February 3, 2023
[updated February 6, 2023]
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
There was the personification of irony, sitting on the visitors’ bench, waiting to go to war versus her alma mater. Marah Guzman of North knew that Friday’s road game at EHS was going to be tough, because no district outfit has been able to stay with the high-scoring Lady Bobcats, who average 70 ppg in 31-6A. It has been a season of blowouts in Valley high school hoops, with mismatches all over the area, for some reason. So Guzman, who once scooted up and down this same court as a champion, a bit more than 16 years ago, just wanted her Lady Cougars to get past this one, somehow, and continue to compete for a playoff spot.
“We’ve got a good shot at playoffs; that would be the first time in seven years,” she noted, as assistant and pal Liz Olvera looked on, watching the Lady Coogs warm up. When asked about the recent thriller of a win, a buzzer-beating shot by sophomore Yaneth Salinas at Econ Jan. 20, the former All-Valley MVP beamed.
“It was smiles all night after that one!” she exclaimed, balling a fist as she spoke in her typically intense and focused way.
At 4-4 coming in, the Old Gold figured that even with a loss to the highly skilled Lady Bobcats – as grating as it would be – the chances of crashing the playoff party were sound. All that stood in their way would be Econ, and as it happened Friday, the Jags were eliminated. Now, a North win against the Lady Jags Tuesday and a La Joya success over Mission, that’s the formula now, because Mission went to 5-4 by beating P-SJ-A Friday. There would then be a playoff match for third place between Guzman’s crew and the Lady Eagles, as both would be 5-5, having split the season series.
“We’re still not there yet, too many mistakes at the wrong time,” she said. “We should have beaten Mission, the La Joya game should have been closer, and really, I didn’t think we had to go to overtime to beat Jags. It is what it is, and these girls have worked hard, so we’re happy that we have a chance to get in.”
Then the conversation turned to history, as it often does with so many exes on the bench these days, from Guzman and Olvera to EHS assistant Nat Alaniz, of North fame. With North facing a Red and Blue outfit featuring three juniors of spectacular note – each with 1,000 points already – it was suggested that a special three-on-three tourney might be in order at some point. With the magic of time travel, we’ll get the 2006 versions of Guzman and Olvera, and Gina Ferrer, against the current school trifecta of Emily Carranco, Maddy Martinez, and Kiki Fagan. Bring back Coach Rachel Carmona, the all-time great who led the squad to the regional tournament back in 2006, Guzman as the engine … and where does J.D. Salinas come in? Would he be on this bench, or the other? He was an assistant for Carmona for some time, and now is the head honcho at EHS, where he has won seven titles in 11 seasons and will probably get career win No. 300 Tuesday against the Lady Bears.
Carranco v. Olvera, Maddy vs. Gina, and Kiki v. Marah. Too Fun.
Bottom line, Guzman is Guzman, so she candidly but cannily answered the query about the proposed Dream Matchup of Big Threes.
“I think we could handle ourselves,” is what she said. Perfect.
MASSIVE SEASON UNDER WAY
The Lady Bobcats are now 28-7 after an 83-27 smashing of North and as always, the New Big Three was/were ridiculous, combining for 51 points Friday. The team hit nine three-point shots, which sounds incredible, but keep in mind, Salinas’ bombardiers have averaged that in nine league wins. Carranco, on the way to 18 points and seven rebounds, has been slamming away at 41 percent down deep the past eight nights. Fagan sailed in three pretty treys in the first period alone, keying a 25-0 run stretching from the first into the second; it was 27-7 after one, 49-12 at the half. Fagan ended with 16 points, while teammate Martinez, the leading downtown driller this season with an even 100, contributed three bombs and totaled 17 points. In every way, they dominated the game, smothering the Lady Coog guards for tons of steals, and turning the night into a one-on-none layup drill. Senior heartbeat Lucy Jimenez, who might be paired with 2006 hustler Polly Acuna if we were to extend the three-on-three Big Three to fours, was equally sharp Friday with 14 points and a three-ball of her own.
The Lady ‘Cats have made 10 or more threes in six of nine league outings and scored 70 points or better in 11 of 35 contests overall. Three times in the 80s for district. While much of the Valley buzz has centered on bitter rival Vela, now 27-4 and about to run the table in District 31-5A, Salinas’ unbeaten unit has been equally outstanding in 2022-23.
Salinas noted that his girls have been shooting the ball better lately, mainly because they’re taking attempts in the rhythm of the offense. They’re always going to shoot it, that is J.D. Ball. But when they shoot, what decisions do they make prior? That is the key. Right now, this is an airtight unit about to get busy in the playoffs! Clicking, man.
This was the case against North, as the Lady ‘Cats attacked on defense, rendered the enemy defenseless, and appeared to be perfectly in sync. They didn’t put a foot wrong all night, moving and cutting, finding the open man, getting solid looks from the perimeter and knocking them down, one after the other. Owned the boards against a good rebounding team. Devastating performance as the playoffs near.
As for North, the road is open, as the Old Gold clinched a postseason berth Friday despite the defeat. The Lady Cougars have been a scrappy squad, rebounding from the loss of sharpshooter Kaylah Lozano to get over the seven-year playoff itch. They started alright Friday as Isabella Hetzel canned an early three (!) and Etsel Ramirez hit the boards with vengeance. Three minutes in it was just 6-5, EHS before Carranco hauled in a defensive board and pitched a Bill Walton outlet to streaking frosh Sydnie Brenner, who was to flip in five quick points, nine for the game. Guzman’s girls fought back with a fast break led by senior Zoey Gaytan, who scurried into the frontcourt and fed post Liliana Chavez, whose bounce pass found scoring leader Jayli Rivera for a bucket from the dotted lines.
Yikes, from there the Lady Bobcats exploded for the next 25 points in a tsunami of a rush: deny, double, defend, strike, and now for some layups and threes. Carranco inside with a stickback; Fagan owning the arc and taking steals with flash; Jimenez motoring to the basket with real intent; Martinez dribbling through two defenders on her way to a beautiful twisting layup, and that was basically that.
The new Big Three, well, they were in Pampers back in 2006 … wait, math, were they even born … probably. Anyway.
Martinez, all grace and versatility, noted that she tries to hit the boards as much as possible, aside from her passing fancy and outrageous range. Fagan suggested that while it feels good to lift the trophy – as the team giddily did after Friday’s win – the real goal is to go farther in the playoffs this time around, after a second round exit in 2021-22. Jimenez, part of the glue for this operation, said that she just tries to contribute to the success of the team, any way she can. And that has meant a lot this season.
The final word came from Martinez, who admitted that everyone around the area had tabbed EHS to go through the 31-6A season unblemished, as they came into the campaign with the best squad, far and away, among the six in this abbreviated league. Maybe the Valley … argue.
“I think people expected this, really,” she said. “But tonight we wanted to come out and prove why we deserved to win the district.”
Fair enough. Airtight logic.
Realignment has done funny things this time around, as there are now three 5A leagues in basketball, four in football. The matchups have been uneven across the board, as a quick look at the numbers will indicate. The one-sided nature of girls’ hoops this season obtains less in 6A, though there was Harlingen 82, Hanna 26 recently. EHS has blown teams out of the water as well, with an average victory margin of 36 points now.
But in 5A, the disparity is immense. Brownsville Vets has eight victories in district of more than 50 points, including a 71-5 demolition of Donna North. Rio Grande City blasted Lincoln, 100-20, earlier in the season, Laredo Nixon wasted Roma 80-26, and on a lower level, Port Isabel and Grulla broke the 100-point mark against a new charter school called Harmony School of Innovations … I know. The addition of the IDEA schools and multiple private academies has meant that oftentimes, you’re looking at a rout in the making. Rio Hondo, like Brownsville Vets, has stormed through 3A for some serious wins, 87-10 and 76-9 over hapless Monte Alto, while on the lowest tier, the San Perlita girls recently humbled Bruni, 83-4. Ouch. No offense meant, just facts.
Not to be outdone in the surge has been Vela, which is threatening to do what it did the last time the program dropped from 6A to 5A, back in 2014-15. That was the season that senior Ariel Rodriguez, joined by precocious sophomores Jaida Muhammad and Bianca Cortez, ran the table in their new league. With one match left, Lottie Zarate’s ’23 club is 17-0, 27-4, seeking to duplicate the perfect switcheroo from the days of yore.
And you want blowouts, you got them with this juggernaut, which was 33-3 last season. The Lady SaberCats have obliterated P-SJ-A Southwest twice (90-3! and 76-8) while also enjoying easy nights against Valley View (80-15, 83-13), and Pharr North (84-25, 71-29). Their latest beatdown against Pioneer Friday yielded an 85-36 romp on the way to the postseason. Zarate and Co. have tucked away their fourth league championship, and now want, as Fagan of EHS said of her squad, to show how far they can go in the bracket. With the playoffs on the way, both killer contingents are ready to see where the horizon ends.
Of course, besides the Big Three Tournament at EHS, one wonders if some way, somehow, the two local leaders might get together for a warmup game before the Dance begins. Vela v. EHS. The talent on both sides, the bevy of coaches, headline heroes of the past – here also insert Vela’s Emily Azubell, now coaching at her alma mater, and Zarate, once a fine Lady Bobcat guard – and we might have to play at Bert Ogden. So many back stories here, the drama … if you know, you know.
Not gonna happen. Realignment, grrr.
But what if …