December 2, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
LA FERIA – The difference manifests itself in several ways, from the higher scores and a promising record to the attitude of the girls, the way they carry themselves. And there is a certain undefinable something that only the kids and coaches can feel, and it comes from winning and comes from not losing.
One can tell the Lady Jags mean business this season, from the 11-3 record so far and by the way they are competing, being resilient, and refusing to give in. At the annual Tommie Wiseman Tournament, Econ was early-bounced into the fifth-place game after a loss to a super good Rio Hondo squad but rebounded to outduel Donna Friday. Though they won’t win a trophy like they did last year, the Lady Jags are stoked for the district race to come.
And it’s really just one part of a Renaissance out east, this surging basketball team led by the hard-driving Mari Campos. Before her kids set to work against the Bravettes Friday, Campos agreed that this year’s group is off to the best start in her long tenure at the school. And she reminded us that in track, soccer, and volleyball, the East Side girls have definitely been pretty Strong as of late.
She was speaking in La Feria HS’s Old Gym, down the hall from the main one – which is not un-old – and even though it’s a decent little box, it still seemed old-fashioned; hence, the name, lol. Walking to the Old Gym brings one past the obligatory tourney bracket on the wall: go to the right, never left: advance. And soon we are upon one of the finest hospitality rooms in the RGV, and after each half of a Wiseman game, the refs can be seen shuttling at high speed to go sit down, take a load off, and get a plate full of the goodies on display. Chihuahuas, the pastries! The rice, only sublime.
Campos was too busy running her troops to get the grub on, but that’s alright, because her team has feasted on many opponents so far this season. It was an up-and-down 2021-22 season, one in which the Lady Jags appeared almost ready to turn the corner of success but fell short. Campos can explain the turnaround.
“We have the experience now, we have some seniors who have been here for a while, and they’re hungry to get some wins,” she said. “Good senior leadership makes all the difference for us, now we just need to get healthy, stay healthy, and see what happens in district.”
Get healthy, for sure, because the Orange came to the tourney a few kids shy, for various reasons. Luckily, Campos was ready to scramble.
“We have a few freshmen with us this weekend, from JV, it was pretty sudden for them,” she noted. “We have some injuries, sick kids, etc., and so we took them aside late in the week and said, ‘Alright, you’re coming with us.’ And to their credit, they were like, ‘OK coach, great,’ and to be able to just come with the varsity, and get into some games, that has helped us be competitive here. They never gave it a second thought.”
The fish on the hook for Friday was a slick little guard, Gabriela Maldonado, and she gave decent minutes against the Bravettes, showing some quickness and not seeming overawed by the occasion. Veterans such as Jaylene Corona and Bianca Coronado could be seen during the game, coaching her up, making sure she knew where to be. By and large, Maldonado held her own, and should be a contributor in the rotation before long. Same for fellow 9th-grader Carly Zamora, who scored eight points in her first two games. Prospects.
Campos has navigated her team through the early part of the season, against a raft of foes that collectively is only middling in terms of strength-of-schedule. But the coach is wise, eying the prize.
“We have tried to play some teams, get into games where we have a chance to compete and win,” she explained. “Sometimes, when a team is learning to win, it doesn’t matter who they play. Winning games is a habit, and when you don’t, girls can start pointing fingers, being all emotional about it, and we don’t have time for that. We know that it feels good to win, and we want the girls to roll together, bottom line. Getting some wins early on has definitely helped our overall confidence, though we do know that in district it will be tougher.”
At the fore of the Orange Crush has been senior Dana Serna, among others, and that is expected. As her terrific hardwood career comes into sharp and final focus, the long-legged hustler has been sensational, averaging 20 ppg and exhibiting the sort of leadership Campos was talking about. Her season high is 33 points against Progreso, and recently Serna put together a streak of five 20-point nights in a row. In the Rio Hondo loss she struggled as all the Lady Jags did against that tight, sound crew, but managed to haul down 10 rebounds.
Any way you look at it, Serna is having an All-Area type of season so far, and she was on the run against Donna from the start. Econ beat the Bravettes handily earlier this year but this time, at the Wiseman, the Mid-Valley squad was ready to make amends.
With sophomore Brianna Maldonado pounding away down low and Serna putting in six quick points, Econ was sharp, with an 11-8 lead after a period. Serna drove the lane with force and B. Maldonado (six points, nine boards) was working well using her strength on the blocks. Another sophomore, Nirel Salinas showed some fast hands with a steal, and she would later plunk in a pair of three-pointers. Nicknamed “Curry” after the Golden State legend, Salinas can really shoot it, and does not mind teeing it up wherever, whenever. As seasoned point guard Coronado is the general out there – and second in rebounds by the way – playing hard defense and finding the open man, Salinas is the type who gets to the space and uses a quick trigger to get her bombs away. It is truly a mix of old and new for Campos in 2022-23, the proven seniors along with the bevy of future starters.
Corona, who had missed a few games with an illness, was back to her perky/pesky self for the Donna game, and every team needs one of these kids, a battler who backs down for no one. She’s a senior with loads of experience and is trying to show the ropes to other frontcourt players such as Maldonado and sophomore Natalie Elizondo. The latter is in the rotation and showed potential when she came up with eight rebounds in a win over P-SJ-A Southwest back in late November.
In the second quarter, Donna started finding the range from beyond the arc and slipped into the lead. Meanwhile, the 3-2 Bravette zone started to bamboozle Econ, which for a time seemed out of ideas.
However, Coronado located a steal and looped a perfect lob to Bri Maldonado, who scored at the rim, and Econ came on. Serna came up with a swift jump stop-and-floater for two, and it was tied up at the half, Serna having scooped in 12 of the team’s 19 points. She will be the first to admit that the more the rest of the gang can chip in scoring-wise, the better.
“I always tell them that it’s not just my show out there, and I don’t want them to just sit there and watch,” said the athletic senior. ‘I feel like we have more confidence as a team, all around, this season, you can feel the difference; I don’t know, it’s kinda hard to explain … but we know, we feel that this season is it, this is our chance, and everyone is playing, contributing.”
Dazzling Dana would get her wish after the break, as though she would be limited to four second-half points (ending with 16), several other kids stepped up to be counted, when, so to say, it counted. Salinas popped in a couple of long ones as the Lady Jags reassumed control in the third, Coronado assisting on the second. Coronado and Corona sank buckets in the run as Econ outscored Donna by 7 to lead 33-25 heading into money time. Coronado’s hoop came after a halfcourt trap forced a turnover and Coronado fielded a pass and flipped it in, without her feet leaving the ground. Amid giggles in the Old Gym.
The ball movement was sound in the quarter, the Lady Jags whipping it around without a bunch of dribbles, and that is something Campos has been preaching from Day One this season. Her senior star will attest to that.
“We do a lot of passing drills, a lot, a lot,” Serna laughed. “Sometimes practice will seem to be like nothing but that, the goal is for us to get the ball moving and keep it moving, sometimes 30 minutes at a time. Coach will be like, ‘Ok, it’s passing time!’ so we are building trust with each other, we know what each of us is going to do, and the confidence we are getting is really good.”
But as they had done in the second period, the Bravettes rallied now, cutting into the margin as Econ missed some makeable shots. Tournament games are interesting, because usually many of the crowd regulars (parents) are missing; hey, we gotta work. This means that the action can seem like it’s taking place on a difference universe, less pressure, a totally alien environment but OK, just play. It’s cool tho.
Donna was within 5 now and looked to get closer on the fast break until Serna, seemingly out of the play, zoomed like a greyhound downcourt, straining and gaining, apprehending an open Bravette at the last instant and knocking the ball out of bounds. Forget about all the high point totals: this was Dana Serna, right there. Desire.
Meanwhile the Orange trap was full of Donna girls, as Coronado, Corona and Serna were leaping out in various combinations to double-team, giving the Bravettes fits as they weathered the storm, or tried to. Coronado was to be the bell cow down the stretch, taking care of the ball, marshaling her teammates into the trap, and scoring eight of her 10 points in the final stages. Such a technical player, always working: B doesn’t have to score 100 points to be a determining factor.
At a key moment, the freshman Maldonado pilfered a pass and fired a great baseball throw downcourt to a running teammate. Econ got out to a lead of 39-32 before Donna made one more challenge, and it was stern. The Lady Jags had just a 3-point lead at the 2-minute mark, and Campos exhorted her team on to the finish.
The big play came from Coronado, who stuck out a hand to deflect a Donna pass and thwart a possession, and she finished up with two free throws near the end to make it 43-39. Though the valiant Bravettes tossed in a hoop at the end, Econ held on for win No. 11, setting up a Saturday clash with Sharyland in the fifth-place game. Mission accomplished on Friday.
After the win and before the chow (players not allowed in the hospitality room, haha, boom) Serna was weary – she’s been under the weather, as have many of the girls – but satisfied.
“We are getting here, everyone is working on becoming a threat, which is good for me,” she commented. “When the ball comes to you, you have to want it, and you have to use it, and this season it seems like we’re all doing that. If teams are going to double me, OK, we have some others who want the ball and can score.”
That is definitely the case as the season develops, and yet, when it comes down to it, Serna knows that the seniors carry the heavier burden. Verily, that is the way of the world.
“The thing is, in the past we would think, ‘Well, we have next year,’ or ‘Maybe we just have to wait,’” she said emphatically. “But now the seniors, well we know, this is it. We’ve been together forever, back to sixth grade really, so we are starting to understand that there is no next year for us seniors. If we want this, we have to get it.”
The articulate leader, a top 10 student, says that every time they play, the Lady Jags get better, top to bottom of the roster. And they’re not done rising yet.
“We’ve put in the work, the younger girls are doing very well,” Serna stressed, lauding a series of teammates for how much they’ve contributed to the hot start. “And so here we are … we can’t wait around for anything anymore, this is the time.”