May 5, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
WESLACO – At the end, the Cougars gathered down the right field line, weary but satisfied that they had left it all on the field, as the axiom goes. As they came to the realization that this topsy turvy season had indeed come to a close, after a 4-0 loss in a one-game bi-district shot against a solid Panther squad, the Old Gold took solace from the words and emotion of their rookie coach.
“No one thought we would be here, everyone doubted us,” the coach began, as his kids kneeled or sat on the grass, rubbing sweaty faces and resting weary bones. “But you guys rallied, we made the playoffs. We may have started slow, and we had injuries … but let me tell you something: I will be forever grateful to each and every one of you. You’re my first team, and I have memories with every single one of you … thank you for that. If you seniors ever need us, we’ll be there for you in a heartbeat … yawl are my boys!””
The coach was and is Eric Alonzo, the former Econ standout ballplayer who took over this season for Rick Valdez, at the helm of a program that had, prior to Friday, last tasted postseason wine back in 2019. He’s done a fine job as the interim coach and one expects, for many reasons, to see the strapping ex-athlete in the third base coaching box for many years to come.
“We’ve had bad times and we’ve had good times, all the way we’ve battled through adversity,” Alonzo continued, amid the Weslaco victory music (“White and Purple,” a truly horrific knockoff of the 2010 classic “Black and Yellow” by Wiz Khalifa). “But we shut the doubters up!”
The first-year mentor went on to remind the Coogs, who had gotten hot late to clinch a playoff berth – besting city rivals EHS and Econ to carve out a bracket spot after having seemingly been left for dead – that they truly earned the right to compete in the Second Season. The other coaches spoke, one by one, thanking the players for a great season and lauding them for “the men they have become this year.”
For their part, the Coogs clapped up their coaches, commiserated with each other, and generally began to think about next season, when many prominent starters will return for another go. They went through a tough campaign and finished with an 8-24 record, but the team temperament and spirit, the dedication to task, were down the stretch championship quality for the latest North diamond edition. Records matter, but so does attitude.
“We’ve got a lot of kids coming back,” Alonzo said after the meeting, which he’d ended with a final prayer (“Everybody grab a brother”). “As a group, we had great camaraderie, a love for each other, and for the game, and I expect us to repeat as a playoff team next time. The juniors and the younger guys, they will build on this experience, because the seniors laid the groundwork for good things to come.”
And the fight against Weslaco just concluded illustrated that under Alonzo, the program is definitely on the mend. Except for one difficult inning – the third, when the Panthers notched all four of their runs – North was beyond competitive, holding the opponent to five hits and playing sharp, error-free ball. The Weslaco pitcher, a tall and burly righthander, kept the Coogs at bay with serious heat on the outside corner and a slider that ducked down and away, allowing just three hits to a light-hitting lineup that struggled to score runs all season.
Nonetheless, Alonzo’s gang went over to the Mid-Valley and made a very credible showing, indeed. Weslaco moves on to the second round, but not without some dicey moments courtesy of the grit and hustle of the underdog.
BATTLING ALL THE WAY
It was a briskly played affair, taut throughout, as the teams tossed zeroes at each other for the duration. Friday, Weslaco was fairly flummoxed by senior righthander Alian Palacios of North, and by equally effective reliever Andrew Calderon. But the bats could not get going with any consistency. The Panther No. 2 hurler was excellent, better than he’s been most of the year, reminding one that chance always plays a part in the playoffs.
Another interesting factor for the day was the somewhat sudden clampdown by the umpires on bench jockeying. Every time either team chanted or cheered, the blues were on them, sanctioning the most innocuous remarks that referred, even obliquely, to the other team. This meant that the ancient cry of “Get him a bucket, he’s throwing up,” which is usually offered after an opposing pitcher comes way high on a pitch, was verboten. So too the old “Lower … lower!!” shout for balls in the dirt. It got to be strange, this new and draconian regulation, causing the clever North bench to use satire as a weapon.
“Yayyyy, baseball … go team!!” they erupted at one point, amid laughter from the group. It sounded like something off a script from a corny, squeaky clean 1940s boys’ sports novel: think author John R. Tunis of “Highpockets” fame. Credit to the Coogs for turning the overly strict interpretation (the word “silly” comes immediately to mind) into high comedy. Those who remember the colorful and at times pointed prattling of 1970s baseball would chuckle at the modern-day nanny umps and their farcical enforcement of “inclusive” rules, but onward.
Though they had been silenced by the Weslaco hurler so far, the Coogs started to click in the third when junior outfielder Armani Acevedo got ahold of one and sent a liner to the outfield, caught but smashed. Alonzo on the bench showed why he was a double major (bio and chem) at UTPA back in the day by recalling every opposing hitter, every pitch that had been thrown, and all sorts of little vital details in between. Part cerebral and part fire, the coach kept his kids in the hunt with consistent reminders and exhortations, and it was clear that he and the kids have straight-up connected in 2023.
Came the telltale third, though, when the last two hitters in the Panther lineup drew walks to begin and the Lower Valley crew, winner of 21 games now, surged. Hulking first baseman Dantin Winnipeg of North was to have a very good playoff day, and now he ranged deftly over to snag a high pop near the dugout. But the Panthers pulled off a double steal followed by a two-run single. A ringing triple to deep center plated another pair of runs and had it not been for the exploits of third baseman Miguel Martinez, it might have been worse.
The junior Martinez, a starter since freshman year, hopped a liner and then dived to the bag to complete a stellar double play, ending the inning. History records that North has always had big, strong fellows at the corners, and this year’s tag team of impressive specimens was intact. Martinez hit nearly .350 and Winnipeg, a Canadian transfer from Alberta who has indigenous roots (Blackfeet), has been a steady performer around the bag all year.
Martinez, aside from his talents, has been once again a holler guy who always gets his teammates up and at ‘em. He charged a bunt in the fourth and came up firing for the out, coming back into the dugout with a uni full of dirt. Lot of action his way so far, and Martinez, ebullient, answered, “I love it, love it!” Real ballplayer there.
In the fifth, after another heavy-handed admonishment from the umps, the Coogs shrugged it off and kept shouting. “Yeah! Uh, um, baseball, yeah!” they shrieked in mock seriousness. Absurd but funny.
When a pinch runner trotted out to first, Martinez coached him up, advising his teammate to “stay athletic out there” and intuit a pickoff move. When Winnipeg laid down a delicious bunt, Martinez yelled, “Way to do your job!” He’s always on, that Martinez.
An inning later, Calderon – one of the team’s most imposing contributors this season with four pitching wins and solid offensive production – slapped one to left, down the line, only to see the fielder race over and rob him of extra bases. It was that kind of game, margin of error small, and the Coogs coming close to breaking free, not quite managing to do so.
Alonzo’s troop did get two runners on in the sixth, infielder Jovan Bernal, a talented junior who led the unit in many offensive categories, bouncing a single to right. With the guys into the “Rip-a-pa-pa, rope-a-pa-pa” cheer they so enjoy, it took a strikeout on a 3-2 count to rescue the Panthers.
Back on D, the Old Gold got a tremendous play from the bespectacled Winnipeg as he handled a tough bouncer behind the bag and sold out, diving headlong, to extend the ball in hand, tagging the bag a step ahead of the runner, eating some dirt for his troubles. Martinez again came raging in, to glove a tapper to the right of the mound, firing on to first to get the out. The D was outta sight Friday, despite the result.
With the season fading away, North made one final stab, as Winnipeg singled to right in the seventh; however, the inability to bunch hits together in 2023 (3.3 runs per game, .263 team batting clip) came home to roost.
Still, it was a quality evening, with the Coogs taking their shot in the postseason and leaving town knowing that they had done themselves (and their coaches) proud. Center fielder Federico Cappadona, the football killer who led the baseball group in stolen bases as a senior, noted that North was able to pick up intensity as the season wore on.
“We have been doing pretty well lately,” he noted during the bi-district try. “We were down against Jags the whole game, and then we scored seven runs in one inning, and we won that one. We got into the playoffs, that was the goal all along. Those wins got us all riled up!”
That 8-4 victory back on April 28 had come after an equally important triumph against EHS, three days earlier, and the late rush of firepower did the deed for the program, which has now made 17 playoff appearances in its history. And it ended a streak of dry runs in that regard. From 2013 to 2019, North was a postseason combatant in each season, making the third stage of the dance back in 2014 with a formidable lineup of stars including Matt Ramirez, Alex Chavez, Alex Canul, and Sam Garza, among others. Ironically, the Coogs have now faced off with Weslaco four times in the playoffs, with a 1-3 mark. They lost to the Panthers back in 1994 for the school’s initial trip, then turned the tables in 1998 with a first-round win over the Purple Gang. The two schools also clashed in the bi-district round of 2007, the result going to the Panthers. Now, in 2023, Weslaco had ended its 32-6A run with three shutouts and fashioned another one Friday at home. But the Panthers knew they’d been in a fight.
Alonzo, as suggested, has the ship headed in the right direction, and his words after the defeat were tonic to bruised young souls.
“This is my seventh season as a coach, first as head coach obviously,” he said, adding that three years as an assistant to Valdez got him ready to try his hand at the helm. “And it’s been by far the best. I played with some great guys at Econ, really enjoyed four years there. And being a coach here is just everything I hoped for. This season no one expected us to be here, but here we are. It was a rough start but I think we eventually showed what we were capable of. Next year should be even better, so while we are happy with what we’ve done so far, there’s much more to do!”