December 8, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
LA FERIA – Back over to this neck of the woods for a basketball tournament, this time the boys in action, a week after the girls had gone at it for the Tommie Wiseman hardware. This week’s event, the C.E. Vail, has been around for a very long time, more than 90 years, and has generally served up excellent hardwood competition. Named for one of the Valley’s greatest sportsmen, coaches, and educators of yesteryear, C.E. “Toady” Vail, the 91st classic welcomed all four ECISD teams to town starting Thursday. Vail led the La Feria basketball charge in the 1930s, spent 12 seasons also coaching football, and is recalled as a promoter of fitness, competition, and excellence. He was also a stickler for execution, as it turns out, consistently drilling his players until they could run plays in their sleep, though history does not record any instances in which this was actually done, late into the night.
Nonetheless, here were the Jags, at the C.E. Vail, with their own execution-savvy coach of note and renown, a winner of more than 400 games during a 20-year career that has brought him back to where he started mentoring mode. Romeo De la Garza, a fabulous all-star guard for Mission High in the late 1980s who then went to UT-Pan American to play, is best known for his long run of success with Mission Veterans, a program he helped start in 2002. But some folks will recall his earlier tenure at Edinburg North. He certainly does.
“I have good memories of Edinburg, being at Pan Am and then with the Cougars,” said the coach Thursday night as he waited for Econ’s game against Corpus Christi Miller. “I was just 26 years old when I got the job at North.”
De la Garza turned the Vets outfit into a consistent winner, one that vied for the district title, and more, seemingly every year. Now he is set on taking the Jags to the same sort of performance height, though he admits that the cupboard was pretty bare when he took the job some months back.
“That may be true, we have one guy back from last year,” said De la Garza, who has a youthful look about him, trim and businesslike, maybe grey about the temples but looking like he could still ball it up. “But these kids are very coachable, they’re hungry and they’ve been total sponges so far, soaking everything up, every day. The kids want to learn, and they want to get better, so what more can you ask?”
In the beginning stretches of the season, the Jags have been better than some people might have predicted, though a loss to an athletic Miller group Thursday would drop the overall record to 7-7. Still, for a green crew with a new coach, not too shabby. De la Garza sometimes uses his experience as a college player and championship coach at Veterans to instruct the Jags. Sometimes not.
“We’re getting there, little by little, and we’ll get even better in time,” he said. “I tell the kids some stories from time to time but the main thing is, I want them to become students of the game. I have always been that, and yet I know that I don’t know everything. What I do know is that you have to want to get better every day, build the winning mentality, and I think these guys are working on that, every time we practice or play.”
If De la Garza has a mantra, and he does because here is a man who has always taken advantage of development opportunities – for years he’s attended all the camps, coast to coast, learning from the best coaches in America, such as Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski – to develop and sustain several mantras. A list, in fact, or a formula.
“One, be consistent; two, play hard; and three, execute,” he intoned. “That is the basic idea in a nutshell and if you do all three of those, you give yourself a chance to win. ‘Together, We Attack,’ is another phrase I have learned and try to instill in my teams.”
When the Jags graduated the whole rotation from last season, including stellar stat-sheet stuffer Ray De Leon, the word was that there would be much rebuilding to be done on the east side. When long-time Econ boss Carlos Ramos left to take the job at North, it looked even more daunting. But De la Garza has some pieces to work with, don’t worry.
It starts with Sebastian Lopez, a smooth part-timer from last year who has blossomed into a real honors candidate as a senior, averaging nearly 23 ppg through the first stages of the season. A terrific driver and scorer in traffic who’s gotten to the free throw line 100 times already in 2022-23, Lopez has risen to the occasion as the Sole Survivor.
“He’s been very good so far, and we are teaching him some things that will make him even better,” De la Garza said. “We also have convinced some kids to come out, guys that didn’t play in the past for whatever reason, and so we might have some depth.”
The new coach also possesses a strong-legged sophomore who has been outstanding in all phases, and that would be his son Nathan, who was with De la Garza at Pharr North when the latter was an assistant there most recently. Now the former’s in orange and looking fantastic, a smart player who knows the game inside and out.
“He’s a little different than my other son,” said De la Garza, as his older offspring, Elijah, walked the sideline wearing a Trinity University hoops shirt; the former Valley MVP has gone from the Raiders’ fold to college basketball. “Nathan is more of a power player, he’s bigger than Elijah. But he’s come up with me, too, practicing what it takes to be successful. It’s not so much just training, there’s a difference between training and playing. I always try to stress skills development, but ideally in scenarios with game situations.”
The Jags have responded to De la Garza’s wealth of experience and knowledge, as a .500 record heading to the midsection of the Vail reflects. He’s gotten the most out of the talented Lopez – also averaging 8 rebounds per game – and his up-and-coming son. And the other Jags have been sharp as well.
“They have been attentive, they want to build something here, and that’s what it’s all about,” De la Garza said. “Every night, come ready to play, and in some games, we are going to find out a lot about what kind of team we have. Our goals are what they always are: to make the playoffs, win district, and then win some playoff games. You’ve got to have belief that this can happen, and the belief takes a while to build. But once you get that expectation, it tends to build on itself.”
A STRONG CHALLENGE
The contest against Miller was one such occasion when the Jags would find out things about themselves. The Bucs have been a Valley nemesis for many, many years, dating back to some memorable playoff battles with McAllen High in the 1960s. Harlingen Cardinal fans will also recall a handful of amazing 1990s playoff encounters with the high-flying Bucs, who have generally boasted a bunch of big, agile kids who can jump to the moon and will press all night.
In the finale of the Vail’s first day, with rival Vela playing down the hall in the Old Gym, the Orange withstood a ferocious Buc rush from the opening tip. Slamming into the press after every made basket, Miller was all over Econ like a pair of pants, and it took everything the young Jags had to avoid getting plastered.
One way to slow down a fast team is to get in the way, at the right time, and De la Garza the player has proven adept at drawing the charge. This time, though, it was Lopez, standing in against a first period drive from a muscular Miller forward, chalking up the offensive foul as his coach applauded on the side. De la Garza then came up with a steal, leading to a drive-draw-dish by Lopez, who spent the evening with Bucs buzzing all around him, ominously.
As Econ fell behind, it was the press by Miller that did it, as De la Garza’s club had serious trouble getting into the frontcourt, Lopez and point guard Angel Hernandez working overtime. De la Garza flashed into the middle at times to try and assist, while lanky junior forward Alexis Betancourt jumped in with long arms to offer a big target for a skip pass. Gradually, though, Miller’s ability came to the fore, leading to a 9-point lead after one period. The visiting Bucs, crashing to the paint with the dribble drive and owning the boards, were up by 15 at the half and were never afterward headed en route to a clear victory.
Nevertheless, the Jags, having beaten Valley View handily in their first Vail contest Thursday, worked for 32 minutes and learned some valuable lessons. De la Garza and Lopez made nine of 10 free throws during the difficult first half, and teammates chipped in when they could, including J.P. Balderas, one of the football kids that the coach has coaxed into the hardwood wars. Eduardo Davila is another big body who has shown aptitude for the indoor game and all told, Econ has decent size out there. With Hiram Sanchez at 6-1, Betancourt at 6-3, the 6-1 Davila and De la Garza (6-1) and Lopez (6-1), the Jags have mini-trees to burn in 2022-23. Football star Ethan Barron, who had 18 points against Valley View, is no small fry either.
“It’s all about the process, as they say,” Coach De la Garza had said before the game began. “And you just have to trust it, trust the process, because it takes time to unfold. I was able to start the program at Mission Vets, and soon we won a lot of games. Now we are starting a similar process here with this team, and as I said, these guys have really bought in to what we are teaching. We’ve got some pieces here and now we just have to work. We’ve got a tough schedule coming up before district, and this has been fun so far. Battle, attack, and never slow up, that’s what we’re trying to do. Eliminate mistakes when we can and practice the mentality we need to be competitive. And the bottom line: execute.”
One thing’s for sure and it’s that Econ will be a factor in the District 31-6A race, somehow or way. It may be an entirely new roster, save Lopez, and there may have been a coaching change. But in De la Garza, the Orange have a proven winner who is single-minded in his dedication to teaching and building a winner. Far from being an afterthought, as some might have imagined in the Post-Ray Era, this team has the definite makings of a spoiler, maybe more.
Stay tuned. January comin’.