March 14, 2022 (updated)

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

Though he is definitely a Bobcat through and through, the new EHS baseball skipper is actually, originally, from a galaxy far, far away. As Toby Gonzalez takes the reins of the program from long-time leader Robert Valdez, time for a quick quiz … just where in the heck is Denver City, anyway?

The answer, about 90 minutes southwest of Lubbock, smack dab up against the Texas-New Mexico border. The loss of that very small town has been the gain of the Valley, and the Bobcats.

“If you had told me 20-25 years ago that I would be down here in the Valley, I’d have said, ‘No way,’ Gonzalez laughed before his youthful ‘Cats took on Vela for the kickoff bout of Spring Break 2022. “But the Valley has been really good to me and my family, no doubt.”

And now that Valdez, the gruff and resolute boss for 13 seasons, has gone to Pharr North to coach football, not baseball, the job has gone to his most trusted assistant.

“I learned a lot during my work with Valdez,” said Gonzalez, whose EHS nine was to greet the Raiders Tuesday. “It was great and now I am looking forward to seeing what I can do as a head coach.”

So far, pretty solid, as the ‘Cats are 2-2 in District 31-6A. They did not play well against Vela – which evened its league mark at 2-2 as well – getting blasted with a 10-run third inning explosion by Vela en route to a 19-2 road defeat. But Gonzalez is looking to the next few outings to get his team back on track as the district slate launches into high gear.

The Bobcats start seven underclassmen in 2022, having lost the likes of star catcher Jorge Salinas and Art Martinez to graduation and J.R. Soto to transfer. And this relatively new cast will be the sound nucleus moving ahead.

Leonel Kalifa, an impressive defensive outfielder as a freshman, has slotted in at shortstop with other 10th-graders Ardel Saenz, Jacob Garcia, and Ryan Nichols all playing prominent roles so far. The juniors of note are Ben Gonzalez, the speedy OF who has stolen 10 bases already, catcher Leo Reyes (.457 coming into Monday’s action), and Dominic Luevano. The seniors are few, but productive, including infielder Brandon Torres and the man mountain Darren Barrera. Barrera is off to a tremendous start for his swan song campaign, hitting a robust .550 and having amassed a whopping 46 strikeouts in just 23 innings of pitching toil. 

Seasoned senior infielder Dylan Garza is out with a knee injury but expects to be back in action for the second half of the 31-6A schedule and in sum, Coach Gonzalez has enough talent to make a run at the playoffs. In the past five seasons, EHS has gotten in twice, including last year, but was dumped out in bi-district each time. As the new coach seeks to return the program to the heights of the recent past – a three-deep trip in 2016 and a journey to the Sweet 16 in 2015 – he has brought back legendary David Kaz as an assistant. Kaz was the coach for the Bobcats back in 2008 when they went 14-0 in district and captured a season-record 29 ball games. He was then an assistant for many years after stepping down as head cheese, so his moxie and knowledge will come in handy.

As for Vela, the SaberCats started an uncharacteristic 1-2 in league play, losing 10-9 to Valdez and Pharr North and 4-2 against La Joya. The offense has been picking it up after a slow start against stiff non-district competition, and the Sabes pounded Edinburg North Friday, 15-0. They kept the attack in motion versus the ‘Cats and have now plated 34 runs in the past two contests.

Junior Bobby Garcia started on the mound Monday and was sharp and efficient, allowing just two hits, while leadoff man A.J. Reyes, a sophomore, scored four runs, as did second-hole hitter Jayden Martinez, a sophomore second baseman.

Like EHS, the Sabes are integrating a number of underclassmen after the graduation of a superb bunch of seniors. Take a listen at these star-studded names and one will see the task in front of Coach Jaime Perez: Carlos Pena, Mito Perez, A.J. Sotelo, Diego Cortez, Ivan Mendoza, Matt Perez. 

The crew that is attempting to make up for those substantial debits is paced by senior catcher Rudy Gonzalez, who slammed a 2-run single in the first to get the Monday party started and later gunned down a runner trying to steal second. At first base is massive Jesus Solis, who whacked a bases-loaded double in the 10-run third, during which Vela sent 15 batters to the dish. The Sabes drew 10 walks against four EHS hurlers and benefited from five Bobcat errors. They did commit four miscues of their own, however, and in the early stages of the season the pitchers have walked too many batters to satisfy their demanding mentor, Perez.

Cleanup hitter Nolan Salinas made a couple of nice catches in right field Monday while junior Ryan Botello went 2 for 2 with a walk, and the latter, a lefty, drove in a run with a perfect drag bunt for a base hit.

In the early going the team’s batting average was south of .300, a rare occurrence for a program that has now won 68 of 85 district games with Perez at the controls. The Sabes were 49-8 in district the past six seasons and last year carved out a 13-3 mark, 21-5 overall, beating San Benito and Laredo United South before getting edged out by Los Fresnos in round three of the playoffs.

Garcia will certainly be a mound mainstay this season, along with righthander David White, but a promising arm/bat is on the shelf for the year. Slugging junior Jake Dufner had surgery to repair a torn labrum suffered late in the football season and his loss will be felt. Seniors Aleck Castro, Salinas, Ethan Aguirre, and David Pena are on hand to take up that hill slack as the Sabes build back better after the graduation losses. Perez said he wants the traditional program success to inspire the inexperienced kids, giving them the confidence to keep improving week to week.

His gang faced a tough road test at P-SJ-A Tuesday to be followed by a date against Juarez-Lincoln at home the next day. The Sabes will be at Econ next Tuesday and then welcome Mission to campus three days later.

As for the ‘Cats: after the Raiders they have a road battle at La Joya Wednesday and are back in action after the break against North, March 22 at home. That one will count for much, as the Cougars are off to a 1-3 start, as are the Jags. P-SJ-A (3-0) is the lone unbeaten club, after slipping past Mission (3-1) Monday, 8-7. La Joya and Pharr North check in at 2-1.

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