Maybe it initially seemed like a bad thing, with the Mercelita Sisters out of town for much of the summer, unable to take part in the Lady Bobcats’ rebuild/reload effort. And surely the club might have been better off if the talented kids were not traveling with their parents, to Nicaragua, the Bahamas, and who knows where else. Five-eleven junior-to-be Mich Mercelita, after all, is the only starter returning off the Sweet 16 entry from a year ago. And she’s gonna be downright cold-blooded this year, no doubt.

But the truth is, the absence has allowed the rest of the girls to see what they’ve got minus The Big Girl, and when they all get back together in the fall, perhaps it will have ended up being a bonus.

Last week EHS faced off with a Mercedes team that had three bigs, a perfect chance for Margie Chavez and Brisela Curiel, the pair who will assist the dominant Mercelita down low in 2011-12, to see what’s what. And they performed admirably at times, banging for boards and getting untracked defensively in the second half.

But the main reason the Lady ‘Cats were able to salt away a difficult 36-32 summer league win was Patty Hernandez. The hustling senior was money down the stretch, with a confident drive for two, a stern effort on D to deny a potential game-tying shot, and then two free throws to put it in the books.

The drive broke a 32-all tie with 42 seconds left, the defensive gem preserved a two-point lead, and the clinching free throws showed that Hernandez, an important role player on last year’s excellent squad, is ready to step into the spotlight.

And she will be needed. No more LT, B, Mee Mee, or Steph. Four great veterans walked the graduation stage in June, meaning that besides Mercelita, non-starters will become starters for a program facing one of the few “maybe” years in the long and illustrious career of Coach Rachel Carmona.

Out front, gutty little Eileen Martinez was competitive as always last week, knocking down a pair of three-pointers and hitting the deck a number of times for floorburn steals. She moves into the point position with some help from a promising freshman Ariel Rodriguez, who showed nice quickness, zero hesitance to let the long one fly, and some serious athleticism at times.

Once Mich gets back into the swing of things when school starts again, the Lady ‘Cats will have a bona fide All-Valley MVP candidate to hang their hat on. She is long and graceful, can shoot the basketball, and stands every chance of becoming a 20-20 superstar before it’s all said and done,

The extent to which Hernandez can continue her spirited play, and to which Martinez and Rodriguez can take care of the basketball and get it ball inside, these factors will determine whether EHS will keep its playoff roll going. Further, which of the other bigs will become a steady workmanlike presence inside? Perhaps both.

The other teams around the district might be licking their chops at the chance of competing and, they hope, surpassing EHS this season. But if things fall into place, the Lady ‘Cats might just surprise everyone, and keep their momentum right on clicking.