February 19, 2023 [update 2/20/23]
By Greg Selber
HOOPS PLAYOFFS: CITY SENDS ALL FOUR BOYS’ TEAMS TO POSTSEASON, VELA GIRLS TO VIE FOR SWEET 16 BERTH
BY GREG SELBER
Glad tidings for the boys’ basketball enterprise in town, as Econ spun to 83 points Friday night to outdistance Mission for the fourth and final playoff spot, after the two had finished tied in 31-6A play. Senior Sebastian Lopez went off for a career-high 40 points at the exact point the Jags needed it, and now Coach Romeo De la Garza takes the Orange into the postseason, where the opponent will be 32-6A champ San Benito. The other two city 6A outfits, North and EHS, ended up as expected, in a three-way knot at the top with La Joya, and after the coins were produced, the Cougars emerged as the first seed, followed by the Bobcats and Coyotes. EHS will travel to Los Fresnos Tuesday while the Coogs are home to fourth seed Weslaco.
Over in the 5A district of local note, congratulations were/are in order for Vela and Coach Lucio Rodriguez, who tucked away a second league title in a row and will advance into bi-district action against Brownsville Pace, Tuesday at home.
The SaberCats, 24-13 overall, had won 11 games in a row before a finale loss to McAllen Memorial, and went 16-2 in 31-5A, scoring 60 or more points 10 times during that torrid stretch and allowing 50 or less on 14 occasions.
Pace (25-11) was 13-5 in District 32-5A with some solid non-district wins: over Santa Rosa, Los Fresnos, Rowe, Brownsville Vets, and Laredo LBJ, losing to Hanna, Los Fresnos, Memorial, St. Joe, and Port Isabel. The Vikings lost their league opener but then won five on the trot and were 8-2 at one stage before a 2-3 slide. Finishing with four straight W’s, the Vikes then dropped a playoff seeding game to Weslaco East to draw the champion Sabes in round one, but they are a dangerous group at times. All five starters graduated off last year’s team which won 34 times, beat Vela in non-district, and dropped out in area against Flour Bluff. Tyler Rudder (14.8 ppg/7.9 rpg) shoots 73 percent from the line and gets there a lot, with more than 200 attempts this season, while junior Ricky Tijerina (11.5 ppg, 71 threes, 78 assists) is another quality Pace player. The squad is stingy on defense, with a 41 ppg yield, and hits its free throws, 68 percent as a team. Pace tends to go with the starting five most of the way, and that might be a factor.
Historically, Pace was a killer in the 1990s but hit a slow patch for a while, returning to consistent success with nine playoff appearances since 2014-15. The best recent Viking season, prior to 2022-23, came in 2017-18 with a three-deep trip in the bracket. In the past decade, the program has played ECISD nine times alk told, winning five games including four in a row since 2017-18.
As far as the EHS-Los Fresnos matchup is concerned, the Bobcats (25-10) are in against a perennial power that is still strong, yet not as strong as it has been. The Falcons stumbled to a 5-5 mark in 32-6A but like Pace recorded some positive non-district results. They beat Weslaco East, CC Miller (the Bucs went 9-2 against the Valley this season), Rowe, Rio Hondo, Pace, and Econ, dropping contests to Lopez, Pace, McAllen, and United South out of Laredo. After a 1-2 start in league, the Falcons beat Hanna and Weslaco, although they did get swept by surprise champ San Benito. It is a relatively young core with junior J.J. Salazar (18.8/7.6) and sophomore Gio Galvan (11.4/7.9) leading the way. Six-two Luis Ramirez (11.2/5.2) offers matchup challenges down low while the 6-foot Salazar (143 assists, 48 blocks, 72 percent from the line) is one of the best players in the RGV. One wonders how good this team might have been if standout Gerry Martinez – now at St. Joe, 27 ppg as a senior – hadn’t transferred out two years back.
Los Fresnos has won 20 games in 12 of 13 seasons, including a 33-4 mark in 2019-20, when it defeated three playoff foes (including Vela in the third round; ngl, that heartbreak still lurks in the subconscious) before losing to SA Brandeis at the Sweet 16. Last year the Falcons missed the playoffs to end a streak of seven seasons in a row in which they captured at least postseason victory.
They also beat North the year they beat Vela in the Second Season and claim playoff Dubs over EHS (2018-19) and Econ (2017-18) on the resume. In ancient times, Los Fresnos ran into a buzzsaw against EHS in the bi-district round of 2008-09, losing 101-91 in a wild affair to a Bobcat team juiced by veterans Jaime Acuna and Chris Flores.
The Weslaco crew that comes to town to play the Cougars is, like Los Fresnos, not quite as formidable as it has been for many, many moons, after it posted a 4-6 mark in 32-6A, 14-21 overall. The Panthers did manage a non-district win against Vela, when the eventual king Sabes were shuttling through a poor opening sequence. They also beat Econ back in November but were defeated by North twice (seven-point margin in both), meaning that the rubber match with the 24-15 Coogs is in the wings. Gabe Valdez’ team finished with a rush, beating Harlingen and Los Fresnos to get in, but will be a definite underdog in bi-district. They had been working on a decade of 20-win seasons before 2022-23 and have been very successful against ECISD in recent times, winning 34 and losing 15 all told over 12 campaigns, intermittently competiong in the same district as the home boys. Their playoff work against locals has been sound, as Weslaco knocked off EHS in bi-district last season; kayoed Econ in 2020-21 and 2016-17; and beat North in the first stage way back in 2010-11. The program made a Sweet 16 trip in 2016-17.
San Benito is an unknown quantity to an extent, having come from nowhere in 2022-23 to take advantage of a fairly weak league, historically and comparatively speaking, to go 9-1 and cop the school’s first district championship in ages. The Greyhounds got whipped in non-district by Edinburg North, McAllen, La Joya, McAllen Memorial, and Palmview and also lost to Donna and Hidalgo, neither of whom enjoyed a banner campaign, to say the most. But once in the league, the upstart gelled, especially in close contests, winning seven times by fewer than 10 points and suffering just one debit, to Hanna by 5. The ‘Hounds have some stellar athletes this season, and as stated, have been very dependable in collecting narrow results.
The school has never been known for basketball, and this gives the Jags (16-20 overall) some momentum, seeing that the ‘Hounds, too, have little playoff experience. San Benito has made a sporadic Second Season trip here and there, losing to Vela in bi-district (2019-20) in its most recent try. The program also made it in 2012-13, losing to Porter, and was pounded by EHS in bi-district, in 2009-10 and 2007-08. Other than that, not much, and in bouts with local squads through the years, San Benny has won once in its last 15 tries, over EHS back in 2016-17. The Jags have recorded wins against the ‘Hounds several times in the past, including 2018-19, 2015-16, and 2010-11. It may be a One versus Four matchup, but something tends to suggest that it might not be a walkover.
Second round possibilities abound, as the San Benny-Econ winner is looking at a hard slog against SA Warren (28-6), which should blow through bi-district. The victor in the Weslaco-North tussle will get either SA Harlan (18-11) or Laredo Alexander (16-14), while the EHS-Los Fresnos winner will face off against either SA Taft (20-12) or Laredo United (22-8). Vela, should it defend homecourt against Pace, is looking at whichever entry advances past the bi-district pairing featuring Laredo Martin (19-14) and Flour Bluff (24-10). The Hornets beat Martin in non-district and also topped Alexander, McAllen, Edinburg North, and Weslaco East, losing to Laredo United, Victoria West, Bishop (!), and CC Vets twice. Martin started 0-6 this season but did well in its district, losing to champ Nixon twice but sweeping Palmview. The Tigers also were nipped by Vela in non-district, 52-51.
LADY SABES, SOLE SURVIVOR
After North expired in bi-district and EHS in area, the only local girls’ quintet still lacing them on is – predictably, some would say – Vela. The Lady SaberCats got the challenge they had been anticipating up in Falfurrias last week, clipping Flour Bluff by 3 via some late heroics from Emma Lucio and Karsyn Hackerott. Now 30-4, the Lady Sabes will next oppose a team that is an absolute mirror image in many respects, for the right to go the Sweet 16. Brownsville Vets is 30-4 like Vela, and nearly missed the regional quarterfinals after having to go to overtime to beat Victoria East in area. Both teams in this All-Valley collision are in the Rare Air of the playoffs for the first time in school annals, and both went through district without a scratch at 18-0.
The Lady Chargers have the best defense in the Valley, statistically anyway, as they’ve allowed a measly 27 points per game this season, letting opponents sniff the north side of 50 points just five times. They roared to 60 points or more in 14 of 18 league games, dominating a district that frankly was not terribly frightening, top to bottom. In senior Mariana Espinosa the club has a real versatile kid who averages 13.0 ppg with more than 100 steals and assists, and a fine clip from three-point land, 34 percent. The rotation has five underclassmen in the top 8 and five kids standing 5-7 or taller, which means a rebounding obstacle for Vela but a potential big-game experience lack for BVM. Senior guard Alexa Torres is a very skilled player who can do everything pretty well, and Vets may have an advantage off the bench in the third round, more quality depth. The Lady Chargers, however, do not have Lucio and Janai Coleman, which is the offset factor. Suffice to say that the Brownsville outfit has not seen the likes of the Twin Terrors this season, at all. They bouta.
Interestingly, the Lady Chargers were nipped by EHS earlier in the season and suffered losses to Weslaco (by 22) and a pair of San Antonio teams, Churchill (by 2) and Antonian (by 27). Matchups like this one are rare. Vela also was topped by a SA school, Stevens, but has the edge here, having eclipsed Antonian by 15.
Again, like Vela, Vets is a not a newcomer to basketball excellence. The program posted its fourth undefeated district campaign this season and has gone through six seasons in the last 10 with either one or no losses in league. Since 2013-14 the Lady Chargers have blasted away at a winning percentage (.784) that is among the top such marks in the Valley, though they seem to have always flown under the radar as far as Hidalgo County is concerned. As stated, this is uncharted territory for both combatants, as before this season Vets had been knocked out in area nine times in nine tries, by Flour Bluff and Alexander thrice, Victoria East twice, and CC Vets. Seven of the nine were not close.
As for the overall Vets record against ECISD, it stands at 11-9 since 2012, including six of eight over Vela, a win against North, a loss to Econ, and a 4-6 showing against EHS. Back in 2014-15 and 2015-16 the Lady Chargers did earn back-to-back bi-district triumphs over EHS.
As if this classic clash needed any more sizzle … the tantalizing thing about the Vela-Vets encounter is this: the winner will square off against the darkhorse team that comes out on top in the third-rounder between Kerrville Tivy and Liberty Hill. Neither was a league champ but both have been hot in the playoffs so far, big time. Tivy (21-7) defeated Leander Glenn (no. 2 seed) and SA McCollum (No. 1 seed) to get here while Liberty Hill (29-9) tanked a champ, SA Jefferson, and a second seed, Boerne Champion. Sometimes in the 5A bracket it happens: you get a tougher game early, a slightly better shot later, if you can survive.
Realistically, though, the Sweet 16 matchup – which gloriously will include a Valley team, says the nonpartisan fan, if there are any at this stage – will be difficult, whether it’s Tivy or Liberty Hill. When RGV teams go upstate they always face the fact that teams waiting for them think they have the edge, for various reasons. Maybe it’s time to disabuse these folks of such a notion. First things first, of course.