He’s been around for three years now, establishing a reputation as a tough guy who gives no quarter, and now, senior Tom Nowakowski thinks that all the hard work he and his North teammates have put in is about to pay off.

After the Cougars dominated Econ at home Saturday to begin the District 31-5A season with a convincing 68-35 win, the kinetic 6-foot-3 forward is ready for the fight ahead.

“I feel like I can keep playing like this all season long,” said Nowakowski, who tossed in a dozen points, including six in a row as the Coogs took control in the second period. “I got a trainer this summer and worked out hard.”

A stronger Nowakowski (he’s always been mean) showed his senior game Saturday, staying under control and finding the open man when double-teamed. In the past, he’s been the type who barreled to the goal against all odds, sometimes converting athletic scores but at others, turning it over. But against Econ, he was solid all the way, and says that the Cougars, now 1-0 and 7-11, are coming.

“I definitely think we will make the playoffs, no doubt about it,” he said. “We have been hustling and taking pride in our defense. Last year we were a bunch of hotheads but this team is more in control, we’ve got a brotherhood and we won’t take no for an answer.”

BIDING THEIR TIME

Against the Jags, who were shorthanded without sharpshooting Steve Alvarado and steady senior point man Lalo Reta, the Coogs settled in well early, with a patient halfcourt offense and ferocious defense. Econ (0-1, 5-14) had lost five games by fewer than three points already, and despite an ever-changing rotation, felt like it could compete.

“I am nervous about this game because although we have had some problems, we are doing alright, and I think we can win today,” Coach Lalo Rios stated before the afternoon tangle at North.

And for a quarter, the young Jags were right in there, with post Jesse Davila (eight rebounds) attacking and getting good board help from wing Josh Diaz (eight also). After North went up 5-0, Diaz made a big steal and the Jags calmed down, climbing into the game helped by footballer Mark Alvarez (seven points, quick feet and passable floor presence), who battled fellow gridiron star Juan Ramirez of North out front.

But just as the Jags got their sea legs, sophomore Jarred Weems came on and shot the lights out, with three arching three-pointers. His third bomb of the opening period gave the Coogs a 16-13 lead, after Alvarez had tied it with a hoop. Weems got the last look off a nice hustle play from senior pigskin safety Javi Cavazos, who chased down a loose ball and pitched to the lanky soph for the quarter-ending shot.

Econ has integrated three freshmen into the mix this winter, with J.J. Velasquez, Jesus Gonzalez, and John Barrientos all seeing considerable playing time lately. Velasquez, a smooth lefty, fired in 23 points against Harvest recently, while Gonzalez (10 points Saturday to lead the team, with six boards) has provided 110-percent effort for Rios’ group.

But there was no stopping North after the first, as the Coogs went out to a 33-19 edge at the break. Nowakowski, scoring off sharp drives, was key, as was Ramirez, who has become an important part of the charge along with fellow guards Fernie Salinas and Juan Zermeno. Ramirez was a defensive spark in the second as North rushed the Jags into a dozen turnovers.

“That guy has some passes, and he is a real quickster out there on D,” said Nowakowski of his teammate, Ramirez. “He can play!”

Trusty Salinas knocked down a triple in the 17-6 second, while John Carcano (12 points and nine rebounds per night) started to assert himself down low. Most impressive was the team’s patience.

Coach Rudy Garcia, in his third season at the helm, noted beforehand that though the Coogs have been competitive in 2008-09, they made too many mistakes in non-district. But against the Jags they were outstanding in the halfcourt set, moving well without the ball and taking care of the pill.

When Carcano rocked for six of his 10 points in the third, and Salinas added six more, including his 17th trey of the year (Zermeno has 17 too), the home team pulled away, to lead 52-29 after three. At the tape, Cavazos, who did a great job underneath, stole one and raced coast to coast, swooping for a layup, and Ramirez canned a tough baseline hanger in traffic.

North showed its depth down the stretch, as guard Nick Arredondo came on to play quality ball, with a series of steals and assists.

The Coogs looked forward to a date with Pharr North Tuesday, while the Jags were set to rebound against EHS. With a deep and hungry squad scoring a win to start the league race, North looks to be poised to battle for a 31-5A playoff spot.

“We didn’t have a lot of returning guys this year,” said Nowakowski, averaging 10 per game with a high of 24 against San Benito. “But I think the new dudes are past the jitters stage and now we are ready to go.”

NOTES: EHS won its third league match in a row, over P-SJ-A, and the Lady Bobcats also defeated P-SJ-A. North squeaked by Econ 58-55 in other girls’ action.

From volleyball, North libero Laura Torres was named to the Texas Sports Writers Association All-State Team last week. The junior who led the state in digs was named to the first team, and was the only Valley player to gain honors from the TSWA.