February 3, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Maybe it was the pep band that put it over the top. The cheerleaders, or the madcap and zany student rooters from EHS. Or the way people just kept streaming in, throughout, just about filling the gym at Bobcats and giving this Rivalry Game a peak of excitement not seen for a few moons. It was playoff atmosphere Friday, and the teams responded with an exhilarating ball game.
With high stakes, this rematch saw both rivals end up tied for second place after a wild night of thrills, and now both EHS and North stand at 5-2 in District 31-6A, a game behind a La Joya club that has been winning most close ones in battle with ECISD. So far.
Suppose it’s only fair that the Bobcats were able to hold the line at home, after the Cougars had taken their number back on Jan. 17 at North. With a gym full of crazies, the ‘Cats and Coogs went toe to toe Friday, North having the better of it the first half, the ‘Cats then roaring from behind to post an emphatic 61-54 decision.
There wasn’t a Rolando Rocha 55-foot shot to win the road game at the buzzer for EHS, a la 2015. And there wasn’t an interruption in play because of a slick floor, causing an EHS-North brawl years back to move – mid-game! – to the little Bobcat gym. But this one had its own drama and suspense, its own quirkiness, and it lived up to top billing.
Now, after splitting the Rivalry spoils, these two get back to three-game work as the schedule concludes, and everyone in town’s wondering if North can over to eastern Hidalgo County and take down the Coyotes Feb. 10. That one comes after a North-Econ battle Tuesday, with the Jags chasing Mission for the fourth playoff spot right now, and still very much alive. EHS, which energized to a great victory after some halftime tutelage from Coach Zeke Cuellar and his staff, will head into the homestretch on a high after a stirring comeback. The ‘Cats face the bottom three in the loop to finish, but each of the games is on the road, meaning that all the maturity the ‘Cats showed against the Coogs will have to be on display going forward, in hostile confines.
The 6A league has been competitive, better than some suspected, while down the road (literally and figuratively) the long-powerful Lower Valley league is not shining bright like a diamond right now. Traditional powers such as Harlingen, Weslaco, and Los Fresnos have slipped a notch, it appears, and right now, former doormats San Benito and Hanna are heading the charts. Upshot is, these hard scuffles in District 31-6A should get the locals ready for the postseason, where perhaps they can push to some victories. Is there a long run in the cards, like EHS in 2010-11 and North in 2013-14? Vela in 2015-16, when the SaberCats went to state, seems unlikely to be duplicated any time soon by anybody. Still magic.
In essence, Friday showed that North and EHS are hungry, driven, and impatient to get at it in the Second Season. First things first, the next one up.
THE DAY AFTER
In looking at his team’s 7-point win over North, which ended a 5-game EHS losing streak against the Coogs, Cuellar spied several interesting observations, including the fact that he is still learning about coaching, every day.
“We went in at halftime, when we were down, I didn’t think we had played that well,” he said Saturday. “And in the locker room I felt like I had to scream at them a bit. Of course, I don’t do it that much, anymore, I keep telling myself, keep it simple. Don’t overload these kids with too much information, sometimes, just let them play basketball.”
Cuellar wasn’t saying that the coaches didn’t counsel the kids at halftime. He was just making a larger point.
“Some kids you can challenge, they respond,” he mused. “In the old days, those kids we had almost wanted you to scream at them, that’s the way it was. These days, though, kids don’t respond to that and so as a coach, you adjust. I feel like I can get more out of a team if they are comfortable and can just go out there sometimes and play. We might bombard them sometimes as coaches.”
Another aspect the coach pointed out has to do with patience. Take the case of Lorenza Watson, a somewhat unknown who triumphantly became Zo The Hero against North with 14 huge points and some high-flying defense against North’s 6-7 post, Eddie Gonzalez. The transfer from Virginia has waited for his time to shine, playing sporadically this season. But crunch time came around and the 6-3 leaper was more than ready, willing and able, vaulting all over the place blocking shots, pushing the ball, and scoring at the rim.
“He’s had to struggle with not being in the athletics period, where we go over a lot of things,” Cuellar noted. “He didn’t play very much sometimes but that kid was ready when we needed him; he never pouted, just kept working, and when he got his opportunity, he made the most out of it.”
Cuellar is using lessons like this to further mold his team into a cohesive unit.
“It’s not about the individual, it’s about the team,” said the man who has led the Bobcats for 15 excellent seasons. “You can tell from your teammates, really, if you’ve put in the work and they trust you out there. I thought Zo came in and made a huge difference. That kid can stand flatfooted and flush the ball, tremendous vertical leap. These kids play together, for each other. And he’s part of that.”
As for the winning formula which allowed EHS to rebound Friday from an early 15-4 deficit and gradually chip away, finally taking its first lead since 1-0 midway through the fourth: transition speed.
“I think we were more athletic, we figured if we wanted to win, we had to get out in transition and use our speed, outrun them,” he explained. “We didn’t do it in the first half, but we got it going in the second. And we were intimidated by the big kid in the first half, but we eventually got Zo in there and that turned it around.”
IN THE AIR
People arrived in steady droves as the girls’ game was unwinding Friday, and the EHS band kids were tripping from the outset, drumming and hamming it up, having a blast. It just made the scene more electric, almost like a college game. And Gonzalez of North, a college-size player for certain, started off like he was planning a reprise of the first meeting, when he dominated affairs pretty much the whole night. He and Christian Faz, the slick guard, made sure to quiet the home faithful early on with some sharp plays, sophomore Josiah Cruz hitting a pair of shots as the Coogs of Coach Carlos Ramos got off the mark in fair fettle. Even the frenetic defensive effort from talismanic Gabriel Negrete could not stop a surge from the Old Gold as Faz was hot with six quick ones and North emerged with a lead.
Negrete battled to a steal and later, Jahi Fagan – destined to have a fantastic second half – snared a defensive rebound. But North was getting loose down low, Gonzalez making a good catch up high to convert a short shot. Cuellar’s main strategy for the night was crafty, with 6-2 senior Ian Garcia, the rock of the squad, taking the ball further out than normal, forcing the enforcer Gonzalez to either follow him or leave him open. Eventually he followed and eventually, though Big Ed had several blocks, the tactic paid off with more offensive space to work with in the second half.
But first, North ascendant, 15-4 after a Cruz bomb late in the period. Garcia of EHS came flying in over Gonzalez for a tip-in, and at the end, Cougar Cruz again sank a silky long one, a second after the buzzer. Awwwww!
So far, so good for the Coogs, dominating inside and making shots. Both teams are solid from downtown this season, with the Coogs holding a distinct advantage from the free throw line. But on a night of surprises, the ‘Cats would be able to blister away at 73 percent from the stripe (v. just about 50 percent for the season), including 11 makes out of 14 tries in the fourth period, when they held the lead and salted away the W.
Garcia, who scored 15 points with eight rebounds and withstood like a soldier a series of blows from North – he finished the night with a Band-aid over one cheek – drove to the dish to start the second, scoring a super two. Fagan contributed two free throws but then Gonzalez was all post-up, spinning swiftly in the lane to drop in a close shot. As Cuellar has said, when the guy gets it down there, you can’t do anything about it.
But EHS was percolating a bit now, as Joaquin Soto came racing down and attacked the defense, scoring high off glass to make it a 6-point game at 4:20 of the second. Fagan then race-horsed in for a steal and swooped in for a deuce but the Coogs fired back: senior Jorge Santa Maria, as he had done in the first meeting, canned a money three. This is what it was like, back and forth on Friday, two 20-win teams grappling for the upper hand, readying for the playoffs. Outstanding action.
At this stage the crowd was pulsating, rocking and rolling, the EHS cheerleaders were bonkers, and the kids were raising their game. Watson, entering the fray, was to elevate his to epic levels. He immediately hit a jumper to bring his team to within 5 at 23-18 and then rose high for an offensive rebound, braids flying. Meanwhile, Faz of North was whistled for two quick fouls but the Coogs rebuilt the lead to 11 on two free throws from young Osmar Alanis, who’d hit for a season-high 15 points in the 71-48 victory over Mission last week. Big Ed had 10 blocks in that one.
Cuellar planned for his squad to win the ends of the quarters this time, after North had been better at that test in Game One. The ‘Cats did their job now, getting under double digits by the break as freshman Axel Navarro calmly plinked in two free throws and Ryan Rivera barreled into a steal and a free throw to end it, EHS down 8 at 30-22. Fine half of basketball, and which of these rivals would come out to overachieve after the break?
HERE COME THE ‘CATS!
The answer was EHS, really, as Watson ran the court for an airborne layup of some beauty and on the next sequence palmed a defensive board and just took off, eventually drawing a foul on the other end. Zo, the Show! When Rivera made a defensive stop and Watson a resounding block, one could feel the momentum shifting. North’s Gonzalez was getting into foul trouble, the switching defense (man to zone, back, quickly) brought troubles for the ballhandling whiz Faz, and North was blinking. Garcia and Watson were blocking shots and scoring and the lead was shrinking fast.
Faz connected on a huge trey to stem the tide but the third foul on Gonzalez, in the last minute of the third, was a warning bell. Garcia dropped in two free throws and by the end of the period, the lead was still 4, to the Coogs after a gorgeous reverse layin from Faz, who was to end with 12 points. Santa Maria led ENHS with 16, including nine in the fourth, while Gonzalez tallied 13 points and seven caroms. Though EHS was alive now, North had won the end of the latest period, and there was one more to go.
The initial sequence of the fourth was gi-normous as the fearless Garcia raged to the dish to draw No. 4 on Gonzalez. Cuellar’s strategy of bringing the big man out and making him stay with Garcia worked well. Big Ed had his swats and a solid offensive night. He also stayed in the game after No. 4, doing a good job there until fouling out late. The progress, tho. Kudos.
The ‘Cats got near the promised land when Garcia executed a superb spin move into a lefty lay, and soon, it was 38-37, home homies, when Soto stole one and went into score.
The lead at last! And it would last.
Defensive pressure from EHS was now immense, North scrambling to hold it together, sort of like the Bobcats had to do during the first matchup. Two minutes into the fourth, Fagan tore in to grab a North pass and cruise the other way, saying hi to the rim up close for a 41-37 advantage. At this stage, North’s Alanis converted from the baseline to ease the strain. Proud Coogs looking for a way.
However, then Fagan went bang-bang from behind the arc, and Garcia came down to make free throws. He was 5 of 6 Friday from the charity line and the affable EHS senior joked afterward that his shooting from 15 feet has been not so great. He said even his family has good-naturedly ribbed him about that, but in the clutch, Ian came through!
Like Watson had done earlier, Fagan now got into the lead race car, pushing the ball every chance he got and generally creating chaos in the frontcourt. The Coogs had concentrated the D effort on holding him down back in January, but this time, there was no holding that fast fella as he went into overdrive for his team. After Fagan drove the lane and assisted to Watson, at the other end, Watson fouled out the North big man at 3:18. Those two were fire!
Watson seemed to stay up there forever on one board and soon, it was a trio of Soto, Negrete, and Rivera swallowing up a harried Faz on the baseline. Defensive intensity off the charts in the quarter and on offense, Rivera was exceptionally productive, eight of his 10 coming in the final eight minutes. Cuellar said that Rivera, one of the team’s best pure shooters – he made seven bombs against P-SJ-A recently – played excellent defense Friday and passed the ball well off the dribble drive. Everyone contributed for this one.
As the period wore on, the ‘Cats were in control, amassing a 9-point lead at one stage and generally running the Coogs off their feet. It was 51-42 when Soto broke the North pressure to fire a pass to Rivera, who scored. Santa Maria, so valuable to North this season in every stat category, was still motoring downcourt looking for action, and he kept North in there with a slight fighting chance. But the hometown ‘Cats made their free throws, kept care of the ball, and never relinquished the lead.
NIGHT TO REMEMBER
Negrete of the ‘Cats, who once again was a factor in his indefatigable way, spoke afterward about the excellent performance.
“We had our chances on some games, against La Joya for example,” said the hard-nosed hustler. “The things our coaches teach us have made a big impression. It was physicality, we had to bring it harder than we did the first we played North. Guys like Zo, he waited his turn and then showed what he can do! North has a helluva team, they’re right near the top for a reason, but we had the physicality we needed tonight.”
Garcia, weary yet jubilant following the win, took some pics with his father (EHS assistant Jorge Garcia) and brother (Damien, a Bobcat standout a few years back) and was pretty happy all told. Like Negrete, he had words of praise for the lads.
“Jahi was tough tonight, he really helped, you always get rebounds and steals from him,” said the lanky frontcourt man, who has had a super senior season so far as the most consistent force behind Cuellar’s crew. “He gets a lot of points off defense and in the second half, I felt like we were able to rattle them [North] a little. We had the zone press going, aggressive, unlike the first half, when we didn’t play with the same energy.”
Garcia also commented on the crowd, how loud it was.
“Yeah, the fans were big for us, hearing them cheering for us made us calm out there,” he said. “And usually, when your crowd is doing that, the other team might let it affect them.”
For his part, the wise sage Cuellar professed that he didn’t notice the crowd noise that much, though he did feel the vibe. He said that for one of the first times all season, he got four kids into doubles digits.
“You know, it didn’t hit me until I looked in the stands right after the game,” he chuckled. “There were a lot of people up there hollering! It was a great atmosphere, a playoff atmosphere.”