A team always has goals, some tangible as far as numbers go, others more nuanced, psychological, and by their nature harder to quantify. For Zeke Cuellar and the Edinburg Bobcats, the latest basketball season has been successful to date, as they have fulfilled several promises made and are in striking distance of others.
“You always have things you want to accomplish starting the season, we wanted to win district, that was number one,” said the second-year mentor, whose team accomplished that feat for the fifth straight season; the Bobcats take on San Benito in bi-district Tuesday. “Another was to redeem ourselves for what happened last year.”
Cuellar was speaking of the District 31-5A finale at Harlingen in February 2009, when a 73-68 loss to the Cardinals kept them from completing a perfect 14-0 run in league. They managed to right that wrong last week, knocking off the Redbirds to finish unbeaten in the loop for 2009-10. And they’ve been on a real roll lately, averaging 82 points in five closing wins; in 14 contests, Edinburg got 71 points a game and allowed just 52, dominating the league once again.
Which brings them to another, more subtle quest: team play.
It’s no secret that junior guard Aaron Olvera is one of the best players in the South Texas. He averages 22 points, six rebounds and six assists and has hit for 20 points or more in 14 games this year. But the real test of the athletic star and his contribution to the overall effort was passed during the second half of the 31-5A campaign.
“Aaron had to realize that it’s not always going to be about him,” said Cuellar, a straight-talking “player’s coach” who works his kids hard but has their 110 percent respect. “He’s done a great job of sharing the ball with his teammates lately, and it has made it easier for all of us to be successful. That’s the mark of a good player, does he make the other kids around him better?”
While Olvera has been outstanding all year, and crazy-good the last three games with 17 of his 78 three-pointers, this team has a ton of talent besides him. Cuellar calls junior forward Stevie Guerrero the “X Factor,” and says that he’s one of the main reasons the Bobcats went into the playoffs with tons of momentum.
“I have to say that this guy has been very valuable to us, and the thing is, he is playing at the 4, which wasn’t what he planned,” the coach explained. “I told him he was going to have to play there and at first he was like, ‘Aw, man.’ But he has really given us a lift with his quickness inside. The guy is a leaper and he can really shoot it from the corners. Steve has been one of the main reasons we went undefeated.”
As Olvera has learned to let the game come to him and concentrate on helping his mates achieve, that seems to come naturally to junior Cord Arriola. While averaging 9 points per game, Arriola’s major force has come on defense, where he is third on the team in steals. He is also a good penetration guard who can find the open man.
“Cord might not have been as active on the offensive end as we thought he might be,” Cuellar commented. “But he has made his presence felt in other ways, setting up guys down low, like Marquis and Big Joe when he’s in there.”
Junior Marquis Holiday (11 points, six rebounds per game) and senior Fuentes have carried the load at the 5 this year with Guerrero at the 4, making Edinburg a bigger team than it has been in the past. But the vestiges of the old Runnin’ Bobcat mystique remain, as the five can still get up and down the court at the blink of an eye.
With junior defensive demon Phillip De la Rosa working his way back into shape after a preseason injury that set him back, the ‘Cats have the look of a unit that is ready to play awhile in the postseason. They can shoot, defend, and get the ball down low. And then there’s Olvera, who can be unstoppable at times, plain and simple.
Facing San Benito, a team it beat twice in the regular season, gave Cuellar’s bunch the chance to illustrate that it’s reached that elusive combo goal of team spirit and consistency.
“I told them that you can throw out the records because San Benito is not the same club we beat earlier,” he noted. “Playing at their place, well I made sure they understood that they’d better be ready because it was going to be a tough game.”
For a program accustomed to winning and winning big, such games amount to an opportunity to show what tradition means. To Cuellar, the key is the difference between cocky and confident.
“I always say that ‘cocky’ isn’t a word we use around here, it’s not what we’re about,” he stressed. “It’s just like at the beginning of every year, the kids know that there are no guarantees, for anyone. We have to fight for our wins and the kids have to fight for their spots, that’s just the way it is, no guarantees.”
As the playoffs began, EHS was not looking ahead, but nonetheless, some intriguing possibilities arose. The second round would bring a match against either Laredo Martin or McAllen Memorial. If EHS gets past area, it will probably mean facing Laredo United, one of the best squads in the region. The Longhorns were 34-1 heading into the postseason, their only loss coming to San Antonio Wagner, though they beat the Thunderbirds later in the year. Wagner, by the way, is coming hard from the other side of the bracket, looking like a favorite to reach the Sweet 16 in San Antonio in two weeks.
Edinburg last visited the regional tournament two years ago, losing by 5 to San Antonio Madison despite a record-breaking 32-3 squad; the ‘Cats expired last year in the third round against SA Southwest by 10. This year’s junior-laden group (27 wins heading into bi-district) was taking nothing for granted, however.
“I remind them sometimes about the 2003 team that had all that talent,” said Cuellar of the bunch he coached as an assistant under Joe Filoteo. “We had Nick Soto, Danny Torres, we were loaded, and ended up losing to a South San team we probably should have handled. It took me three of four years to get over that game, actually, so I tell the kids about it so they know not to think they have any guarantees. I think they are pretty good at thinking that way so far.”