November 29, 2022

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

It’s a pretty safe bet that, all things considered, the Bobcats will be right there in thick of the playoff hunt. After all, the program has made the grade into the postseason in nine of the last 11 seasons, and generally made a solid account once there, with five victories over that span. In seeking to make it once again, Coach Zeke Cuellar can call upon a seasoned group of veterans that in 2021-22, started behind the 8-ball a bit but got gradually better, turning in a year of good, hard work and almost winning in bi-district, losing to Weslaco by 4.

That group of relative newcomers now is a group of much experience, and Cuellar thinks that as long as some of the new faces come to the dance in due time, the ‘Cats will be pretty salty in 31-6A bouts.

“We’ve had to deal with a bunch of things so far, which is the way it goes, usually, and it’s how a team matures and progresses,” he said, before his kids took on Brownsville Rivera, at home Tuesday. “We’ve been missing some kids with injuries, and when a youngster gets hurt, he usually thinks it’s worse than it is. Part of growing up is getting tough and learning how to deal with things like that. This season, we are learning it, learning how to adjust when something goes wrong.”

The Bobcats are in the refurbished 31-6A, or the abbreviated one, take your pick. With Vela off to the 5A world, EHS will contest with five other squads for the trophy, including foes North and Economedes plus P-SJ-A, La Joya, and Mission. Of the three latter schools, La Joya is an obvious frontrunner, as the Coyotes have a strong squad led by Ethan Moya, one of the Valley’s leading lights. Cuellar and his staff are keeping an eye on La Joya and other league entries, but because the loop does not percolate until after the New Year, the coaches are getting the most out of a December schedule that sees them with a bunch of games, including a trip to the Coastal Bend for a tournament near the end of December.

The Rivera tilt was a good step on the curve for the ‘Cats, as they led almost the whole way in claiming a 49-47 victory. When senior Jahi Fagan finished his night the same way he had started it – making some big plays – EHS had gotten through. Fagan led the way with 13 points, and Cuellar said his rangy senior has probably been the team’s most consistent player in the early going.

In a gym that was so cold that a few fans were looking for packets of frozen salmon under their seats, the ‘Cats had hot spells, and were able to hold off a late rally to subdue the Raiders, who trailed 47-41 before running off six in a row down the stretch. When Fagan scored off an assist from senior Gabe Negrete, the deed was done, and the night of work was excellent for both schools. Good ball game.

It was Fagan who got the bop started Tuesday with a resounding blocked shot, a three-point make, and a couple of rebounds, right off the bat. With his energetic father, Chris, bouncing up and down off the baseline, the son was on his game early. Chris Fagan, the former standout forward for UT-Pan American, also has a daughter who is a baller, as we know, and the Bronc ex is doing double duty once again, shuttling back and forth between girls’ and boys’ games. After Young Jahi knocked in the three, his father was asked whether the young buck is as good a shooter as the OG. He smiled, shook his head, obviously proud, and mumbled something about “needing work, doing good.” Competitor.

It got out to 7-0 as Fagan then provided an assist for teammate Joaquin Soto, and if there is a striking fact about this year’s Red and Blue, it is the fact that almost every kid seems to have grown an inch or two since last year. At least. From Fagan to Soto, and truly to senior leader Ian Garcia, the ‘Cats have a long and lean look that the program hasn’t displayed since the days of Jesus Cantu and Antoine Woodard. The latest batch isn’t gigantic, but they’re not camarones, either.

Soto was looking good now, scoring on a reverse, and EHS passing was crisp, movement brisk. With 2:19 to go in the first, Fagan picked up his second foul, and that is mainly because as he has matured, he’s become more active, more daring, and more effective. This is his time, and Cuellar needs him to keep getting involved, using his length and quickness to make defenses work to stop him. So far, real good.

Even though most of these kids are returning starters, they still have things to learn as a team. For instance, at the end of the first, the ‘Cats held for one shot, but the possession went south; however, they got a steal near the horn and ran for the bucket, only to miss a layup. In the halcyon days of yore, when assistants Stevie Guerrero and Aaron Olvera (girls’ program) were running the Fab Four court show of 2010-11, the ‘Cats were absolute aces at winning the last 30 seconds of every quarter, and this year’s crew hopes to be able to find that magic on a consistent basis, in time.

At any rate, EHS had the lead after eight minutes, by 4, and owned a 2-to-1 rebound margin; such is the statline a team can create when it has some size and hustle inside. After the huddle, Rivera came out focused on the inside, and started to crash the boards: even its tough little point guard was slamming to the glass, and EHS had to adjust.

Garcia, a three-year starter who is 100 percent healthy, unlike last year’s topsy turvy season for him, has probably grown the most of all the ‘Cats; he’s now a full 6-2 and has lost none of his sleek skills around the tin. Cuellar says that the senior has been working on the baseline more this season, using his length to shoot over people and occasionally his quickness to get around.

Midway through the second period Garcia provided an amazing highlight when he grabbed a loose ball while on the floor, immediately hopping up into a nasty spin move around the rack that resulted in a basket. He looked more acrobat than hoopster, and the finesse combined with raw power made for a Moment of the Match. Ian, we see you glowing up!

Yet the Raiders, hoping to compete in a Lower Valley league featuring a strong Los Fresnos outfit but traditional powers such as Harlingen and Weslaco that are off to slow starts, came along well now, cruising into a 21-21 tie. They went ahead 27-24 but after a timeout – and some choice words from the mentor – the ‘Cats surged. First, junior Ryan Rivera, a pure shooting threat, stopped on a dime to let his man fly by, and calmly sank a bomb. Smooth kid there, dangerous on the wings. He hit for 7.7 ppg last year as a sophomore, with a team-best 52 treys, and expect more of the same licks from Rivera this campaign.

Garcia jumped in for an offensive rebound, showing why he is the returning leader in both points and boards, and he helped the ‘Cats into a tie at 31-all after three periods in a hotly contested affair with no clear edge to either entry.

The man of the hour for Cuellar in crunch time was Noah Garza, a junior who was to pour in all eight of his points during the final eight minutes. He nailed a couple of bombs, the first early in the period establishing yet another deadlock, at 37.  Then he forced a steal and the ball ended up with Fagan, who tallied one of two free throws for the lead. Garza again rang the ball from downtown as EHS looked more conditioned than the Raiders. It was 41-37 halfway home and when Fagan assisted to Garza, it was 43-38. At the two-minute mark the ‘Cats pulled off a play that had to make the vet Cuellar happy, as all five kids touched the ball in rapid succession, the unit slicing through the Raider defense with flair until Garcia was able to convert inside.

Here the Rivera charge reignited with EHS suffering a bit of poor decision-making on the offensive end, but a couple of misses on high-percentage shots saw the Raiders fall just short of the road W. At the end, with the ‘Cats clinging to the lead, Rivera came down for the last shot and it misfired, with the aggressive leaper Negrete – he made a difference Tuesday with grit, smarts, and fearless defense – finding the rock and holding it near and dear to the accompaniment of the final horn.

It was a grind of a game, as indicated by the score. The ‘Cats have shown some offensive punch, beating Rio Grande City, 73-65, and Corpus Christi Ray, 68-48. In recent seasons, Cuellar has stressed patience and the halfcourt attack more than the fast break. In 2022-23, he has enough horses to occasionally let loose the reins and here, Fagan, with his athletic ability, can thrive in the open court, during stretches of the game. Figuring out when to run, and when to pull it out and run the sets: always a key to any winning operation. As the ‘Cats take on foes such as Brownsville Hanna and Palmview in the coming weeks, and get some real challenges on the tourney voyage, they will hone their reading of the game (and the refs, always interesting contrast there in upstate lands) and prepare to hunt for the crown in 31-6A. With North also returning a pretty solid core of veterans, look for the battle of the Old Cats to go a long way in determining how the race shakes out.

And do not forget about the Jags, who have a new coach, as long-time winner Romeo de la Garza has come east with former Econ head man Carlos Ramos now striding the sidelines for the Cougars. The Orange is off a pretty fair start with a new crew, and will advance into the wars for the first time in four seasons without the amazing exploits of the one and only Rey De Leon, who has graduated.

Should be a fun time in 31-6A, and for the ‘Cats, it starts with a bang after the year turns with a home game against La Joya Jan. 6. This year’s EHS edition has the markings of a title contender.

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