May 5, 2023

By Greg Selber

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After a loss in Game One, when the Bobcats were stunned by the Big Inning at home on the way to a 9-1 defeat at the hands of Los Fresnos, Coach Toby Gonzalez had a message for his players.

“Re-set, re-focus, we’ve got another game tomorrow,” was what he told the ‘Cats after Thursday’s bi-district setback. “I told the guys to leave it all on the field for Game Two, no regrets. So we’ll see.”

EHS ended up dropping out of the playoffs, but did do in style Friday, engaging in a wild classic for the ages down in Los Fresnos. The ‘Cats, making their third bracket appearance since 2019, trailed early, stormed ahead 7-3 midway through, fell down 9-7 at one point, and then led 10-9 in the fifth before expiring with a football-like score, 17-10. Whew, even tiring to recount all that craziness, as the teams combined for 27 hits – and 11 errors – to give the crowd a thrilling evening of action.

EHS (9-23-2 overall) surely did what its coach asked, giving 110 percent against one of the best teams in the Valley (the Falcons are now 27-6-1 and headed onward to area) and nearly forcing the rubber match.

With seven starters set to return for 2024, the program is well on the way to regaining its status as a consistent winner. From 2007 to 2016 EHS captured games at a .642 clip, going 206-115 with four ties. Included in that fine run of form were six playoff series Dubs and a spot in the fourth round back in 2015. The momentum slowed somewhat after that, as from 2017-23, the ‘Cats have won just 39.6 percent of their games, albeit with playoff trips in 2019, 2021, and 2023. After five 20-wins seasons during the earlier stretch, the program has not posted a record north of .500 for seven seasons. Still, Gonzalez, who took over for coach Robert Valdez three years ago, is seeing improvement day by day. The defeat against Los Fresnos this season showed how resilient his troops can be, as they rebounded from the Game One loss at home to give the Falcons a real brawl in the second outing.

The opener Thursday reflected the challenges EHS faced this season, as the ‘Cats were held to just four hits. For the year, the offense scored shy of four runs per game, hitting just .241 in aggregate. The pitching also was problematic at times, as the team ERA of 6.10 and a high total of walks allowed meant that the Red and Blue would be working from behind on many nights. Defensively, the squad was very solid and there were no fewer than seven losses in 2023 by four runs or less.

Gonzalez’ team made the grade though, with a pair of District 31-6A wins over Mission canceling out a sweep at the hands of Econ and a late-season loss to rival North. The Bobcats won the first outing against Mission, 2-0 in nine innings, and scored a 7-5 comeback victory over the Eagles during the second round of league play, eventually assuring a postseason berth. Behind 4-0 early, the ‘Cats scored five runs in an inning and outdistanced Mission to the tape and in both contests, stocky junior Leo Kalifa was the pitcher of record.

Gonzalez said that having Kalifa – also a .300 hitter in ’23 – on the hill was a good thing, and a bit unexpected.

“We’ve definitely had our ups and downs this season,” the coach said before the series began at home, Thursday. “But we got in, we were able to secure a spot, and now we’re telling the kids, ‘Hey, let’s go, we have nothing to lose.’ Leo has been great for us, and we weren’t sure he would be able to throw much this season, he’s had some injuries that kept him off the mound.”

Khalifa was able to win four times this season with a solid ERA of 2.51 over 47 innings and added his trusty contributions at the plate.

“He’s been a consistent leader for this team,” Gonzalez noted. “He didn’t throw much last year but this year he came to us and said he was ready, and it really helped us in the drive to make the playoffs. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Gonzalez has always believed that pitching is the key to success in baseball, adding that avoiding too many freebies has been a priority.

“Eliminate some walks and it gives the defense an opportunity to make plays,” he said. “We missed the playoffs last year by one game, so the goal for us was to get back in. It wasn’t pretty at times, but we were able to make it happen.”

Looking ahead to next year, Gonzalez can count on a number of stalwarts with which to continue the progress back to prominence. Kalifa is certainly one, and so is live-armed hurler Jacob Garcia, who had some outstanding outings in 2023 and was among the hitting stars of the season just past. He led the team in RBI, hit near .340, and should be an honor candidate heading into his senior campaign. Those two produced nearly a strikeout per inning as juniors and will head the rotation again.

The ‘Cats do say farewell to muscular Ben Gonzalez, a four-year letterman who was always athletic in the outfield and active on the base paths, throwing in some nifty work from the hill on occasion. Infield sparkplug Gabe Negrete will also graduate along with catcher Leo Reyes, and the latter had a sharp Game One versus Los Fresnos with a couple of impossible one-hop saves behind the plate on potentially wild pitches. Gamer.

Other than those regulars, the cupboard is far from bare, as to go with Kalifa and Garcia, EHS returns Ryan Castillo, a shortstop who had some big moments this sophomore season, especially against Mission in the must-win situations. Two juniors soon to be seniors will also be counted on to lead the ’24 charge, first baseman Ryan Nichols and Nestor Espino. Their classmate, rangy Johnny Islas, should be front and center next season, and he gives Gonzalez a third kid who can toss them from the bump. Another senior-to-be, outfielder Andel Saenz, banged out more than 20 hits this season and helped the surge into the postseason; he also gives the club yet another pitching option.

The upshot: Gonzalez had a talented, seasoned crew returning for the next run, and might have one of the deepest mound staffs in the RGV. After the loss to Los Fresnos in bi-district, the ‘Cats will certainly benefit from the experience.

“Life is going to hit you in the mouth sometimes,” Gonzalez said after Game One. “You then have a choice, what do you do? Do you stay down, or do you get up and fight?”

The ‘Cats showed during the hotly contested Game Two in Los Fresnos that they had made a choice, and it was the latter option: they got back up after being beaten 9-1 and brought the fight to the Falcons. That sort of defiance and resolution should carry over to 2024, when EHS plans on competing for the district title from Day One. Promising journey ahead.


Meanwhile, Vela became the only city nine among three to make it past bi-district, subduing a tough Brownsville Vets club with a comeback win Friday and a well-played 3-1 result at Econ the next day. At 23-10, the SaberCats now move forward to take on Corpus Christi Vets in area.

The series against BVV matched the Sabes with a pitching/defense crew that came in with a team ERA of a measly 1.97. A six-run fourth inning erased a deficit and made Coach Jaime Perez’ ball team a favorite to move on. In the Game One victory, junior Jaden Martinez had two hits, double play mate A.J. Reyes drove in a pair, and senior Jake Dufner hammered in three runs. It’s a club that has considerable patience at the plate and ample speed on the bases. Senior DH Ryan Botello exemplifies the former, with a team-high 34 bases on balls, including three in the opener. This season the Blue and Black has 105 steals as a unit, speedy senior Justin Navarro leading the pack with 24. Though the Sabes committed four errors in the first match, they got a fine mound outing from freshman Santiago Montes, who now has 85 K’s, a 2.38 ERA, and eight wins in 12 decisions for a tremendous breakout season.

Dufner, meanwhile, came through like a warrior does, with a complete game for the clincher Saturday, and now stands at 8-0 with a sparkling ERA of 1.45. Duf issued no walks to the Chargers in seven innings, and leads the team in RBI with 28. He and Martinez have each smacked 13 doubles, with the latter at .444 for the year with a whopping 40 base hits.

Yes, the team’s ability to draw walks has been a boon, as senior Bobby Garcia is one of three starters with more than 20 free passes. Once they get on, the Sabes, as always, will run, with five kids having at least 10 steals and courtesy runner Danny Reyes having motored around to score 22 times; he had two tallies against the Chargers in Game Two.

Depth is a strong point for the 2023 edition, as guys such as Luke Esparza, Nick Guevara, and Derek Rodriguez have well supported the frontline players with some contributions of their own. In all, Vela appears set to challenge for another deep playoff run. Perez has paced the program to 20 wins or more in five of the last six seasons (COVID season excepted), and the Sabes have now won at least one postseason series for eight seasons in a row, again, without the pandemic season.

Last year saw victories over San Benito and Laredo Alexander before a third-round exit against La Joya, and in 2021, it was success against San Benny and Laredo United South leading to a debit versus Los Fresnos. Vela also won twice in the postseason of 2019, and every subsequent nine chases the historic group of 2018, which defeated three opponents before dropping out of the hunt against SA Churchill. The program passed the 200-win mark this season and continued its streak of never losing in bi-district. When they get to the Dance, they boogie.

With all that said, CC Vets is going to be a steep hill for one of the Valley’s powerhouse programs to overcome. The Eagles have been fairly insane the past five seasons with 140 wins against just 38 losses; they’ve rolled to 12 playoff series wins during that span and went to the state tournament back in 2018. Winners of 33 games twice, in 2018 and 2019, the Eagles stormed to the regionals in 2021 after three series W’s, and won twice last season before losing to Pioneer. Ironically, Pioneer could be the opponent for the winner of Vela-CC Vets, as the Diamondbacks face off with Palmview in an area series this week. Both teams are very good, as Pioneer came second in 31-5A to Sharyland, just ahead of Vela, which earned the three seed and then knocked off the No. 2, BVV.

CC Vets has won 27 times now and the series coming up with Vela should be fantastic. Something to keep in mind: the Sabes were rudely dumped out of the football playoffs in area by the Eagles, who went on to defeat Pharr North and win the region. There are a few cats waiting for this baseball series then, as Garcia, Navarro, Botelo, Dufner and Reyes were all involved in the football season discussed.

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