Leon has. No one.

ASTOUNDING FEATS

       Coming into a Tuesday afternoon road game at Mission, the 6-2 Econ senior was averaging a cool 28 ppg, with 10 rebounds, six assists, and five steals. Per game. One would have to go to the girls’ arena of yore for such outrageous numbers: see Marah Guzman, senior year for EHS 15 years back to find roughly compatible statistics.

With his unique package of leaping ability, agility on the dribble drive, sweet shooting accuracy and range, and ferocious defense, de Leon is making a very strong case for himself as one of the best in Valley history … which means that some people would consider him the top baller ever to roam the courts in Edinburg. The Observer will not make such a bold assessment at this juncture but will insist only that the possibility be weighed for its merits. Because if you have not yet watched No. 2 cruise and elevate, subdue and decimate area defenses, do yourself a favor: get out there and see him before he graduates later this year. He’s that fun to watch.

He can do it all, and that includes defense; while some scorers will hang around the perimeter waiting for the ball, de Leon is a demon on D, using long arms and lightning quickness to harass opponents into turnovers, which he generally will turn right into baskets at the other end. He’s got incredible range on the jumper and shoots better than 50 percent from three-point land, almost 70 from the field all told.

Sometimes it can look so easy for him that it might get monotonous, so well does he convert shots, grab boards, and even pass the ball with skill and alacrity. De Leon went for 43 markers against Mission to help the Jags improve to 3-0 in District 31-6A; to put it bluntly, he outscored the Eagles by 3, as the final score was 79-40. Mission was small and not terribly fast, and ol’ Ray just went to town, coming within seven of his career-high output of 50, set earlier in the year against P-SJ-A Southwest, and eclipsed 30 points for the 16th time in his storied career. This season he burned Mission Vets with 40, Pioneer with 33, McAllen High with 32, and went for 32 against San Antonio schools Madison and Holmes. He’s notched close to 1,200 points counting this year and last and is guaranteed to post the best single season scoring average in city history … or maybe not, because last year his average was 27.3, so it will be close. You get the point.

Tuesday, De leon was feeling it early, with 12 points as the Jags roared out to a 22-9 lead after one period. He added 12 more in the second and, maddeningly consistent, matched it with another dozen in the third. By this time the game had devolved into a laugher, 63-27, so Ray was only in the mix for about a third of the fourth, contributing seven more points, including his fourth trey of the game.

The main cog of the Jag Machine, for sure, a machine that has cranked out 90 or more points twice, scored in the 80s twice, and hit 70 or more (to 79) on four other occasions. The Orange of Coach Carlos Ramos head into a huge match against Vela Friday with a 14-9 record; in the early going they stumbled against four out-of-Valley teams, were clipped by Rivera, 46-44 and then went 8-4 the rest of the non-district slate. The Jags’ best wins so far have been over Weslaco and Santa Rosa. They blasted P-SJ-A by 31 to kickstart the league campaign, and then humbled Juarez-Lincoln, 90-42, before the victory at Mission.

MEAT OF THE SCHEDULE

Now they get a shot at a 4-0 Vela group that is experienced, tight, and ready to rebound after having missed the postseason in 2020-21. But the Jags, too, are a seasoned crew, with an all-senior starting lineup that has many pundits predicting that the title might go through the East Side. Or maybe it will end up like 2019, when Econ and Vela shared the trophy. Who knows, starts Friday, in earnest.

If Ramos’ squad is to be ascendant, it will take more than just de Leon, as grand as he is, to get it done. And the supporting cast appears ready to take a hearty swing at the pinata, paced by guard M.J. Barrientos, who laced in 13 points against Mission and is an outstanding defender who will hit the boards as well. He has the family fire. Another member of the band is springy 6-1 forward Orly Martinez, who can leap to the moon and will collect three or four blocks a game along with bunches of boards. Out front, Barrientos teams with, besides de Leon – who doesn’t really have a position, home boy plays ‘em all – Rolando Moreno, a hard-working kid who has improved by the season and is now a potent source of hustle and determination. With shorter hair for now.

The final piece of the starting puzzle might be the most vital, and that is Dalys Hernandez, a skinny yet indefatigable workhorse of a kid who leads the team in floorburns, will go toe to toe with anyone, and always seems to be in the middle of the play. He chipped in with 10 points against Mission, but Ramos says that Hernandez is the glue that holds it all together; he doesn’t have to make a point to make a point.

“See, with Dalys there’s a guy who knows what he can do, and he plays that way,” his coach explained. “He doesn’t try to do stuff he can’t, but the things he can do are really helpful to what we are trying to do as a team. He’s very valuable.”

Seniors, long-armed kids, determination … sounds like Vela’s five, too. The edge in depth must go to the Sabes, because Econ’s starters rock most of the night, full bore. Junior Sebastian Lopez is the first (and sometimes only) kid off the bench, and has some juice on the drive.

All things being equal, it should be a great game to watch, with early momentum riding on the outcome out east. How will the Sabes approach the task of trying to stop de Leon? Teams have thrown trick defenses at him from time to time, i.e., the Box and One, and it tends to work, for stretches anyway. But a superior athlete like No. 2, well, he can juke and jink and jam through double teams, fake you out of your shorts, and get high to the tin in a heartbeat. Or step back and knock in a 25-footer. Or pass with speed to an open teammate. Or … well, again, you get me.

Let us exit then with a few snapshots of the nonpareil de Leon in action, and this is not to gainsay or downplay the efforts of the other Jags. They are cohesive, focused, and intent on making a run to the silverware. It’s just that a player like Ray comes along once in a generation, and that’s just facts.

To end the first period at Mission, de Leon grabbed a long offensive rebound and drove baseline left, rising over two Eagle defenders to sink a short J. It looked like a trap he was going into but those who know better just shrugged. Got this.

After canning a pair of bombs in the first, de Leon made another in the second, but he was finding it beyond easy to get to the bucket and so he went. Over and over, seldom missing a shot, inside or out, seldom even hitting the rim with jumpers, splashing in fallaway floaters, one after another. At his height, he cannot be defended, really, not by one RGV kid. He’ll go right by or pull up and elevate to a level that few guards can reach. And when he’s grooving, just watch.

Quick as a thought, Ray then made consecutive steals for uncontested layups as the Econ lead blew up. Then a drive into the teeth of the D, a pretty, lefty masterpiece, showing de Leon’s exquisite balance and body control. Three minutes before the half he took off to the rack to execute a redonkulous Euro Step and reverse layup, as the Mission defenders flailed away like fat tios fanning flies at a backyard fiesta. Pitiful. Filthy. Ray.

The beat went on like that, all the way to 43 points, a dozen boards, and a whole lot of highlights. True, he did misfire on his only dunk attempt of the night but watch him enough and you know: kid can punch it, in traffic, any way you like, and then glare at you after he’s through, like … yeah, bet.

So to close: let it be said that there haven’t been too many cats like Ray in town, ever. He has the dribble handles like A.O., almost as much explosive quickness, and when he’s on from the outside, can shoot it like Lalo used to do, bang, bang, bang. He can come at you with the tenacity of a Beltran, go off on wild streaks of fruitful fancy like Antoine, and dominate games like few have ever done.

If he felt like posting up, he could do it, but that’s not the Jags’ plan. Their scheme, generically, is to ride this rare show pony as far they can, but again, to restate (and Ramos knows this, all of them do, Ray too), it has to be five gears, mesh of firing pistons, cranking the vehicle, or it will eventually slow down. What will the Sabes have up their sleeves come Friday? Only one way to find out. Or two, really, but you know how slow the ol’ Doc is these days, re: posting speed.

Best to come to Jags Friday, and see it live.

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