March 17, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
They were long known as the Games of the Year, the Grudge Matches pitting a pair of softball programs at the top of the Valley heap. No doubt about it, EHS-North was the ticket, for years and years.
From 2011 to 2018, the Lady Bobcats won 79 percent of their games and made three Sweet 16 appearances, while from 2009 to 2019, the Lady Cougars were 75 percent winners with a pair of Sweet 16 trips. Between them, the two juggernauts consistently monopolized the district title, and usually the games, the Grudge Matches, were pure drama.
Of 24 matchups since 2009, EHS had won 13 coming into the latest iteration, North 11. To show how narrowly contested the Rivalry has been: 17 of the ball games were decided by three runs or less. Superb softball, talented lineups 1 through 9, with overflow crowds, gobs of pressure, and enough highlights to fill an hourlong video.
The series has had its superstars, and plenty of them for both sides, and the occasional surprise difference-maker. But the Grudge Match never disappointed as the coaches battled each other as hard as the girls and the fans did. The electricity in the air was rare and fine.
In recent times, though, the Rivalry has taken a hit, from the pandemic for sure, but from other obstacles, including the rise of the Vela program to a position of prowess; two Sweet 16 trips in the not so distant past.
As the teams got set to face off at North Wednesday, North’s Forever Boys, Richard Tressler and Adrian Cavazos were at their post, the former smacking fungoes, the latter catching up, as they have done for so many moons. Tressler hit some shallow flies to the outfield and Cavazos cajoled the girls to “Sell out!” and to “Come in on it!”
It was getting on toward game time but the Lady Bobcats had not yet arrived. What, gamesmanship on the part of the crafty EHS mentor Ramon Arciba? Or just “Spring Break time”? You never know.
When the skipper and his club got to the park, they quickly limbered up for the proceedings to come. Both Arciba and Tressler have experienced ups and downs the past several seasons, as the lofty heights of yore have gotten more difficult to attain. In the last four seasons, EHS has scuffed along with a 34-46 overall mark, while North has been better, not great, at 36-27 in the preceding three campaigns. For programs used to ruling the roost, it has been somewhat tough times.
The statistics tell part of the tale. The Lady Bobcats, in their heyday, hit more then .400 as a team in four separate seasons, with two more .350-plus averages. Starting in 2019 (.320), they dropped to .255 in 2020, raised that to .304 last season, and were at .325 before Wednesday’s affair.
“We’ve got a decent average but we’re not getting timely hits, too many kids left on base,” Arciba commented. “I have been trying to get the girls to play for the name on their jersey, to know what that means. They need to know what we have done in the past, the success we’ve had, and they have to want to attain that, too. It’s been hard.”
Arciba suggested that the COVID debacle has hurt all sports programs, softball in particular. Many of the underclassmen he has – and the roster is full of them – missed out on either travel ball or junior high/JV action, sometimes both, and it has been hard to get everything back to running at top speed.
“The pressure is always there,” he continued. “But this is my passion. That ball has changed my life, and it’s changed my daughter’s life; it’s given us a livelihood and I love the game so much. I hate to lose, it’s hard, but you sign up for it all, win and lose. I think some of our girls have been off for so long that maybe they have lost interest in a way.”
Arciba referenced his daughter, Samantha, the former EHS great and college softballer now coaching at Econ. He was overjoyed at the Lady Jags’ comeback victory against Vela earlier in the day.
“I am super happy for her, and for that team,” Arciba grinned. “With Jags, they have nothing to lose, no pressure, they can just play. Here, though, we have a lot on us because we have had some really good teams; we have high expectations. I need to be patient with these girls, they’re trying to get there. If they will listen to the coaches and do what we ask, they’re going to be alright. But it has been tough, no kidding.”
Though Arciba (plus Jesse Banda before him) and Tressler have personified the Grudge Match grittiness with their relentless wars against one another, the Dean of Valley Softball can identify with what his nemesis from EHS is saying.
North has truly been among the OG’s in the sport, after starting back in the late 1990s; the Lady Coogs packed in three league titles in the 2000s before the Lady ‘Cats were even a blip on the winning screen. Tressler has seen what Arciba has, in terms of the numbers.
This season North was at a pedestrian .250 as a team after 22 games, with 81 runs scored –exactly the same game/run total as EHS, ironically – for an average of 3.7 per game. Back in the day, the Lady Coogs were one of the Valley’s hardest hitting crews, with four seasons of .400-plus averages (including a mighty .459 in 2013) and six more in which the club swatted north of .350 for the year. Last campaign they slapped it for .369 and made the playoffs, losing in the first round. The .250 average so far is the lowest in program history.
Never shy for a view, the veteran manager said that he and his staff have had to work harder than ever lately.
“I used to think I had the answers, but now I’m not so sure,” Tressler remarked before the first pitch.
He suggested that his kids need to work more on concentration, following instructions, and execution. Like Arciba, he thinks the layoff due to COVID has done the sport no favors, but he also hates to make excuses. Stubborn, honest Pennsylvania sort.
At any rate, the pandemic has done its worst, and earlier, the addition of a fourth school, Vela in 2012, would eventually dilute the talent somewhat at the other three campuses. But Edinburg has always been a prime softball town with tons of talent, and so despite the setbacks, the Grudge Match was on Wednesday, with a new series of girls looking to make their mark in the history books.
LIVING UP TO THE NAME
EHS was 2-4 coming in, North 2-3, so a victory here was a definite must, even though it’s still the first half of the District 31-6A season. On the road against an ancient foe, the Lady ‘Cats were first to show how much they wanted it.
With two outs in the first on a gorgeous and sunny early evening, senior shortstop Arianna Guerra reached on an infield error, and Sam Saenz singled for a 1-0 lead, taking two bases on an ensuing outfield throwing miscue. Saenz, the fantastic college signee who has started the season with a batting blaze at .765 (truth), is one of the current Lady ‘Cats who could have made the grade with the great squads of the past. She is playing first base right now to shore up the infield, but Arciba says that anywhere he puts her, she produces.
Sophomore Emily Rangel then followed with a run-scoring single to put EHS up, 2-0, and after the side was retired, the Lady Coogs trotted in, knowing what was coming.
“Make the plays, come on … let’s go!” Tressler barked at his nine, and they nodded, put their gloves away, and came to bat.
The Old Gold got runners to second and third with two outs against senior lefty Alynna Garza, a versatile player also headed to the next level soon. Third baseman Leslie Tamez had led off with a walk, junior center fielder Daniella Pruneda bunted for a hit, and senior Emily Palacios moved them over with a sweet sacrifice bunt. But Garza worked out of it, retiring the bangers, senior Kaylee O’Bryan and junior Jo Mancha. Those two have combined for a .480 average and half the team’s RBI, but the rest of the gang has struggled along at .179. This trend was going to change down the road, however. The Grudge Match does that, time and again, cementing a girl’s confidence if she can come through.
Having missed the chance to get on the board, the Lady Coogs went back out with Mancha on the hill and despite a pair of walks to start the second, the strong-legged hurler was finding the groove and would set the next nine hitters down until freshman Rebecca Torrez singled in the fifth.
By then, North has started to become offensive, plating a pair in the second and two more in the third to take charge, 4-2.
In that second frame, rangy senior Jade Guerra singled with two gone. Garza of the Lady ‘Cats had been working the outside half of the zone with precision but North’s Victoria Ramirez, the junior second baseman, went with the pitch and popped a low, sinking liner to right field which evaded the glove of the onrushing outfielder. A run scored, the speedy Ramirez taking two bases, and she was soon safely home as well on a wild pitch to tie the ball game.
An inning later the Lady Coogs again rallied with two outs. O’Bryan blistered a bolt to center and up stepped catcher Liana Urbano. Tressler had been pestering his team to take the outside pitch to right field, and the junior Urbano was about to do it. She launched a drive down the right field line, the prototypical “If it’s fair, it’s gone” blast … and it was fair, so it was gone, 4-2 North.
One by one, the kids in the Grudge Match were stepping up, concentrating, competing, valuing the jersey, and showing they too want to join the pantheon of stars that had come before them. Once upon a time it was, oh, name a few: Victoria Cardenas, Melina Sanchez, Abby Hinojosa, Hope Rodriguez. All first-class catchers with bats of fire. The latest backstop, Urbano, swung her stick when it counted, and it did, giving North a lead it would not relinquish.
Mancha was rejuvenated now with the 2-run cushion and was firing them low and hard. EHS managed five hits off her Wednesday, with Saenz coming through with one more in the sixth, to no scratch. In the final EHS at-bat, junior Ariella Ramirez singled with two strikes on her to start off, and then freshman Araceli Reyna was hit by a pitch.
This was it, two on, no outs and of course it would come down to this. Three times in the past the EHS-North brawl had gone to extra innings, and it is almost never a blowout.
Torrez, who also played well at third base, bunted the runners over and Garza grounded to second, driving in a run to make it 4-3. The Lady Coogs, who got a couple of absolute gems in the field from Tamez at third base – Tressler calls her a vacuum cleaner – finished it up to clinch the one-run victory. Interestingly, North had won just four of 12 tries against EHS at home since 2009, with a stronger 7-5 mark against the Red and Blue at their place.
The teams split the series in 2021, a one-run victory by North at EHS balanced with an 8-6 Lady ‘Cat triumph at North. The clubs did not face each other in the abbreviated 2020 campaign but are now back at it, tooth and nail, like old pals.
Yeah, it’s been steady struggle sessions in the ‘20s for these once and future queens, as they’ve had to share the wealth a bit with the Lady SaberCats. True, the pandemic knocked everyone back. It mucked up training/travel ball and lower-level preparation, and frankly has taken an equal toll as far as mental and physical health are concerned.
There are many reasons why, but the Lady Coogs and Lady Bobcats showed Wednesday that they are listening, they are concentrating, and they are working. Their hard-charging coaches will expect nothing less and together, this combination is intent on returning the respective programs to the upper echelon of Valley softball.
Based on the past, all the glories that have been savored, and the promising (if unlettered) talent on hand, don’t be surprised to see these two rivals rising once again. Wednesday, the girls played like they valued the jersey, living up to the Rivalry tradition of excellence, and in the Grudge Match, that is always what has mattered most. With enough desire – or “want-to” as Tressler would say – the results on the diamond will gradually take care of themselves.
Way to work, ladies!