PHARR - He had a feeling before it began that this might be the year, Despite a starting lineup with four sophomores and a long, deadening stretch of losing since the school’s last playoff appearance in 2004. When Lalo Rios prepared for the 2009-10 season with the Jags, he thought maybe, just maybe, they could sneak into the fourth playoff spot from District 31-5A. Hey, anything would be better than last year’s 4-26 nightmare, right?
“We started the tournaments and we were actually winning some games,” said Rios, the former Edinburg High and UTPA star guard, in his fourth season at Economedes. “In the past we’d just take our licks, lose three and go home…but now, we were going 2 and 2 or even 3 and 1, and I was like, yeah, OK. Maybe.”
As the Jags rolled to a 9-7 non-district record they more than doubled last year’s win total, but most of their early Ws came against sub-5A teams and/or 5A units suffering through a down year. Still no definite verdict on the referendum.
“We just want to be part of the conversation, you know what I mean?” he’d said in December. “Since I’ve been here no one has ever talked about us as a contender, and even though we’re young, I think that maybe we’re showing signs of coming into the picture.”
Well, they did it, outlasting Pharr North in overtime, 63-60, rising to 7-6 in league play and indeed clinching the long-awaited playoff chance. Even though their bi-district game will come against the Valley’s No. 1 team, Brownsville Hanna, Rios and his Young Guns are happy to be going to the party. The last time Econ did this was six years ago, when Albert Rios, the coach’s dad, was at the helm.
As the seconds ticked off Friday night, Rios was able to share some well-deserved high-fives and hugs with his kids, a gutty group that has proven that all the maybes are over. Econ is movin’ on, and the memories of three straight losing seasons are history for the 16-13 club.
The lone senior in the quintet is point guard Josh Diaz, a player without the flashy numbers that some Valley backcourt men bring to the table. Rios says that whenever they need him, the veteran comes through, and he showed it against the Raiders, scoring all five of his points in overtime as Econ bested a proud program that has fallen on hard times this year, with a 2-9 league record now, limping into the season finale Tuesday.
Diaz’ pull-up jumper off the glass with 1:13 to go in the extra period was a perfect illustration of what he means to the Orange. He spied the opening, dashed with a dribble to the lane, and stopped and popped for a 60-57 advantage.
Later, after making one free throw, the steady senior, whose sister Becky was an All-District player for the Lady Jags two years ago, somehow scooted between three Raiders to corral the miss on his second, basically putting the game to bed and sending Rios to the rare air of the playoffs for the first time in his career.
The Jags had trailed by five at the half and by seven after three, but clawed back behind a total team effort that got contributions from every kid on the floor. Down nine at one stage in the second half, this rising tide of youngsters would simply not give in.
“No quit in us, not this year,” noted Diaz, the rock upon which sophomores John Barrientos, J.J. Velasquez, Ricky Cantu and Jesus Gonzalez stride forward. All of those guys saw roles on the 4-26 team as freshmen. “We never doubted ourselves today while last year, we probably would have quit. We kept working, just like we worked so hard in the offseason, and we got some defensive stops late. We made some history tonight even though the Raiders played well against us…but we had to make it happen!”
CLIMBING THE MOUNT
North has been the definition of struggle this season, as Coach Jaime Gongora, he of the 14 playoff trips in 15 years at the school, has been hammered with injuries, bad luck, and under-achievement. The Raiders came into the game an uncharacteristic next-to-last in the league, after having given away winnable games against Harlingen, Harlingen South and P-SJ-A.
Every night, it’s been a different problem, from free-throw shooting to turnovers to loss from injury. Gongora says even though it’s been a terrible year, his group has worked as hard in recent weeks as it did before the start of the campaign.
“We’ll be back, we have got some good young kids coming up from the freshman team,” he said before the tip. Known as a hard taskmaster whose amazingly loud and penetrating voice can be heard throughout the length and breadth of most North games, Gongora has been through the torture of the damned in 2009-10. But somehow, one knew that his game group was going to do its best to deny the Jags a victory celebration.
And they came out strong, did the Raiders, with marksmanship from the outside that has largely been missing this season. Alex Aleman banged in a pair of three-pointers early on as the Raiders led 14-12 after one. He would score 20 before the night was out, getting 17 points of help from promising Ito Valdez and 13 from rangy inside man Isaac Garcia, one of those new chaps Gongora was talking about.
For the Jags, the first period marked the return of JB. John Barrientos, a sleek 6-foot-2 soph who averaged 18 points per game in non-district on an array of quick post moves and a workable mid-range jumper, has seen his average drop precipitously in 31-5A action, and he’s been truly fighting it in the second half.
Rios has tried to tell the talented Barrientos that even when a player isn’t scoring, he can still be a big help to the team with defense and rebounding. JB is an emotional, passionate player who has listened to his coach for the most part, but can still find himself too far into his own head to make much headway at times.
But against North he was sharp with 11 first-half points, en route to an 18-point, 11-rebound effort for the night that could not have come at a more vital juncture. Most importantly, Barrientos was hustling to loose balls, tipping rebounds to teammates, and passing crisply from the high post. He tallied twice in the second quarter as the Jags cut into the margin and passed the Raiders at 19-18 when Christian Zuniga spotted Juan Luevano on the run-out for a fast-break layup.
Still, North notched the last 10 points of the half, turning a 23-18 Orange lead into its own 28-23 advantage at the break. The main culprit on the Jag ledger was an unplanned visitation from an old, bad habit.
“We shot 1 for 11 on threes in the half,” Rios would later state. “I told these guys from the start of the year that they might think they’re a three-point team, but they’re not. We are at our best when we attack the basket, and in the first half tonight, we didn’t really do that with much success.”
It didn’t get much better for the visitor in the third, as Valdez heated up to score nine. He’s a 110-percenter, a lefty with a true knack for the schoolyard drive that earns him plentiful trips to the line. He converted seven of eight charity tosses in the third and the Raiders were nine of 10. They had dropped a 2-point decision to P-SJ-A last week by missing six free throws in a row down the stretch, but Friday the Black was on the mark.
So, North by seven to begin the fourth, and even though the Jags knew they could still make the postseason with a Harlingen win, they were not all about backing in. With a two-game lead on city rival Edinburg North coming in, the Jags were a decent bet to make it somehow, but they wanted to do it the Man’s Way, with a road win.
Things started to come together with Barrientos fighting to a stickback on the offensive glass and Diaz stealing one and driving in to score, making it a 4-point game. North held a 1-point margin with 3:09 to go, but the Jag pressure had started to turn the tide, led by Diaz and Velasquez, a lefty 10th-grader who knows what to do on the defensive end.
Econ was probably lucky to have hung around because rebounding ace Ricky Cantu sat out the night’s war with a bum ankle. A resourceful and hard-nosed member of the Young Guns, Cantu is the type who makes his mates better by keeping balls alive on the offensive glass. His eight caroms per and consistent hustle were missed.
Now, Barrientos challenged Valdez on a jumper, circled back in to tip the rebound out to Gonzalez and that led to a Gonzalez hoop off a Diaz feed. When Gonzalez - a well-rounded dude who can get points in bunches and loves to guard the enemy’s leading scorer - made an old-fashioned three-point play, it was 49-45, the upstart Jags feeling the magic once again.
Gonzalez has had some hot nights in the clutch this season and averages 9.2 along with Velasquez; Barrientos goes for 14 and nine boards a night, with Cantu (7.2) and Diaz (5.1) rounding out the five. Long-armed three-point specialist Jerry Tovias and the Zuniga Boys (Christian and Jorge) have had their moments off the bench along with the physical Luevano.
It was the culmination of a 15-2 run, with the coach’s sister, Econ volleyball coach Celi Rios-Ortega, madly rattling her cell phone in the stands trying to gain word of the Harlingen result. Wouldn’t matter, sister!
When Velasquez forced a turnover that Diaz stole, Gonzalez (13 of his 15 points after the break in another money performance) drove for the two, making it 52-48, Jags. But North was playing for pride on its home court, and tied matters at 52 when Valdez, who would foul out in OT, getting the key shot with 21 seconds left.
Gonzalez slashed for a lay at the end but missed, with Barrientos and Christian Zuniga getting follow shots that would not go down.
If the Jags were going to earn their way in, it would take four more minutes, at least.
CLOSING IT DOWN
One could almost feel the momentum swinging as OT began, even though North had staved off defeat with the last burst. Valdez was soon disqualified and the Raiders were not getting good looks at the basket in the face of the augmented Econ press.
When Gonzalez popped a jumper from the left corner and Velasquez started a difficult drive for a deuce with a sweet behind-the-back dribble to create some space, it was 56-52, Orange. But a huge downtown bomb from Aron Santamaria later sliced that lead to one at 58-57, after two free throws from Diaz, who handled the ball like a senior has to in the waning moments. Then came the shot of the night as Diaz executed the afore-mentioned pullup off the board. And then came Diaz with the offensive rebound off his missed free throw, the play that exemplified what the Jag are all about in their resurgent season.
“I don’t know, I just saw where the ball was going and I made it over there before anyone else,” said the satisfied vet in the postgame hubbub, as he received hugs from everyone but the bus driver after the biggest win in recent program history. “We just played with heart, and that’s something we’ve done all year. It’s made the difference, really. We didn’t want to lose.”
Rios was ecstatic after the night was done, and had a reason to be. He says that every one of his kids has stepped up to the plate at one time or another during the squad’s rush to the playoffs. They had begun the 31-5A slate with three losses but regained some momentum with a three-game winning streak. They’d then scored a 60-58 win over P-SJ-A late in the schedule, and that triumph made the young coach realize that the team goal was in sight, at long last. Leading to Friday.
It’s been a lifetime of hard work since this club won four times in 30 tries. They’ve been an afterthought in town for some time now, and have flat gotten tired of being also-rans.
“In the last few minutes, I reminded the kids that North has been having problems in the latter stages of games,” he noted. “I made them understand that now was the time to really pour it on. We’ve come a long way since last year and I have learned so much form this group.
“That’s why I love them so much, they stick together, they never quit, and they have enabled me to really learn what it’s like coaching in big games. This is the first time I have ever made the playoffs as a coach and the first time any of these kids have ever made it, too. I guess that makes this a big win, right?”