December 21, 2022
By Greg Selber
And now the break, the one some coaches and teams are happy to see, but some coaches and teams hate to see. Depends on momentum, really, and trending patterns, so when Dec. 22 hits – and the enforced UIL pause of five full days commences – there’s usually a moment of uncertainty. To be off for almost a week, right when district is around the corner way, sort of stops the jam. Then again, it’s not like anyone would want to play on Christmas Day, right? Think again, because some kids would play every day if you let them into the gym.
Marah Guzman has always been like that, a classic gym rat type who would hoop in an elevator if they could cram the basket in there somehow. She had many memorable moments on the hardwood, at EHS and later in college ball, and is now firmly engaged in Year Two as the head coach at North.
Her Lady Cougars have begun to respond to what Guzman brought to the school in 2021-22, and as the Old Gold heads into the break, it does so with 10 wins already, topping last campaign’s total of eight.
“We’re getting there, slowly but surely,” said the Lady Bobcat legend, now ironically plying her trade at the ancient rival school. “We haven’t had many home games, a lot of tournaments and away games, but we are basically ecstatic so far, having a winning record just before district.”
When the Lady Coogs storm the court for 31-6A play, Jan. 6 against La Joya, Guzman thinks they will have a shot at starting the push for a playoff berth, something that has eluded the program for some time. In fact, the last time North successfully negotiated that steep grade came back in 2015-16 when such players as Klari Lopez, Nikki Jo Rodriguez, Tiff Chapa, and Tilly Villarreal led a charge to the Second Season.
“We’ve won some games this year, and we’ve played some tough teams, not a lot of easy ones,” Guzman said. “I think by and large, the girls are starting to understand basketball terminology, and what we are trying to help them learn, what we mean when we use terminology and strategies. It’s all about repetition: so what happens in the games? We break it down for them, focus on what we didn’t do when we should have, etc. We practice based on how the games go, and they’re starting to see what they should have been doing. And then they’re going to do that right in the next game ideally.”
The non-district slate, which winds up with dates against Weslaco (home) Dec. 27 and at Hanna Jan. 3, has given some positive strokes for the crew. The Lady Coogs have beaten Harlingen South twice, topped a solid La Feria team, and walloped a Lyford bunch that is currently 14-7. They competed well with McAllen Memorial and Mercedes, losing by 7 and 1, respectively, and gave Pioneer a tough muster before bowing out by 8.
Perhaps the most promising victory came against Lyford at the Lady Bulldog Tournament, which handed the program a third-place trophy. Winning some hardware was just not going to be a possibility last year, as the kids got used to Guzman and vice versa. It was Rebuilding City. Now, with a proper and full offseason following 2021-22, the coach and her troops are on the same page, have constructed some consistency, and are looking to leap into a 31-6A race that appears to hold a place for them, provided they continue to battle.
Part of the formula for increased success is linked to the basketball IQ Guzman was talking about. That she always displayed in mammoth quantities as one of the city’s finest players, ever.
“For instance, defense,” she explained. “We are running what we refer to as ‘Contain,’ which means that we don’t want to be always jumping out to try and steal the ball. That’s not what we need right now, because we’re not the quickest team overall. I think all young players watch the highlights on ESPN and they see that everyone runs out for steals like that, but right now, we’re better off just playing solid D, trying to get possession, not be too crazy out there.”
That conservative mantra may be one the reasons that North has a pretty salty defense record through 19 games, allowing just 44.8 points per game. Meanwhile, the Lady Coogs are scoring at a 46.8 ppg clip, not incredible, but still in the black in terms of statistical comparisons. If you score more than you give up, you might just take the W, all other things being equal.
As was the case in Guzman’s debut season, little fireball Jayli Rivera is a prominent contributor, as she hits for nearly 16 ppg with a sterling total of 85 steals. One can always count on Rivera for perpetual motion and hustle, while junior sharpshooter Kaylah Lozano has enjoyed a fruitful season, with 7.1 ppg.
“The thing is, Kaylah is hurt right now, we’re waiting to get more details,” the coach reported. “We are hoping it isn’t that bad, so she can get back with us, because she’s been great so far, she was really starting to find her groove but then got injured.”
In the wake of that bad news, Guzman has plugged sophomore Roxy Rodriguez into the mix, and she has repped well. Next girl up.
“Roxy has stepped up, especially on defense,” Guzman stressed. “She’s been sound in her technique, she stays in front of her man, doesn’t gamble when she shouldn’t, and she hasn’t been intimidated against some bigger, taller teams. She’s done a good job for us.”
Luckily, the backcourt group can lean on senior Zoey Gaytan a four-year soldier who is third on the team in scoring, second in assists. The loss of Lozano, for however long, is just something the team has to deal with.
This year’s bunch is not a terrific shooting group (46 percent on free throws; 22 percent on threes) but there are some rugged competitors sprinkled around the rotation. Inside, the Lady Coogs have a series of forward-post types that has collected 17.3 rebounds and 10.7 points per game. Isabela Hetzel (66 percent from the line) is a veteran who has recovered from an early season knock, while classmates Skye Ochoa and Liliana Chavez (36 blocks) will scrap hard during their minutes on the blocks. Sophomore Josselyn Quintanilla is another option down low; she pulled down 12 rebounds in a win over Port Isabel. On the perimeter, seasoned senior Jemma Castaneda and sophomore Yaneth Salinas have had their moments so far, while volleyball MVP Etsel Ramirez went off for 17 points and 11 boards in the victory over Lyford.
Guzman was very happy with the overall performance at the Lyford tournament, and notes that an earlier tourney trip woke the kids up and showed them where they needed to be.
“When we went to San Antonio, that was tough, I think we kind of mentally shut down for a while there,” she admitted, after the Old Gold went through four difficult outings in a row against some big-time comp. “It happens, you know, and you just have to learn from it. We have improved since then, for sure. We’re getting better, and hopefully at the right time, with district coming up soon.”
THE JOURNEY AHEAD
The midseason loss of Lozano is a blow, and so was the preseason departure of Sam Aguilar, the speedster of prior runs who decided to concentrate on soccer as a senior. Guzman was sorry to lose the athletic Aguilar but wishes her well as she attempts to get to the next level in that sport.
“Right now, I am just trying to prepare the team for district,” she said. “We’ve been scouting like crazy, learning about the teams we’re going to play, I want to do everything I can do to put the girls in the position so they can be successful.”
In the 6-team league, North is poised to make a burst. Some people are ready to cede the title to an EHS club that is 15-7 right now, and if that is the case, the battle for three more postseason slots is wide open.
Econ, like North, is in resurgent mode these days, having won 14 times so far, including a solid 14-point result over Hanna Tuesday. Senior Dana Serna surpassed the 1,000-point mark recently for a senior-led squad that is more than ready to try and nail down a place in the bracket.
The next contender is Mission, 7-10 right now, averaging 38.7 ppg, allowing 37.9; the Lady Eagles played Sharyland close twice, lost by 4 to Laredo Martin, and by 1 to Nixon, and have beaten Hanna and McAllen, among others.
Last year P-SJ-A was a powerful club in every way, going 27-11 overall and losing out on a title after twin losses to EHS, but the Lady Bears suffered intense graduation debits and have struggled in 2022-23. They are minus-12 in terms of points scored and surrendered but cannot be overlooked.
The final filly in the race is La Joya, and though the Lady Coyotes have bumped along to a 4-12 mark, getting outscored by 10 ppg on average, their recent returns have been eye-opening. Facing a fabulous Harvest outfit that is 22-4 and blowing the doors off at 66 ppg, La Joya did well, competing to an 8-point defeat. The program has beaten Pioneer, McAllen, Hanna, and Rivera, losing close matches to Memorial, Pioneer, and SA Madison. After a few years of woeful performances, the Lady Coyotes are better than their record, more seasoned, and probably contenders.
That is the pack in the dash, and the Lady Coogs are intent on leading it. And if there one aspect of the North put-together that may make the difference this season, in the return to glory, it’s patience.
“I do think we can get into playoffs, if we do a good job, we can slide in there,” suggested Guzman, who as Valley MVP guided her EHS bunch to the regional tournament as a senior. “We’re more confident as a team when it comes to running the plays on offense. We’ve been slowing it down and running our stuff. In the past we would usually break down at some point, in terms of execution. But they’ve improved at making the final pass, being where they need to be, so we can get the most out of our possessions.
“I mean, we’d love to be running and gunning, getting out in transition, but as a coach, I have learned that you have to focus on what your team can do. Fast break basketball is not really our forte yet, which means that we have to make every possession count. I’d say that right now, we feel good about our chances, and we are really looking forward to seeing how it goes. When we start the schedule, we’re at home against La Joya, and that will give us a chance to see what we’ve learned.”