Two days before Christmas, and the seniors are driving around, running errands. Essence Brown is driving, with Brandy Garcia a passenger. The latter had been to the doctor earlier in the day, for medication to fix a minor eye ailment, and for a kid who’s been shooting a basketball since age 3, minor is always major. So Garcia rides, chatting on the phone, as they head away from the T-Mobile store in McAllen.

Brilliant sunny day, a brief break from the constant hoop grind these girls have been a part of since they can remember, and time to talk about what lies ahead.

Brown and Garcia are seniors at the core of Edinburg North’s drive to break the bank in District 31-5A this season. After a steady climb from sub-.500 team their first two campaigns to playoff combatant culminated last season, the Lady Cougars are ready for the next step, and if they are going to scale that height, the veterans will be vital cogs in the machine.

They’re 12-7 after a narrow road loss at Hidalgo last week, but the Lady Coogs are pumped for league play, which reconvenes Jan. 2; most of those losses were to upstate clubs and North is 2-0 in 31-5A already with wins against contenders Harlingen and P-SJ-A. With a speedy, sharp unit that flat gets after it on defense, North had risen to No. 7 in the Valley. Initially, Garcia wasn’t sure of that, But Brown, as she does so often on the court from her guard slot, filled in with the assist.

“That would be right,” intoned Garcia, after being asked if a proper Christmas gift would be a league title. “It would be amazing, and I think that of the four years I have been here, this is the best shot we’ve had. We have gotten better each year and against Hidalgo, we were pumped up. I think we knew we could do it, we just made too many little mistakes.”

That 54-49 road loss did not dampen the team’s spirits at all, say the girls. The fact is, they are confident that when the district schedule is complete, they’ll be at or near the top. Preferably the former.

“I mean, a lot of teams lost significant players from last year,” Garcia explained. “Harlingen South lost Bianca Torre, and I know they still have a good team, but I think, we think, they are beatable.”

The guard/wing/post/whatever who has led the team in scoring and rebounding the past three seasons thinks that attitude may be the x-factor that puts this year’s Lady Coog group over the top.

“We all get along real well, and that is important,” she insisted. “I mean, we have our moments, because we’re like sisters…we’re together all the time and sometimes we just need some alone time. But we’re united on the court and off, for sure.”

Wednesday was a rare window of opportunity for the hoopsters to be like regular kids for a change. No practice or games, and the eye ailment caused Garcia to miss out on a training session over in McAllen with development guru Arnold Martinez. For once, they are free and it doesn’t happen very often for the ultra-committed basketball junkies.

TO THE MANOR BORN

    It’s always been like that for Brandy Garcia, who was “lucky” enough to be born into basketball from the first cry. Her father, Rudy, is the North boys’ coach, her sister Michelle was a two-sport star for the school a few years back, and even her mother, Thelma, was a cheerleader for Edinburg High and then Pan American University. To say it’s in her blood is a no-brainer.

“Well, when your dad is a coach, it comes at you 24-7,” she laughed. Garcia may be a sports legend at North, but she’s still girly at times, childlike at others, and has always been a pleasant, well-liked person, by all accounts.

“I think I was maybe three and a half when I started with basketball,” she continued. “I got to play at the Parks and Rec at age 4…my dad lied about my age so I ended up playing with the 4- and 5-year-olds.”

It was a match right off the bat, as Garcia became one of the best tots out there.

“Actually, yes, I was pretty good from the beginning,” she giggled, remembering the not-so-old days. Brown must have been rolling her eyes, playfully. She murmured something unintelligible in the background. “The plan was, ‘Toss Brandy the ball and move out of the way.’”

All along the way, her dad has been a constant presence in her development as a player. A grad of Edcouch-Elsa who played collegiate basketball at Laredo Junior College, Garcia was coaching at Sharyland when his daughter came around.

“I was the biggest Rattler fan ever, I was at every practice and every game,” Garcia recalled. “Even now, when we play Sharyland, we all feel kind of like, ‘Hey, are we on the wrong side?’”

Now at every game, Garcia can count on the threesome, parents and sister, up there in the stands rooting her on. That is, unless the North boys are in action.

“My dad has always been part of my support team, in a technical way, he is the guy who comes at my career from the coaching perspective,” she remarked. “My mom is the cheerleader, of course. But dad is the humbling type, he is on my side but but will always tell me, ‘You did good, but you could do this or that better.’ That has been a big help to my basketball. We’re never completely satisfied and that’s what makes a player get better, after all.”

Through three-plus seasons, Garcia has been the team leader, a lefty with a nice stroke who has had to play out of position more often than not. A natural guard or wing, she has been the post of record most of the time, due to her 5-foot-11 frame. Garcia has adjusted to the switch, developing into a punishing rebounder and shot-blocker to go with her burgeoning perimeter skills. At the next level, to which she definitely aspires, the North kid who has averaged 14 points and eight boards a night for as long as anyone can remember knows she will move outside.

“I guess it’s been OK, I mean I would rather have been outside, but I did what the team needed me to do,” said Garcia, who is off to her usual all-around tricks this season, with 11 games in double-figures thus far. “If I get to play in college, I’ll probably end up at the 3, I think.”

Texas A&M-Kingsville has shown interest, as has St. Mary’s in San Antonio. Garcia doesn’t really care where she goes, but it is plain that this cage lifer is not going to be giving up the sport any time soon. She was born to play.

“The guy from Kingsville was at the Hidalgo game and he said he’s going to watch the Jostens,” she said, referencing the holiday tournament in McAllen that begins Dec. 28. “They gave me a packet to look at, and it’s all very exciting. I really want to keep going with this…I mean, it has become my life, you know?”

Though she’s played other sports - including volleyball, in which she earned second-team All-Valley honors this fall - basketball has always been No. 1 for No. 21. Does she regret the formidable time commitment engendered by a high school world of multi-sport competition? Not really.

“I’ve just grown up in it so I guess I am used to it by now,” she commented, adding that she was super happy to have time to run errands with her pal today. “I used to say, ‘Why can’t I just go out and play like normal kids?’ But my dad had this ready speech for me. He would tell me, ‘Go ahead. But somewhere there is someone out there practicing when you won’t be.’ After awhile, I bought into that…he was right, and I knew it.

“So I didn’t get a chance to take part in a lot of other extracurricular activities in high school. I do stuff with my church sometimes, and maybe I will experience some other things in college. I am really looking forward to college! But for now, we have a plan to win district and this is our best chance to do it.”

To accomplish that goal (and Brown guarantees it, by the way) the Lady Cougars will have to tangle with defending champ (again) Harlingen South as well as the perennially tough Edinburg Lady Bobcats. Garcia has a cousin on the EHS roster, sharp-shooting Victoria Ponce, and she says that though the Lady ‘Cats may not be as quick as they have been in recent years (“We are quicker, I think,” she says) they’re a well-coached, tradition-rich unit that will be loath to give up their place as the city’s best.

“We have a really good team and I think we can do it,” she suggested. “I have taken on more of a leadership this year and have been able to push some of the underclassmen to get better. When I was younger, I let it all get into my head sometimes instead of just playing ball. Now I am able to see what we need to do and help everyone else do their stuff. But it’s still hard to believe that this is my last season, the seniors…our last season. We have to make it happen this year.”

As long as anyone can remember. She came up as a youth playing with the South Texas Hoopsters, an AAU team coached by Martinez that has boasted the likes of Torre and McHigh exes Becka Valdez and Andi Garza in the past. She’s been an integral part of the Valley hoops scene ever since she faked her way in to grasp a toehold in the little leagues. Now, it’s hard for her to come to grips with the idea that this is her last high school season.

It seems that No. 21 has been out there for North forever, and it will be strange to contemplate anything different. Both she and Brown are quietly freaking out over the prospect of their prep lives coming to an end.

“We had a Christmas party at my house the other day, a lot of the girls on the team came over,” Garcia recounted. “And we were like, ‘Omigod, this is the last time we are going to be doing this.’ My mom is dreading it and my dad, well, he is too, I think, but he doesn’t express himself in that way. He doesn’t show it.”